Making Your Own Essential Oils

This past Christmas, my husband was thoughtful enough to buy me the coolest gift a geeky artsy girl like me could ever want. I finally had a chance to use it, and I am so excited about the possible uses! I know that a lot of you buy essential oils. It's no secret that they can be incredibly expensive! Well now you can make your own, and all you need is a good supply of plant material and this cool gadget.

 EssenEx 100 Essentail Oil Extraction Kit

EssenEx 100 Essentail Oil Extraction Kit

It's a bit pricey (starting at $150). But if you buy essential oils on a regular basis, either for soap making or aromatherapy, you already know that if this product works then you could recoup your costs pretty quickly. Ah, but does it work? I had to find out.

 200 grams of assorted orange peels

200 grams of assorted orange peels

The included instructions were pretty simple to follow. I really wanted to try using fresh herbs, but being the middle of January I didn't want to take any cuttings from my plants. I was too excited to wait until I could make a trip to the grocery store. So I made my first attempt with what I had on hand -- about a dozen oranges. I didn't feel bad "wasting" them, because they had been ignored in the fruit bowl for a long time. So long, in fact, that they were starting to shrivel. There were a few mandarins, as well as navel oranges. I peeled them and measured 200 grams of the peels (that's about 7 ounces). The peels were then loosely packed into the large glass bowl.

 Beaker inserted into the oil extraction unit

Beaker inserted into the oil extraction unit

In the middle, protected by a microwave-safe metal shield, I placed the provided 250 mL beaker. I was really starting to feel nerdy at this point. There was giggling.

 An ice core assembly

An ice core assembly

Next, I needed to attach an ice core to the unit. You heard right, an ice core. It sounds fancy, but really it is the simplest thing in the world. A funnel, with the end plugged, sits upright inside a mug. You fill the funnel with water. Then you take a disc with a hole in the center and thread a plastic screw into it. That sites on top of the funnel. The purpose of the disk is simply to keep the screw centered in the water inside the funnel. Into the freezer it goes for a day, and you have an ice core.

 Ice core ready to attach to the lid

Ice core ready to attach to the lid

Remember the plastic screw? That's how the ice core gets attached to the lid. It sits inside a metal shield, centered over the shielded beaker. Now it heads to the microwave. In only 6 minutes, the magic is complete! Or is it?

 Steam filled extraction unit

Steam filled extraction unit

After letting everything cool a bit, I removed the lid. I could see an oil slick on the surface of the water in my beaker.

 Film of orange essential oil

Film of orange essential oil

I poured the liquid into a flask, put a cap on top, and waited for the oil to float to the top.

 Oil collection flask

Oil collection flask

Nothing. Just some water with a vague dirty orange scent. Hmmm... Is this a piece of junk? Or did I do something wrong? I decided to try again. I took a look at my process, especially all the parts that, in my opinion, the instructions had left open to interpretation. I froze 3 ice cores, so that I could make multiple attempts in a short amount of time. Fortunately, I had success on my very next try!

I wondered if the mandarin oranges, with their very thin skin, might not have been a very good choice. So I opted for a variety of fresh citrus fruits - lemons, limes, and even a blood orange, because I happened to have some in the house. Aside from variety and freshness, the only other change I made was in how I removed the peels. Remembering that the oils are located in the outermost layer, I chose to cut the peels off with a paring knife, leaving as much of the white pith behind as possible. I knew as soon as I removed the lid that my results would be better. I was immediately hit with the scent of lime! I poured the liquid into my flask, and an oil layer floated to the top.

 Citrus oil blend

Citrus oil blend

Success! I used a pipette, similar to an eye dropper, to suction the oil off the surface and into an amber bottle for storage.

