Although you might think of lye as a dangerous chemical, it plays a big role in the preparation of certain traditional foods and baked goods. Lye plays a big role in the preparation of the Scandinavian dried fish known as lutefisk, and pidan, or cured duck egg, commonly eaten in China. It also gives certain breads, such as bagels and pretzels, a distinctive brown, chewy crust. The heat from baking makes the lye safe to eat.
Two types of lye are available for purchase. If you are using lye to make edible foods, only use a “food-grade” product. Food-grade lye has lower levels of impurities, while the lye you buy at a hardware store is likely to contain high levels of heavy metals such as mercury. Food-grade lye isn’t something you’ll find in the average supermarket; however, you may have to look online or at specialty stores to buy it.
What Is Lye?
Lye is also known as sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide. The chemical is an alkaline, and alkalines are opposite the pH scale from acids. Lye corrodes surfaces it comes into contact with, which is why industrial-strength lye is a drain cleaner and why it will burn your skin.
When you use food-grade lye to make baked goods, don’t use it in its concentrated form. Using a very weak 3 percent solution for baking is common, says Noelle Carter, writing for the “Los Angeles Times.” Dissolve 2 tablespoons of lye in 1 quart of water to create a 3 percent solution, or as directed in the recipe you’re using. Dip the shaped dough into the solution or use a brush to coat the surface of the pretzel or bagel with the diluted lye. You’ll see the dough start to yellow when it comes into contact with the lye solution. The alkali in the lye is neutralized during baking, which makes the pretzel or bagel safe to eat.
You need to be very careful when working with lye in the kitchen. If sodium hydroxide comes in contact with your skin, it can cause irritation and burns. Protect your skin from lye by wearing gloves and a heavy apron. Also wear safety goggles to protect your eyes. Lye can irritate your airways, too, so wear a mask when working with it. The chemical will reaction with aluminum, so only use non-reactive bakeware, such as glass or stainless steel, when working with it.
References and Resources"On Food and Cooking"; Harold McGee
The New York Times: For Old Fashioned Flavor, Bake the Baking Soda
Los Angeles Times: Making a Soft Pretzel Is a Knotty Challenge
National Institutes of Health: NIH Medline Plus: Sodium Hydroxide Poisoning
Fine Cooking: How to Shape Bavarian Style Soft Pretzels
The Toledo Blade: The Best Bagels? They're Lying