Old-Fashioned Lard Soap Recipes, Then and Now
One of History’s Tallow Uses Can Still Be Made Today
Homesteaders cooked a lard soap recipe in kettles over fires. You can make it in your own kitchen.
Pliny the Elder discusses soap manufacturing in Historia Naturalis. The Holy Bible mentions it a few times. But though soap dates back to ancient Babylon, it fell out of popularity in medieval Europe. Perhaps it was because bathing was considered unhealthy; perhaps because soap was expensive. And medieval European soap, soft and made from animal fat, stunk. The pleasant bars came from the Middle East.
An Industrial Revolution, a couple queens who insisted on bathing, and one famous microbiologist later, soap use increased. And so did the soap tax, during the reign of England’s Queen Anne. Laws stipulated conditions that made manufacture too costly for small producers until the tax was repealed in 1853.
That wasn’t a problem for homestead life in the 1800s in America. They made old-fashioned lard soap recipes with potash: a caustic potassium chloride solution derived from leeching rainwater through hardwood ashes.
After burning hardwoods, such as oak and beechwood, homesteaders collected cold ashes for months. Then they either sold ashes to soapmakers or proceeded with their own lard soap recipes.
Leeching alkali involved a hopper or a wooden barrel with holes drilled in the bottom. The barrel rested on blocks, raised high enough that a bucket could sit beneath. Inside the bucket, gravel covered the holes, then a layer of straw above that, and twigs above that. This was the filtering system. Homesteaders then filled the bucket, the rest of the way, with ashes.
They used rainwater, which was some of the purest water available at that time. Poured into the bucket, water trickled through ashes, then through the filter, out holes, and collected in the bucket. After a few trips through the ashes, water was brown and very caustic.
Without resident chemists to test alkalinity, homesteaders got creative. “Lye water” was the right strength if an egg or potato floated in the middle. Floating too high meant the solution was too strong; sinking meant it was too weak. Overly caustic solutions required more rainwater. Weak solutions were boiled down. Some soapmakers tested lye water by dropping in chicken feathers. If feathers dissolved, strength was good.
Homesteaders didn’t know how to make shea butter soap and couldn’t afford the African nut oil even if it was available. Olive oil Castile soaps stayed in Spain and Italy, except that used by the wealthiest bathers. To make soap, homesteaders acquired fat from their own pigs.
Butchering the hog was a community affair, and pork was often cured and salted so it would last awhile. The fat was saved for cooking. Leaf lard, the whitest fat from around the kidneys, has little pork flavor, renders to the whitest in color, and is saved for pastries like pie crusts. Aptly-named fatback comes from between back skin and muscle. But it’s the lowest grade caul fat, surrounding organs, which renders into lard.
Rendering, or melting the fat to separate it from impurities, simply involved slowly heating it over a fire or within an oven. After a few hours, lard melts into clear fat and brownish “cracklins,” which are crunchy and often eaten as a high-calorie snack. Filtering lard through cloth removes solids. Another method involved dropping chunks of fat in boiling water, allowing it to cook until all fat melted, then letting the pot cool overnight. In the morning, solid fat floated and impurities lay on the bottom.
The off-white substance sat in crocks, ready to be scooped out for cooking. Because this was so valuable for food preparation, homesteaders often used secondhand cooking grease to make soap.
Filtering rainwater through ashes produces unreliable alkalinity. Almost all modern lard soap recipes demand white sodium hydroxide (NaOH), or lye, which is created in labs and must meet a standard pH. Using NaOH, and specific oils or fats creates recipes which are not dangerously caustic. Cold-process soapmaking relies on this stringency. And still, freshly made cold-process soap must sit for hours, days, or even weeks until alkalinity diminishes enough to be skin-safe.
Hot-process soapmaking allows more freedom. Home soapmakers should still follow strict recipes, but because the method “cooks” oil and lye until it saponifies, or turns into soap, the product can be used immediately after it cools.
Homesteaders made hot-process lard soap recipes by standing over open cauldrons and kettles, holding pants and skirts away from fires, as they stirred equal amounts of fat and lye water until it became thick. This didn’t always work; sometimes, lye water was too weak, and sometimes homesteaders produced a product so harsh it left skin red and irritated. Sometimes, they had to throw out the batch and start again.
Goat milk soap recipes, with ground oatmeal, offer quaint country style, but homesteaders’ soap wasn’t fancy. Soft, brownish, and scraped out with fingertips, it sat in old barrels. And it went rancid and smelled like bad bacon.
Making an Almost-Historic Lard Soap Recipe
Though a lard-only soap may be too soft for a good bar, in the same way that homesteaders’ lard soap recipes required storage in crocks and jars, this fat can be a sustainable substitute for palm oil in other recipes. It has the same saponification value as palm oil and provides the same moisturizing properties.
Find lard in the grocery store, beside the shortening and oils. It can be plentiful in Hispanic markets when chain grocers fail to keep it stocked. If you recently butchered your own pig and elected to keep the fat, render it on low, in a slow cooker, for about eight hours. When clear fat rises and cracklins sink to the bottom, strain lard then store in a jar until ready to use. Storebought lard is often whiter and has less fragrance because it was rendered with water and steam but home-rendered fat allows you to claim a truly homesteaded product.
Modern lard soap recipes don’t require rainwater, leeching caustic water through ashes, or igniting calico skirts over open flames. It uses sodium hydroxide and distilled water, the surest way to make safe soap if all other safety precautions are met.
A pound of lard needs 2.15 ounces of chemically-pure lye crystals and 6.08 ounces of water.
To incorporate lard into a good 40-40-20 recipe for a basic bath bar, use 40 percent olive oil, 40 percent lard, and 20 percent coconut oil. If 16 ounce total oils/fats are used, that means 6.4 ounces lard, 6.4 ounces olive oil, 3.2 ounces coconut oil (the kind that’s solid below 76 degrees), 2.24 ounces lye crystals, and 6.08 ounces water.
Make according to cold-process or hot-process methods. Create a pleasant but still rustic bar by adding 0.5 ounces fragrance oil, and two tablespoons ground oatmeal, at trace. Pour soap made with 100 percent lard into heat-proof containers that can also be used in the bathroom. Pour the 40-40-20 recipe into prepared soap molds. If using cold-process methods, allow the soap to gel in a safe, out-of-the-way place until the lye dissipates.
*Always input figures into a trusted soap/lye calculator before beginning any recipe. Mistakes happen and numbers may be switched when recipes are transcribed. Check first and be safe to avoid lye-heavy soap.
At the Meeting of the Waters
“Not far away, on the other side of the levee, I stopped at a farmhouse to talk with a sunbonneted white woman who was making soft soap in the yard. She had a fire with a great black kettle over it and she was “bilin’ the lye. It has to bile slow all morning,” she continued, “till it’s very strong. Then I put in the fat I’ve saved—trimmin’s of meat such as we don’t eat, pork rinds, and cracklin’s that we have left when we are trying out lard. After the fat is in I have to stir it every little while with a paddle and be careful not to have too big a fire, or it will bile over. So it simmers along til four or five o’clock and is done; when it’s stood to cool overnight I dip it out into a flour barrel. If the soap is all right it’s thick like jelly, and I’d much rather have it than the soap you buy. What I make in this kittle will run me a year.” – Clifton Johnson, Highways and Byways of the Mississippi Valley, first published in The Outing Magazine then published by The Macmillan Company. Copyright 1906.
Do you have a favorite lard soap recipe? Let us know in the comments below.