Posted by on 3/20/2021 to Let's Talk Soaping
Kick "Trace's" Butt in Cold Process Soap Making: Let's Chat
So you want to kick trace's butt in cold process soap making, huh? One of the most satisfying things that we've found in cold process soap making is understanding techniques that help us control trace in our recipes.
When you first start soaping and even as an experienced soaper, sometimes trace just get's the best of you, and because of that, the beautiful swirl or detailed design becomes quickly a dream of the past!
Truth is, no one is perfect and every soap maker has had batches trace faster then they wanted or anticipated, whether due to calculation error, human error, or even fragrances. There is no way to always control it to perfection (at least we don't think) in every batch, but there are methods that you can do to keep your trace from accelerating out of control.
Brief Overview of Trace
This is not a post about what trace is in cold process soap making. This is a post on how we as soapers can help get control of it in our soaps, to come extent. With that said, let's briefly explain trace, so we're all on the same page.
Saponification begins when your lye and oils become mixed, blending continues, and the batter emulsifies in cold process soap making. As chemical reactions continue occurring between the lye solution and oils, your batter will begin to "trace", which means it begins to thicken.
Emulsification happens prior to trace!
There are various phases of trace. Some simplify this process into 3 stages. light (thin), medium, and heavy (thick) trace. Others add more stages, including; "very" thin trace, thin to medium trace, medium to thick trace, and so one.
As you get use to seeing and working with trace, you may refer to trace as the latter, but for simplicity, let's stick with our thin, medium, thick trace, lingo.
Light (thin) Trace: No oil streaks left in the batter. "Thin" cake batter consistency! The batter will sit on top of the mixture and then gently sink back in when swirled over the top with a spoon or spatula.
Medium Trace: Slightly "thicker" cake batter. The easiest way to know you are now at medium trace, is if you swirl your mixture over-top (with a spoon or spatula) your batter will NOT sink in!
Heavy (thick) trace: "Pudding-like" consistency! Difficult to pour. May have to use your spatula to "plop" your soap into the mold. Easy to manipulate. Holds shape. Great for soap top designs!
Tips for Controlling Trace in Cold Process Soap Making
There may not be a perfect order to these tips, but this is the order of importance to use when we are trying to control trace in our recipes!
Why would we control trace?
One of the most important reasons we choose to control trace is when we want to push our soap design slightly to include more detailed or intricate designs, such as swirling!
When we say temperature, we mean not only the temperature of the soap, but also the environment. What climate do you live in? What temperatures are you soaping at?
A general rule is the higher the temperature, the faster your soap will trace.
So to negate this, soaping at lower temperatures will help to a degree. We like to soap around 80-90 degrees, sometimes slightly higher. This means, both lye solution and oils are in that range. The way to keep track of this is with an infrared thermometer. It's easy and very accurate.
Sometimes if you soap at two low of temperatures, however, you can run into "false trace". Basically meaning that your soap can start to thicken prior to your oils and lye being emulsified or saponification occurring. This happens usually because of the temperature of your oils being lower then their melting point. Many of times, these oils will again melt and can be stick blended out because the soap will heat back up during saponification.
However, we soap between 80-90 degrees F, in a room that's roughly 72 degrees, and rarely have dealt with false trace, which resulted in ruining our design idea. Try to keep stirring or stick blend through false trace!
Related Article: Lye Safety: How to Safely Handle Lye or Sodium Hydroxide
2. The "BLENDER" Effect!
The next thing to talk about here is your stick blender. Probably every soaper has one, and it can truly be your best friend or your worst enemy.
The first time we soaped, we made a very small batch of soap. Actually, for the first few years we made soap in smaller batches. With smaller batches, you can very quickly stick blend yourself into a blob of soap. If you don't have a good handle on your "base oil properties" and fragrance(s) testing results, this could be catastrophic.
Tip #1: Put the blender down if you're using a fragrance or base oil recipe that you're unfamiliar with!
If you're brand new to soapmaking, as well, try to just use a spatula. Truth is, it may take you 2 minutes or 20 minutes of hand stirring or more to reach trace, however it's a good lesson to learn. This also gives you the feel you need for spotting/feeling "levels" of trace.
Tip #2: Throughout the process, take your spatula and swirl some of the mixture over your batter. Do you see oil streaks (has not emulsified)? Does it sink back in (possibly thin trace)? Does it rest on top (possibly medium to thick trace)?
Try not to overcomplicate things and don't be afraid of trace. The more you see and work with it, the more comfortable you'll get!
For the next batch, same recipe. Use your stick blender and pulse it. See and feel how much faster the emulsification occurs, as well as trace. It's WAYYYY faster, but it can also get you into trouble. CP soap making is definitely a patience tester!
3. The Oils in Your Recipe
From personal experience, this is one of the easiest concepts, but also one that we did not learn for quite a while when we started making soap.
Remember we've talked prior about how soaping is an art, but also a science.
If you want to be good at say chemistry, you probably should have a good grasp on the basics of chemistry, properties of compounds, etc.
Well, when we first started we would enter our recipes into a soap calculator and would always see these terms on the left side of the page change as we clicked on our chosen oils.
Obviously late, we realized just how important it was to understand fatty acid profiles of the oils/butter we were using in our recipes. These fatty acids not only dictate hardness, moisturizing, cleansing properties in soap, but increasing certain oils, can speed up trace!
Most of the time, when dealing with oils that are hard at room temperature, these have higher amounts of certain fatty acids, called saturated fatty acids.
If you go to soapcalc.net and hover your cursor over each fatty acid, they go in order from saturated fatty acids to unsaturated fatty acids.
As you click on the different oils, the fatty acids that make up those butters and oils are different. Some have more hard components (lauric, myristic, palmitic, and steric acids), while other have components that tend to make a "softer" oil or ones that are liquid at room temperature. This includes components like oleic, linoleic and linolenic fatty acids.
After you're finished entering your recipe and click on "calculate recipe" and then "view or print recipe", this dang thing literally shoots back your total saturated vs. unsaturated fats in your recipe. This can be a good indicator of how your recipe may move through the saponification process. (see next 3 slides)
This is a recipe that may move a little, due to the amount of saturated fatty acids. We general like to keep saturated fatty acids around 40-45% and unsaturated 55%-60%.
How Much Water Is in Your Recipe Can Effect Trace
The other part of the equation has to do with water amounts! Typically the more of a water discount you do or if you add less water to the lye mixture then the recipe calls for, you'll end up with a faster tracing batter. Remember, water directly effects and causes temperature fluctuations in CP soap making.
What Does This Mean?
With a water discount, your soap will spend less time at maximum temperature. Meaning that it may partially gel or may not go through gel at all. In these cases you may find it necessary to force gel phase. This could be through oven processing or using a heating pad under your mold. You can read more about "insulting CP soap" and "gel phase" on our blog.
What this means in regards to trace is that, it will start to saponify faster due to a more concentered lye solution. If you're looking to do swirls or detailed patterns, and need time for your trace to occur, try sticking to a 30-33% lye solution. This means more water, which = slower trace, which = more apt to experience gel phase as well.
Okay so lot's of information here, right! Take some time to digest some of it and then, practice. Try sticking to a common soap recipe, like olive, coconut oil and palm. Go through some experimentation with water discount vs. no water discounts, stick blending vs. not stick blending. Take detailed notes on the recipe pages as to what you did and how it effected trace.
Be sure to share your experiences and how you have "kicked" trace's butt, and learned to control your formulations better! Thanks for coming by, hope to have you again soon!