Expert Bagel Maker Confirms: You Don't Need Lye To Make a Good Bagel

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Yesterday I introduced you to Mary Ting Hyatt of Bagelsaurus and her seriously delicious bagels. At one point in her bagel making process, I observed her dip a pretzel bagel into a lye solution, and I had to ask: is lye really necessary for bagels? I think lye is kind of scary to deal with at home, so what's a home bagel maker to do?

Mary dips a pretzel bagel into a lye solution, but she doesn't recommend that for home cooks.
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A Little Background on Lye

What does lye do, and why it is sometimes used to make bagels? Lye is basically sodium hydroxide, which is very alkali and very corrosive and toxic on its own. (Hence why Mary wears gloves and goggles when using it!) When a bagel or pretzel dipped in lye solution goes into the oven, the lye reacts with the carbon dioxide given off by steam from the dough and forms a benign carbonate, which makes the bagel safe to eat.

But why use lye in the first place? The baseness of lye speeds up the Maillard reaction, which is the browning of the dough, and creates that deep brown crust and distinctive flavor you get with pretzels, and which is a nice characteristic for bagels. It's hard to replicate that look and flavor with anything else, but according to Mary, there's one solution that gets close...

Baked Baking Soda!

A common home alternative to lye when making pretzels or bagels is to use a baking soda solution. This isn't an ideal substitute, though, because baking soda on its own is still way less alkali than lye, and doesn't offer that distinctive crust and flavor.

The solution? Bake the baking soda!

Apparently if you bake baking soda, it increases and intensifies the alkalinity. While it doesn't have quite the same flavor as lye, it gets much closer to it than straight baking soda.

I did a little sleuthing of my own and found this 2010 article by Harold McGee in The New York Times that confirms this very thing. From For Old-Fashioned Flavor, Bake the Baking Soda:

Thanks to the simplest chemical magic, you can cook up a more muscular and versatile alkali from your cupboard. You just bake the baking soda...

Just spread a layer of soda on a foil-covered baking sheet and bake it at 250 to 300 degrees for an hour. You’ll lose about a third of the soda’s weight in water and carbon dioxide, but you gain a stronger alkali. Keep baked soda in a tightly sealed jar to prevent it from absorbing moisture from the air. And avoid touching or spilling it. It’s not lye, but it’s strong enough to irritate...

Baked soda does a much better job of approximating true lye-dipped pretzels. Just dissolve 2/3 cup (about 100 grams) in 2 cups of water, immerse the formed raw pretzels in this solution for three to four minutes, rinse off the excess dipping solution in a large bowl of plain water, and bake.

So there you have it! You can make great bagels and pretzels at home without having to deal with lye. Have you ever tried this tip?

(Image credits: Cambria Bold)

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