Would I Lye to You?

Apologies to the Euythmics, but ever since I conceived the idea for this post, I could not get their song out of my head.  When I made my batch of homemade olives, I researched the various techniques involved, including the use of lye.  I suddenly seemed to encounter all matter of food made with said ingredient.   So with the knowledge of lye and olives and the experience of growing up in Minnesota with a few close encounters with lutefisk, I was curious to see what other foods people had used lye to make into favorite products.  Here are a handful of options that I’ve unearthed, but I suspect there’s a few more out there and I would appreciate any tips you can provide.  But before we can get to the food, a quick overview of what lye is might be in order.

What Is Lye?

Lye is a caustic substance, specifically sodium hydroxide (NaOH) used in such commercial/industrial applications such as stripping water tanks, to making soap, to oven cleaner and drain opener.  Definitely not what one associates with treating ones food.  The pH scale (from 1 to 14) provides a way to measure the range from acids to basics.  Acids being on the low end of scale, with for example stomach acid being about 1.5.  Moving away from the low end of the scale, substances gradually become less acidity until their numbers reach around 7 which is considered neutral; neither acidic or basic.  For mixtures beyond 7, its basic stuff, and lye is at about 13 out of 14 on the scale.  In order words a powerful basic.  Lye’s strong reactiveness is its appeal to industry, it wants desperately to combine (react) with other substances, and that is what makes it caustic.

With food, lye performs the same work, but with less intensity.  It reacts with the bitter compounds in olives to make them edible, it make hominy (corn) more nutritious and easier to process, and gives bagels and pretzels their unique texture.  This is another example of foods that I am amazed we can enjoy today, given that probably not too much trial and error took place, but I do thank those persistent and brave souls.  If the process was traced back far enough we’d probably discover the first persons to have invented this technique but it was curious to note that the foods listed below hail from all over the world.

a view from Mexico shores

hominy/grits (US, Mexico) – A dried maize or corn kernel  that was treated with an alkali in a process called nixtamalization.  The English term hominy is derived from the Powhatan language word for maize. Many Native American cultures made hominy; the Cherokees, for example, made hominy grits by soaking corn in a weak lye solution and beating it with a kanona, or corn beater. The grits were used to make a traditional fermented hominy soup, cornbread, and dumplings.

Why Nixtamalization?

Nixtamalization is the preparation of maize (corn), or other grain, where the grain is soaked and cooked in an alkaline solution, usually limewater, and hulled. The term can also refer to the removal via an alkali process of the pericarp from other grains such as sorghum. Maize subjected to the nixtamalization process has several benefits over unprocessed grain for food preparation:

  • it can be ground easier
  • its nutritional value is increased
  • the flavor and aroma are improved
  • the mycotoxins are reduced

These benefits make nixtamalization a vital first step in the process of converting maize into food products – tortillas, tamales, corn chips, and hominy to name a few.  This is not some new fangled process, the earliest known use of nixtamalization was in what is present-day southern Mexico and Guatemala around 1500–1200 BC.

Nixtamalization was vital in the early Mesoamerican diet, as unprocessed maize contains no free niacin. A population depending on untreated maize as a staple food risks malnourishment, and is prone to develop deficiency diseases such as pellagra. Maize also is deficient in essential amino acids, which can result in kwashiorkor. Maize cooked with lime provided niacin in this diet. Beans, when consumed with the maize, provided the amino acids required to balance the diet for protein.

From New World to Old

Christopher Columbus introduced maize to Europe the 15th century, being grown in Spain.  Due to its high yields, its popularity spread through Europe, and later to Africa and India. Portuguese colonists grew maize in the Congo as early as 1560.  Interesting, the adoption of the nixtamalization process did not follow maize to Europe, and some speculate this is because the Europeans had more efficient milling processes for hulling grain mechanically. Without alkaline processing, maize is a poor nutritional provider, and malnutrition struck many areas where it became a dominant food crop.  Consider in the 19th century, the pellagra epidemics of France, Italy, and Egypt, and kwashiorkor that struck parts of Africa where maize was a dietary staple, but the nixtamalization process was not used.  Health problems associated with corn-based diets have usually been solved by vitamin supplements (fortified flour for example) and economic improvement leading to a broader diet, rather than adopting nixtamalization.

