Wild Desert Soap

This soap recipe is inspired by a recent motorcycle trip I took from Florida to California on a 1975 Honda CB550 four. I loved the bald cyprus swamps of Louisiana, but the Western deserts are my favorite place on earth. Passing through the Great Basin desert in Northern Arizona and then across the entirety of Nevada on the loneliest highway (50), the plant community is primarily comprised of Piñon Pine (Pinus monophylla), Great Basin Sage Brush (Artemesia spp.), and Utah Juniper (Juniperus osteosperma). I collected a bunch of these from healthy plants with strong numbers and dried some while on this trip.

Central Nevada - hundreds of miles from anywhere

Central Nevada – hundreds of miles from anywhere

The Great Basin Desert may appear desolate with tempestuous weather patterns and extreme temperatures (we definitely got hit by hail in july while riding), but there is a unique community of plants, many of which have strong healing properties. Traditionally, Pinon pines have several uses; the needles can be prepared for a pleasant tea that acts as an expectorant and as a mild diuretic. The inner back can also be boiled, and then sweetened with honey to make a slightly stronger expectorant, which is useful for chest colds without a fever. The pitch of the tree can also be swallowed in a pea sized portion for a strong expectorant – this remedy is said to be useful for children. The needles are also slightly astringent. Sage Brush (not to be confused with true sages – Salvia spp.) is strongly antimicrobial, making it useful in first aid cleansing washes. When dried, powdered, and applied regularly, it’s useful for chafing and diaper rashes. It is also used in purification ritual, in sweat lodges, and as a smudge to clear the air. Juniper is most useful internally to treat urinary tract infections, especially when the berries are combined with Manzanita uva-ursi berries. The berries can also stimulate the digestive system, increasing pepsin and hydrochloric acid, and is often used in aperitifs. The leaves can be used as an incense or smudge stick, and often all parts of the plant are used in saunas and sweat lodges. The smells of these three plants running through my body for weeks are intoxicating and calming for me. What a better way to bring back the feeling of the high desert that to make a soap to bring into a steamy shower with plants traditionally used for saunas.

The oldest trees on earth - Pinus longaeva - in the Inyo/White ranges of Eastern California.

The oldest trees on earth – Pinus longaeva – in the Inyo/White ranges of Eastern California.

I also collected additional sagebrush, piñon pine, and juniper for this soap on an additional hiking trip I took to the White/Inyo ranges to see the OLDEST TREES ON THE PLANET, the Bristlecone Pines. During the first night an unexpected snowstorm dusted the Sierra mountains across the valley, leaving my tent in the lower lying sagebrush flats at freezing temperatures. I haven’t been that cold since I slept on a beach in Mendocino County last December. Whoops. Anyways, if you live in California and haven’t made it out to Eastern California by Mono lake and the Inyo/White ranges, this is a must visit area of the world. Dress warm and go visit the oldest living things on the planet. The trees are gnarled and twisted by the wind and harsh elements, but remain alive by compartmentalizing themselves to make the most of the available water and nutrients. They also keep the same needles for decades to conserve energy. Because of the harsh conditions, they grow really slowly – sometimes not even an inch in 100 years. Even a single pine cone takes 3 years to mature! But their slow growth means dense growth rings and dense, strong, resinous wood, which is resistant to bugs and high winds. And the lack of needles on the rocky, dolomitic soil, means less timber material for potential forest fire. Not much else can grow up at 10,000 to 13,000 ft with the Bristlecone pines, providing them with a low competition environment to grow. Occasionally you see some Limber Pines (Pinus flexilis), Mountain Mahogany (Cercocarpus ledifolius), and patches of Piñon Pines (Pinus monophyllus) along with low lying scrub plant such as Buckwheats (Eriogonum ovalifolium), Purple Sage (Salvia dorrii), and Rock Spireas (Petrophytum caespitosum), but in general its a pretty harsh, specific environment. Anyways, on to the soap!

The Great Basin at dusk.

The Great Basin at dusk.