 Essential oil in amber glass

Essential oil in amber glass

That single batch produced about 1/4 dram of essential oil from all organic peels. I don't know about you, but a dram is a unit that I just don't use, so I prefer to use ounces or milliliters. In this case, that's just under 1 mL of oil. How does that compare to simply buying the same quantity of organic essential oil? A quick online search shows organic essential oil blends in 5 mL bottles for $20 - $25, or an average of $4.50 per mL . My cost? Well, that depends. In this case, we ate the blood orange, and used our juicer to make some awesome lemon-limeade for the kids. The peels would have been put out with the compost, we had no other use for them. So in this case, I think my cost was, well, nothing. I think the same would be true if I use my own herbs this spring. I routinely have to cut them back to keep them from growing outside of their assigned locations (they are naughty buggers that like to escape their raised beds). I have, many times, had to throw herbs out to the compost because there was just so much that I couldn't even give it all away. So, to me, oil produced from that excess would be free. So my only real cost is in the Extraction Kit itself.  Since it costs around $150, dividing that by the $4.50 per mL cost of buying oils, means that if I can produce 33 mL of oils then I will break even. Any more than that, and I will be saving money.

The bottom line is this: yes, you can make your own essential oils! It is easy, and safe enough that you can have kids actually help. I will happily promote anything that can gets kids interested in science, and teach them about the various chemicals (both natural and synthetic) that they are likely to encounter so they can make better choices as adults. For making soap, it would be difficult to produce enough essential oil to use for a typical batch. I often use several ounces at a time. For aromatherapy, this might be just enough. So, what will I do with my oil? I think this will be exactly enough to go into a batch of coconut-lime lip balm. And this summer, when my thyme is going crazy, I may see if I can make my own thyme oil to use as a mite treatment in the beehives. What oil would you want to make?

Cold Process Soap - A Visual Tour

If you've ever wondered exactly how Cold Processed, or CP, soap is made, look no further! Here is my process, start to finish.

Today I made my Raw Honey & Beeswax Soap. A few months ago I melted down all the leftover wax from my hives and ended up with some beautiful golden wax, which I then molded into bars. This was the inspiration for my entire soap making journey, and this particular soap recipe was where it all began.

 Molded beeswax.

Molded beeswax.

As with cooking, mise en place -- I measure out all of my ingredients before I begin. This eliminates having to adjust my recipe because I ran out of an ingredient. Not that that's ever happened... I measure my Sodium Hydroxide, commonly known as lye, and add it to my water. That mixture gets hot, quickly, and needs time to cool to a manageable temperature. While it is cooling, I prepare my oils. This recipe uses a mixture of organic and non-GMO liquid oils (olive oil, avocado oil, and sunflower oil), and organic hard oils and butters (cocoa butter, coconut oil). And of course I measure out a good amount of honey and beeswax! I melt my wax and other hard ingredients in a double boiler. Some people use the microwave, but after years of tempering chocolate I feel pretty comfortable using this method. I don't use any special equipment, just a stainless steel bowl on top of a small pot of simmering water.

 Double boiler full of wax and butters

Double boiler full of wax and butters

Once all of my ingredients are melted and warm, I combine them with my lye-water. At first the mixture is thin, runny, and only slightly less transparent than the oils were in their original state.

 Oil and lye mixture

Oil and lye mixture

Soon, though, the oils begin to saponify. This means that the sodium hydroxide breaks apart into sodium molecules and hydrogen molecules, and they combine with the fatty acids in the oil. These newly formed molecules are different types of salts (depending on the oils used). Of course, to us, this salt is soap! You can see this process beginning, because the mixture becomes opaque. It also begins to thicken. We call that "reaching trace". Most oils take a long time to trace, so I often use an immersion blender to speed up the process. But this recipe traces ultra-fast, and I have to move quickly to get it poured before it becomes as thick as pudding. 

 Pouring soap batter

Pouring soap batter

The soap is poured into a mold where it will set up. This can take anywhere from several hours, to many days. Because of the added beeswax, this particular soap sets up fairly quickly. I unmold it after 12 hours, then cut it into bars. This mold makes 7-8 bars at a time, depending on how thick I cut them.

 Beeswax patterned soap bars

Beeswax patterned soap bars

The bars are cut, but the soap isn't done yet! The process of saponification takes a minimum of 6 weeks. Some soaps need to cure even longer, up to 6 months or even a year! I'm looking at you castille. During this time, all of the lye gets completely used up -- none remains in the cured soap. The soap will mature and develop it's true characteristics. A soap with a fluffy lather will get more bubbly. A mild, gentle bar will get more mild. A hard bar will firm up more. The process takes time, but the end results are definitely worth the wait.