The first step in nixtamalization, kernels of dried maize are cooked in an alkaline solution at or near its boiling point. After cooking, the maize is steeped in the cooking liquid for some time determined on what the desired final product will be.  During this first step, many chemical changes take place in the maize. Because plant cell wall components are highly soluble in alkaline solutions, the kernels soften and their pericarps (hulls) loosen. The grain hydrates and absorbs calcium or potassium (depending on the alkali) from the cooking solution. Starches swell and gelatinize, and may disperse into the liquid. Chemical changes in the germ allow the cooked grains to be ground more easily, yet make the resulting dough less likely to tear and break down. Cooking changes the corn’s protein matrix, making proteins and nutrients from the endosperm of the kernel more available to the human body.

The New World (Mission San Juan Batista)

After cooking, the alkaline liquid is discarded , the kernels rinsed, and the pericarp removed.  The prepared grain is called nixtamal.  Whole nixtamal may be used fresh or dried, and found in such food as pozole and menudo. Ground fresh nixtamal is made into dough for such products as tortillas, tamales, and arepas. Dried and ground, it is called masa harina or instant masa flour, and reconstituted and used like masa.

The primary nutritional benefits of nixtamalization arise from the alkaline processing which convert corn’s bound niacin to free niacin, making it available for absorption into the body.  The alkalinity also reduces the amount of the protein zein available to the body, which improves the balance among essential amino acids. A secondary benefits is the grain’s absorb minerals from the alkali used, or the containers used in preparation, such as increased calcium, iron, copper and zinc. Finally, nixtamalization significantly reduces (by 90-94%) the mycotoxin and molds that commonly infect maize.

Mayan cooking ideas

The lye kills the seed’s germ preventing it from sprouting while in storage. It also preserves the grain as foodstuff, and finally this process adds several significant nutritional advantages over untreated maize products. It converts some of the niacin into a form more absorbable by the body, improves the availability of the amino acids, and (at least in the lime-treated variant) supplements the calcium content, balancing maize’s comparative excess of phosphorus.

pretzels/bagels (Germany/Poland)

Pretzel bakers consider lye an essential ingredient for a fine finished product.  The lye breaks up the gluten so it caramelizes in the oven, giving pretzels their addicting crusty texture.  The outside browns quickly yet the interior remains chewy and moist.

Similar to pretzels, by adding lye to the bagel boiling mixture, it improves the mailard or browning effect when the bagels are baked, and it impacts the chewiness.  This desired quality is why lye is also used with some Asian noodles.


Laugabrezla – Swabian pretzels for the American kitchen

Information from The Fresh Loaf

NYT – Making Pretzels the Old Fashioned Way

Chowhound – The Lye v Baking Soda Debate

olives (Italy/Greece)

a sampling of olives in Roma

Lye is used to draw the bitterness from the olives.  However, unlike other uses of lye which enhance the nutritional content of the food, that is not the case with lye and olives.  It destroys it, j, but it also changes the texture, which for some folks may be desirable.  However after making water cured olives, I have to say I am hooked on the crunchiness that I achieved by skipping the lye.  That being said, one lye’s biggest advantages is that it takes a lot less time to get to an edible olive, it took me about four months using the water method.  For this reason, most olives sold commercially have been lye treated.

olive trees with their bounty in Siena

mandarin oranges (specifically the canned kind)  Lye is used to prepare them for canning.  The oranges are bathed in a lye solution to digest the albedo (the white pithy part) and membranes, after which they are thoroughly rinsed in in plain water before packaging.

lutekfisk  (Norway) or Lutfisk (Swedish) is a traditional dish of the Nordic countries and parts of the Midwest United States.  Its name literally means “lye fish.”  The origin of lutefisk is unknown, but tales include the accidental dropping of fish into a lye bucket or sodden wood ash containing lye under a drying rack.

