You’ve Eaten Lye
When I say to you that lye is generally not something you would think to consume, you might emphatically nod your head in agreement if you know what lye is -sodium hydroxide or NaHO. For those of you who don’t know, it’s the primary ingredient in drain cleaner, grandma’s homemade soap, and a chemical that is used in biodiesel production.
Even though lye is caustic, poisonous, and can be dangerous without proper equipment and handling, it is used in certain food production processes. I bet you’re reading this while questioning my sanity. But yes, you read that right–food making with a dangerous chemical. And people survive eating these foods? –you might ask. Yes, yes they do. You have probably eaten a food that had contact with lye and you might not have realized it.
Lye is used to raise the pH and to hasten Maillard’s reaction. Maillard’s reaction is a process in which sugar and amino acids combine because of an alkaline facilitation. There are many foods that depend on Maillard’s reaction for their signature texture and color.
Have you ever eaten German pretzels? Lye and Maillard’s reaction are responsible for German pretzels’ color, bite, and flavor. Before the pretzels are baked, they are simmered in a mild lye bath. This alkaline environment causes some of the proteins in the dough to break down into amino acids. The sugars and amino acids in the dough then combine. After, the pretzels are baked and we get to enjoy their chewy, tasty goodness.
Lye for Food Preservation-100 Year Eggs
Lye is also used to preserve duck and chicken eggs in China and Taiwan. These eggs are known as hundred year eggs. Duck or chicken eggs are soaked in a lye bath for up to two weeks. During this time, the lye breaks down the eggs’ proteins and fats, which changes their flavor significantly. After which, they are drained, dried, and packed in mud. The eggs are then left for up to one hundred days. When the hundred days are finished, the resulting eggs’ whites have turned into a dark brown gelatin while most of the yolks have solidified.
Don’t let these eggs’ appearance or smell deter you- they are amazingly delicious and best served sliced and with sesame oil, fresh chopped cilantro, and a high quality soy sauce.
Norwegian Lutefisk is another kind of food that benefits from a lye bath. Lye does the same thing for Lutefisk as it does for hundred year old eggs; it breaks down the meat’s proteins. I’ve been told that the process of making Lutefisk is straightforward: leathery dried cod or whitefish is soaked in a lye bath until it’s tender. It’s soaked in lye because water alone can’t reconstitute the dried fish –it’s that hard. When the fish has soaked long enough, it’s rinsed several times, renamed Lutefisk, and served. If you’re wondering what Lutefisk looks like -think slightly gelatinous slices of unidentifiable fish. If you’re wondering what it tastes like, I can’t help you there.
If you want to try making any of these foods in your kitchen, be sure that you use food-grade lye, have good ventilation, proper equipment, and are very careful.