Posted by on 3/8/2021 to Let's Talk Soaping
Trace in Cold Process Soap Making: Let's Chat About It
Don't Be Afraid of Trace
Trace, in cold process soap making, doesn't have to be overcomplicated. The fact is, once your learn how to work with trace and what elements in soap making can help control trace, it becomes much more conformable and second nature.
Heck, there are even times when trace starts to occur a little quicker then we anticipate, but experience here is key.
You have to work with trace to understand trace. Don't let trace stop you from attempting to make "your perfect" soap.
Yes, some designs and the look of your finished soap can hinder on tracing issues, but every serious soaper will tell you that they didn't let that stand in there way of perfecting there design and recipe to achieve there desired result.
Related Article: Gel Phase in Cold Process Soap Making: Let's Chat About It!
What is Trace?
In truth, the very beginning of the saponification process, is when your lye solution mixes in with your blending oils/fats.
What happens from there is that it begins to emulsify, and thicken, as the oils and lye begin there chemical reactions. The most important aspect is that everything is evenly mixed and dispersed in the mixture.
When a mixture has reached a trace, this simply means that it has fully emulsified, and it's texture appears creamy. It has thickened to a point where it is able to hold a structure or outline, many soapers say. Usually if you can still see streaks of oil, this means the mixture has not yet reached trace or fully emulsified.
It's important to understand and mix things like colorants appropriately. We spoke in another post about premixing colorants in a lightweight oil. The reason for this is that if you add certain micas' or pigments into a recipe batter and begin to hand blend, they may not disperse evenly.
However, if you use a stick blender you may accelerate the trace way faster then you wanted to. Once trace starts, there is no turning back!
There are 3 "levels" of trace if you will, referred to as light, medium and thick trace, some soapers also use throw in "very thin trace" or "medium to thick trace". There is also something called false trace, which we'll discuss in a bit.
Let's discuss each level of trace and what that looks like in cold process soap making.
So you've mixed your lye solution and oils, and begun to stir or whisk. At this point the process of saponification has begun.
There are probably infinite "levels" of trace, but the easiest way to think about trace (as a beginner) is to understand it at 3 levels, light (thin), medium and thick (heavy).
Light trace: The best way in which we have heard thin or light trace described is thin cake batter. The batter has emulsified and there are no streaks of oils left. This is the time to add those colorants and stir. This is also the point if your want to make swirling designs, you should think about pouring your soap into it's mold and getting that process started.
You can also tell light trace if you take your spatula and dip it in your soap, then swirl the soap from your spatula over-top of the mixture. The mixture off your spatula should gently sit on top of your soap, and gradually sink back in over a few seconds.
From here, the soap will only continue to thicken. You can control that pace by stirring, and especially by stick blending.
* Remember; temperature, fragrances, lye solution, water amount, can all dictate how fast you trace *
Here, the consistency starts to change. Medium trace, is a bit more like pudding consistency, but slightly thinner. If you did that same swirl technique with the spatula it would certainly sit on top of the soap and not sink back in.
It is also referred to as looking like, "thick" cake batter, instead of the thin cake batter we discussed prior. As you can imagine this is not necessarily the time for those intricate swirl pattern or designs.
This would, however, be a time for placing other additives. One of our recipes here at RN to Zen, is using balls of soap (beforehand) we have shaped, and then placing them in a soap recipe. This is the time we do this because the heavier objects will not sink to the bottom, they will remain suspended in the soap.
We have another recipe where we place shreds of different colored soap in a loaf soap batch. This is also the time we would mix that in.
You should still be able to pour at medium trace fairly well. You can also place poppy seeds or petals on the top of the soap and they should sit nicely without sinking down.
Working our-way to thick trace now. Thick trace is hard to pour, it's going to be a consistency that holds it's shape very well. It's like a pudding consistency, maybe even slightly thicker, and you may have to scoop it into your mold with a spatula.
Thick trace is supportive, so many soapers use this time to developed layers in there design. The layers will not be completely smooth and even, this is a time to have some fun manipulating the soap.
For instance you can texture each layer by dragging a spoon down the length of the mold, then put another layer on top and do it again, and so on.
This is great consistency to texture the tops of soaps, and soap for frosting.
What is False Trace?
False trace can be tricky, even sometimes for experienced soapers, but especially if you're someone just starting out. We're going to touch on false trace briefly here, but will make an entire post about what causes false trace, and how to avoid it.
False trace is simply what the name implies. It usually occurs very quickly, as it looks like your soap has already reached a medium to thick trace extremely quickly. In fact, this is not the case, the soap (oils & lye solution) have not fully emulsified, when false trace occurs.
False trace occurs most often when using oils or butters that are solid at room temperature. What occurs with this type of false trace is those oils or butters actually are trying to re-solidify prior to your mixture being fully emulsified.
Why Does False Trace Happen?
Well, in this instance, it's a fairly easy explanation. Think about what oils and/or butters you've used in your recipes. What is there consistency at room temperature? What are there melt points?
If you use oils and/or butters that are solid at room temperature (especially cooler temperatures) then adding a room temperature or cold solution to them can certainly have the effect of brining down the temperature even more, this causing premature solidification of the oils.
So for instance, let's say you're using a butter like coffee butter (melt point is about 104F) and cocoa butter in your recipe (melt point about 101F).
Let's say in the case your lye solution has cooled and is room temperature of 68F.
Remember, your melt points of the 2 butters above, 101F and 104F respectively, for these oils to melt!
When you pour your lye solution into your cooled butter/oil mixture you may bring the temperature of the mixture down to fast, and your oils/butters with high melt points may try and re-solidify on you, giving you false trace!
Now it can also depend on other factors and your recipe. However, the most common issue with false trace has to do with your temperature(s).
Trace is another one of those terms that makes more sense the more you soap and the more you understand what effects it.
Many soapers, us included, have "back-up plans" for when a batter traces to fast. Here at RN to Zen, we always have a backup plan for each one of our batches, incase we run into a batter that thickens up much faster then anticipated.
This get's easier and more second-nature as you soap and practice longer within the craft!
We hope this has been a helpful post, thanks for stopping by and feel free to share your thoughts and or experiences with trace that's went well, but also times when you've had to think fast on your feet!