Lutefisk is made from whitefish (commonly cod in Norway) prepared with lye in a sequence of particular treatments.  Lutefisk prepared from cod is notorious for its intense odor. Conversely, lutefisk prepared from pollock or haddock emits almost no odor.

snowy images of Minnesota bring on heartwarming thoughts of lutefisk

Warning – Serving lutefisk may be bad for your silverware.  Sterling silver should never be used in the cooking, serving or eating of lutefisk, which will ruin silver. Stainless steel utensils are recommended.

Lutefisk is usually served with a variety of side dishes ( the appropriate dishes being cause for much debate as they vary greatly by family and community), including bacon, green peas, green pea stew, potatoes, lefse, gravy, mashed rutabaga, white sauce, melted butter, geitost (goat cheese), or in the United States, it is even eaten with meatballs.  While not always traditional, akvavit and beer often accompany the meal due to its use at festive occasions (or maybe from necessity).


Lutefist History

Minnesota Lutefisk Recipes

Pidan:  1000 year-old eggs is a famous style of eggs, that while not having been made for a thousand years, have been around 500, which in the scheme of things is still a darn long time.  They are none too appealing to look at as their shell is encrusted in mud and the egg white has turned a  gelatinous brown, and the yolk a semi-solid greenish color.  The flavors are intense mineraly and earthy.  Two ingredients; the eggs and a lye solution are required to make the transformation, although others such as tea may be added to affect taste.


Chinese Preserved Eggs – Pidan (from the Dept. of Home Economics, U of Chicago, 1916)

World Foodie Guide: What Is Thousand Year Old Egg?

ox tail noodle soup

zongzi (glutinous rice dumplings) and Chinese noodlesZongzi are the Chinese equivalent of burritos and specifically served about the time of the dragon boat festival.  The glutinous rice is often treated in lye water or with baking soda.  The lye gives the rice a distinctive yellow color.  The Chinese noodles get the same treatment to achieve the same effect.

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22 comments for “Would I Lye to You?

  1. February 27, 2011 at 9:25 AM

    As always Oyster, your post are superb! I always learn so much from you!
    Chef E recently posted..Chorizo-Vegetable and Kale Soup

  2. February 27, 2011 at 11:59 AM

    Ok, so now *I* have that Eurythmics song in my head! I also have a lot more information about lye in there too, though 🙂 I mean, I was aware, in a reasonably vague way, of (some) of what lye was used for, but now I feel much better informed, as is always the case when I visit here.
    Daily Spud recently posted..Spud Sunday- The Food Parade Rides Again

  3. February 27, 2011 at 8:23 PM

    Fascinating info, I knew nothing about this at all, thanks!

  4. February 28, 2011 at 2:47 PM

    Great info! I always learn so much from your posts!!!
    Andrea@WellnessNotes recently posted..Comfort Food and a Video Project

  5. February 28, 2011 at 6:00 PM

    Hi, Louann. It is fun to learn a bit more about lye – not that I was lookin’ for lye-learnin’, but I didn’t know about Mandarin oranges or the pretzel-bagel-lye connection. There has never been any lying on your site – until now….



  6. February 28, 2011 at 11:34 PM

    I saw some lye this weekend in the ‘Oriental’ shop – i put it back so fast…..wondering how on earth an ingredient common in some hair relaxers could be in a food shop. Now I know…………..thanks for the great tutorial, as always! LOL

  7. March 1, 2011 at 2:23 AM

    As always, I learn a lot reading your blog. I didn’t know anything about it before :-/ I’m such an ignoramous!

  8. March 1, 2011 at 3:05 PM

    Thank you so much for this wonderful post…so many interesting information…love it!

  9. March 1, 2011 at 5:28 PM

    I didn’t know lye was used for olives. I am completely afraid to attempt using it in making pretzels though (I don’t know why that scares me, but I’m sure I’d use it incorrectly.). Great info here as always!
    lisaiscooking recently posted..Mushroom and Lentil Pot Pies with Gouda Biscuit Topping

  10. March 2, 2011 at 10:10 AM

    Fascinating! I had no idea the use of lye was so prevalent.
    Claudia recently posted..The Enchantment of Ragu

  11. March 5, 2011 at 2:44 PM

    Great info! thank you so much sharing!

