Understanding Trace in Cold Process Soap
The stages of trace in cold process soap can be confusing, but when you know a few things to look for, it is easier than you might think. When you first pour the lye solution into the melted oils, it looks like this.
Notice that the oils float on top of the lye solution in the photo below.
By stirring or stick blending, the next phase reached is called emulsion. Emulsion is reached when the lye water is suspended in the oils and there is no separation. The best way to tell if an emulsion is reached is to look at the batter that touches the edge of the bowl. Is there any oil still remaining on the top edge? If there is, keep stirring until there is no separation. The batter also is no longer transparent. Notice that the batter is still very thin. It drips off the spatula like water.
Once an emulsion is reached, it is a good time to split and color your batter if you have a fragrance oil that doesn’t behave, otherwise you can wait until the next stage. Notice the batter is still very fluid like water and no batter sticks to the sides of the bowl when stirred.
In the photo below, the batter is at thin trace. There are two ways that I identify thin trace. The first way is to look at the stick blender or spatula. Is there a thin coating of batter on there that doesn’t completely drip off when lifted out of the bowl? Also does the batter start to stick to the sides of the bowl when stirred. This is thin trace. At this point you can’t “trace” any lines on the surface of the batter.
The batter can progress rather quickly through medium and thick trace sometimes, so if you are in need of a fluid batter, be cautious and stir the batter instead of stick blending it. Stick blending is a known accelerator.
The photo below shows medium trace. At this point there is a thicker coating of batter on the stick blender and the side of the bowl and also you can begin to “trace” lines on the surface of the batter. I find that this is a great consistency to make swirls. (Any thinner and the batter tends to get muddy because the colors have more of a tendency to mix.)
In the photo below, the batter is at thick trace. The batter definitely sticks to the sides of the bowl and stick blender/spatula and you can “trace” or drizzle big lines on the surface of the batter. The batter at this stage is still pourable, but it tends to get more air bubbles in it, so after pouring it into the mold, make sure to gently bang it on the counter to release any trapped air.
The photo below shows an even thicker trace. Trace like this is great for texturing the top of your soap.
There is also such a thing as false trace. This often happens when introducing a cold lye solution the melted oils. It happens often in milk soaps. Frozen milk is introduced gradually to avoid burning the sugars in the milk. Because of this, the lye solution is at a low temperature when added to the oils. The saturated oils harden and make a thick and grainy appearance. This is called false trace. Stick blend in short bursts to get through false trace until the consistency is more smooth and creamy in appearance.
We hope this gives you some things to look for when distinguishing the different phases of trace.
We wish you happy soaping!
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