Generic usage of lye varies from soap making to cleaning to industrial and chemical uses. Of course, people know that lye can be used as a preservative in food processing, but many abhor from it considering the possible harmful effects. However, there are several benefits to lye water and this article will elaborate on some of its food processing uses.
All about lye water: Lye water is nothing but caustic alkaline water. As you all know, lye or Sodium Hydroxide is the strongest alkaline, which when mixed with water, forms one of the strongest alkaline solutions. Liquid lye is nothing but lye mixed with water. The mixing generally happens at a controlled temperature where lye is poured into water. Lye water, though mixed with water, is highly hazardous. It can cause severe corrosive burns in the throat, oesophagus and stomach if swallowed. Sometimes it can be fatal conditions in small children and pets. When spilled on skin, it can lead to skin corrosion or depletion. When inhaled, it can harm the respiratory system. In brief, lye water can be as harmful as concentrated sulphuric acid on any surface it contacts. But such a caustic liquid can also be helpful in preserving a lot of food stuff.
Lye water uses in food: Lye water finds high rate of usage in Asian cooking. It is both a preservative and an essential ingredient in the making of food products. It breaks down hard fibers and makes them easy for cooking. Often you do not cook the food items in lye, but use lye to soak or marinate them before cooking. In Chinese foods, lye plays a big role. It is used to produce dumplings, steamed pastries and as an additional leavening agent to add to that extra lift. Sometimes, it is used with ammonium carbonate to make the dough crispy and prevent dumplings from getting soggy. Pretzels and bagels are soaked in lye bath before baking. This not just makes the dough crispy, but also makes it brownier and tastier. Sodium Hydroxide or lye is an important ingredient in the making of Hominy Corn too. Corn, water and lye are either boiled or kept still overnight to make Hominy Corn. Lye opens up the corn by loosening its skin and eyes. After washing off the lye and seasoning with salt, the corn is ready for consumption.
How to make lye water? An old time method of making lye water is to drip water through ashes or caustic potash and then, collect the leached off lye in a separate container. Our ancestors used eggs to measure the consistency of lye. An egg floated on top of water if there is too much of lye in the mix, while it sunk to bottom if the water content dominated the lye. Since wood ash-lye water method is pretty old and difficult to practice these days, you can make lye water by mixing lye with water. When you do this, be careful to pour lye into water and not water into lye. This is because lye into water does not make a splash, while the vice versa can create fumes all over. To avoid issues, use cold water which can alleviate the heat produced. Wear protective gear like heavy duty rubber gloves, eye wear, respirator and long sleeves while handling lye even if you are using it for cooking.
Warnings while using lye in food: Lye water is caustic and hence should be handled with care. When you soak or bathe your food item in lye water, ensure that you cook them (boil, bake or fry) completely before consuming them. Never touch a food item with un-gloved hands after a lye bath. Use Food Grade Lye (FCC) to make lye water for food processing. Only in Food Grade Lye, the arsenic percentage is lesser (3 mg/kg) compared to Tech Grade or other lye.