Stick blenders are an amazing tool in the soapmaking world. They can emulsify oils and lye in a minute or less, while whisks and hand mixers can take hours. Have you ever had a recipe thicken a little bit too quickly? As in, instant pudding as soon as the lye is added? Don’t toss out that stick blender! You may be dealing with “false trace.”
Trace is the point in soapmaking when the oils and lye have started to saponify. Once the soap reaches thin trace, it will continue to thicken as you work with it. This post has more information on trace. There are two types of false trace: fake emulsification and cool soap. This blog post deals with the cool soap type of false trace. False trace looks like the soap has saponified, as it gets quite thick. However, it is actually oils like coconut or butters like cocoa in the recipe starting to harden and resolidify before the soap is fully emulsified. Below is an example of true thick trace. False trace can look and feel like thick trace, but happens very quickly after the lye and oils are combined.
False trace looks like thick trace, but the soap hasn’t fully emulsified.
What causes false trace?
Temperature is the main cause of super thick fake false trace. When cold or room temperature lye water is poured into the soapmaking oils, it can cause them to harden up. While soft oils like avocado are always liquid, hard oils are solid up to a certain temperature. For instance, avocado butter starts to melt around 90 ° F. Cocoa butter is even higher at 100 ° F. Check out the Soaping in the Summer Heat post for more information on melting points. If adding cold lye to butters and oils that are solid at cooler temperatures, it can cause the oils/butters to cool and thicken on contact.
False trace happens pretty quickly. As the lye is poured in, the soap will start to thicken immediately. You may also notice it looks grainy. Solid chunks of soap can start to appear in the bowl. As you continue to pulse the soap, it will get thicker very quickly. Most likely, there will be chucks of thick soap along with liquid oils.
Coconut oil starts to melt at 76 ° F and is solid at cooler temperatures.
You can see false trace in the photos below. In this batch, the oils were around 100°F and the lye was around 70°F. The recipe is 25% palm oil, 30% coconut oil, 30% olive oil, 10% sweet almond oil and 5% castor oil. Below, the lye was added to the oils and the stick blender was pulsed a few times. Notice at the bottom, you can see soap that already looks emulsified.
After just a few more pulses with the stick blender, check out that batter! You can see the thick chunks of soap. That is false trace. The chunks appear to be at thick trace, when they have actually cooled and hardened due to the cold lye temperature.
The chunks in the soap batter after just a few pulses with the stick blender is what false trace looks like.
What do you do if your soap has false trace?
If this starts to happen to you, keep stick blending! The oils and lye need to be stick blended until the batch is emulsified. The soap will get pretty thick during this process. If you were planning on a more intricate design, you may need to switch gears. A great option for unexpectedly thick soap is the spoon plop design. See how to create that technique in the Creamy Cow Milk Cold Process Tutorial. You can also create a really simple design. While the design may not be what you planned for, it will still look great!
How to prevent false trace
Higher temperatures prevent false trace. Soaping around 100-130 ° F will keep the hard oils and butters in the batch melted throughout the entire process. False trace is common when making soap with milk if you are using a low temperature technique to prevent the milk from scalding. Certain ingredients may need higher soaping temperatures. For instance, beeswax has a melting point of 144-147°F. I recommend soaping around 170°F to keep it melted. Learn more about working with beeswax in this tutorial.
Adjusting the recipe can help as well. Adding more slow-moving soft oils like pure olive oil, canola oil, and sweet almond oil to the recipe will allow you more time to work with the design. They will stay liquid throughout the entire process and help prevent false trace. Read more about slow-moving oils in the 5 Tips for Swirling Cold Process Soap post. The Formulating Cold Process Recipes post has helpful information as well.
Adding more soft oils to your recipe will help prevent false trace.
Have you ever experienced false trace? When it happens to your batch, keep calm and continue to stick blend. Once your soap has been cut into bars and cured, I do recommend pH testing them just to be sure the oils and lye fully emulsified. Luckily, I have found that false trace batches have turned out just fine! =)