– Wild Desert Soap –

Basically everything I know about soaps is through a book a friend lent me, The Natural Soap Book. Small Notebook has a good intro to soapmaking guide, that I followed for this recipe.

Wild Desert Soap!

Wild Desert Soap!

To get started, you will need:

27.5 ounces Olive oil – moisturizing
12 ounces Coconut oil – for good lathe
1 ounce Shea butter – moisturizing
5.8 ounces Lye – a.k.a. Sodium Hydroxide
13.5 ounces water
Essential oil and/or dried herbs

The tools you need are:

Stick Blender- Also called an immersion blender, it does an hour’s worth of stirring in about 5 minutes, which ensures a better result. I have a Cuisinart immersion blender, and I recommend it. It’s sturdy, and with the push of a button the stick detaches from the handle for washing it.
Digital Scale – Precise measuring of ingredients by weight is essential, especially for smaller batches.
Stainless Steel Pot – Stainless steel is recommended for your soapmaking pot. The lye will react to an aluminum, teflon-coated, or cast iron pot. An enamel-covered pot could work well, but I would be concerned about the stick blender chipping the enamel.
Bowls – a couple of bowls for measuring and mixing. At least one needs to be stainless steel or pyrex, so it can withstand high heat. Use stainless steel, glass, or plastic for your bowls and spoons. Do not use any made of aluminum or wood.
Spoons – For measuring and stirring. I use my stainless silverware spoons. Do not use wooden spoons.
Thermometer – A candy or cooking thermometer.
Soap Mold – A wood or plastic box. Your soap mold can be any container. I used a wooden plant box from Ikea. Some people have even used milk cartons or pringle cans.
Freezer Paper – To line the soap mold, so the soap won’t stick.
Cardboard Box – Large enough to cover the soap mold.
Knife – Use a kitchen knife with a large blade.
Glasses and Gloves – For safety when handling lye. I wore an old pair of glasses. Rubber gloves will protect your hands from becoming irritated by the lye.

Tools you will need for soapmaking.

Tools you will need for soapmaking, via Small Notebook.

1. Get all your tools and ingredients in one place. Begin to measure out your solid oils, such as the coconut oil, palm oil, and shea butter, into the stainless steel pot you plan to use. Use the tare button on the scale as you add each one to get accurate weights.

2. Turn on the stove and melt the oils over low heat. Once the solid oils have melted, add the liquid oils, such as the olive oil, and then turn the stove off. You want the oils to be about 110 degrees F.

3. Measure out your lye into a small bowl. Wear glasses and gloves! Lye is poison!

4. Measure your water, and pour it into a heat resistant bowl. Add the lye and stir. This is going to cause a chemical reaction that produces heat and fumes! After a few minutes, the water will turn clear. The lye solution needs to now cool to about 110 degrees F. You can place it in a sink of cold water to help it cool faster. Make sure to use oven mittens to touch the bowl

5. Once the oils and lye have cooled to about 110 degrees, add the lye solution to the pot and stir with an immersion blender until it looks smooth. Alternate blending with the immersion blender on and stirring with the immersion blender off for about five minutes, or until it starts to resemble pancake batter. Be sure not the lift the blender above the surface, or you might stir in some air bubbles!

6. The surface of the mixture will start to look dull and coat the blender. At this point, you can add any essential oils or colors to your soap you’d like to use. Pour the soap into your mold.

7. Put the mold inside a cardboard box or cover with a towel to help it cool slowly and avoid cracking. If it does crack, you can just push it back together with your fingers or a spatula. Clean up the kitchen!

8. In about an hour, the soap should be hard and finished cooling. Let it sit overnight in the box. It should look hard and opaque the next morning.

9. Score, and then cut your soap into bars. Line them up inside a box so that they are not touching and store it in a well ventilated, cool, dry place. At this point the soap will look and feel ready, but it needs to age at least four weeks before it’s ready to use.

Scoring and cutting the soap

Scoring and cutting the soap

There ya have it. Lathering, moisturizing, and awesome smelling soap full of aromatic native plants from the Great Basin.

Letting the soap cure in a well ventilated box is crucial

Curing the soap in a well ventilated box