  12. March 6, 2011 at 7:32 AM

    Haven’t heard of lye before! Didn’t know it’s used for removing bitterness of olives. We just wait it in water and continually change this water for some days. Thank you for all this info!

  13. March 6, 2011 at 5:47 PM

    I’m so impressed that you cure olives at home! Oh, to live in California.
    Lynn recently posted..A birthday- a coconut cake- and neglecting the blog

  14. March 6, 2011 at 10:18 PM

    Had no idea that lutefisk was so harmful to good silverware. Well, not that I’ve ever had lutefisk, which I’ve heard is something one has to really acquire the taste for, so to speak. 😉
    Carolyn Jung recently posted..A Return Visit to Bardessono in Yountville

  15. OysterCulture
    March 8, 2011 at 6:40 AM

    Chef E – Back at you!

    Daily Spud – I am just amazed at its versatility. (I still have that song in my head, what was I thinking?)

    5 Star – Indeed, who knew?

    Andrea – Thanks!

    Dan – I would never lye to you, nothing but the truth. =)

    KB – Please let me know if you try it, still scared =)

    Jackie – Hardly, everything I stop by your site its an education in all things tasty.

    Juliana – My pleasure.

    Lisa – I’m a bit worried there myself, think it might require a team effort.

    Claudia – Same here, thought it just a few items, and I am sire there are many more that I did not capture here

    Dimah – My pleasure

    Zerrin – I need to go back to your posts as I thought you mentioned something similar. I had so much fun making my olives like that that I cannot wait to do it again this year. Intend to try other techniques as well, but not lye.

    Lynn – It was so easy, I understand that people are growing olive trees on the East Coast and pretty far north too (mostly as decorative) so you may be in luck,

    Carolyn – That was a fact I could not resist adding. I hate seeing good silverware destroyed.

  16. March 8, 2011 at 10:39 AM

    In Brazil we use lye to harden the outer layer of peeled pumpkin for subsequently cooking them in a sugary syrup. The inside becomes soft, sweet and gooey and the outside forms a skin to hold the gooey sweet stuff in. This lovely sweet has a the consistency of a chocolate truffle. Delicious! Versions of it include green papaya, sweet potatoes, pineapple, etc.
    Very cool thing 😉
    weirdcombinations recently posted..garlicky limey cassava- or mandioca ao molho de limão e oregano

  17. March 10, 2011 at 7:55 AM

    I’ve happened upon the use of lye in many old cookbooks. I never gave it much thought until now. The only association I have with lye is in soap making.

    Truly an inspiring, informative post, Louann. You always do such a GREAT job of bringing more depth to the dinner table:)

    Thank you so much for your time and research, I truly appreciate your effort:)
    Louise recently posted..A Thank You and A Give-Away

  18. March 15, 2011 at 7:58 PM

    I knew about it’s use in corn but everything else has been fascinating. Learn something new every time I come by.

  19. March 21, 2011 at 4:07 AM

    This is one of those topics that I’ve learned bits and pieces about, but have never had such a thorough review. Thank you! Love that photo of the olives on the tree!
    Lori recently posted..A Dog Biscuit Cookbook- a Rescue Pug and a Fundraiser

  20. March 24, 2011 at 4:52 PM

    Informative and exceptional post as always…great video too 🙂

  21. March 28, 2011 at 4:40 PM

    I am half Scandinavian and grew up in fear of lutekfisk. Your post made lye sound much more benign–and what would I do without olives!
    I Wilkerson recently posted..Green Tip- Look into Rechargeable Batteries

  22. April 3, 2011 at 10:55 PM

    An interesting article and compilation of lye treated foods. I had never heard of lye being used in lutefish before (probably because I had never heard of lutefish). NaoH is a harsh chemical and can be very dangerous if used without proper precaution. Although I used it extensively at work I haven’t attempted it at home.
    Great music video!

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