Lye water is created by dissolving lye, an alkaline agent, in water. It has many uses that range food preparation, cleaning, soap manufacturing and fungus identification. For something so ubiquitous finding suitable substitutes is not easy and will come down to the purpose for the intended substitute. Difficult, however, does not mean impossible and there are substitutes for lye that you can easily find in your regular supermarket or make at home. We will focus on substitutes for food-grade lye water though you are welcome to use these lye substitutes in non-food applications as well. Let’s take a deeper look into how lye water is made and its properties to understand how and where we can use the substitutes
What is Lye Water?
Lye is an alkali combination of a metal hydroxide that has caustic properties. Caustic meaning it is corrosive to other materials by way of a chemical reaction. Popular examples of lyes are lithium hydroxide, sodium hydroxide and potassium hydroxide. They are used for the chemical reactions in baking, food preparation, directly on cleaning, in the manufacture of cleaning chemicals and the identification of fungal growth. Lye water is made by dissolving lye in water to create a solution that is referred to as lye water. It is used to cure foods such as olives, hominy, pretzels and Japanese Ramen noodles. In the case of pretzels for example the lye water is used to treat the outside of the pretzels to make it extra hard and crunchy. So what are the possible substitutes for lye water and which applications can they be used in.
Baking Soda Solution
If you’re baking and need lye water but are unable to find it or don’t have the time to go out and get it the first and most appropriate substitute is a baking soda solution. The humble baking soda can be used in place of lye to create a solution that will substitute your lye in many baked recipes. Making this solution is very easy as all you will need is baking soda, water and pot to boil the solution in. You will need to match the amount of water in this solution to the amount of lye water required in the recipe. For every 4 cups of water, you will need one teaspoon of baking soda. Place the mixture in a pot and boil over high heat for 5 minutes. Make sure the boiling water does not overflow as this will affect the concentration of the baking soda in the final product. Once the 5 minutes are up you need to allow the mixture to cool. Now you have a lye water substitute ready to use in your baked recipe.
Another good substitute for lye water in food preparation is water boiled with hardwood ash. As odd as the treatment sounds it is one of the more traditional methods of treating food. When making traditional masa harina in Mexican cooking, this ash water was used in the process of nixtamalisation. The maize is boiled in this ash water solution and then cooled before grinding it into masa harina. The type of ash needs to come from a hardwood tree to be most useful in this process. To achieve the best quality you will also need soft water, rainwater is great for this. Simply boil the ash in water for about half an hour. Then allow the water to cool while the ash settles to the bottom of the pot and carefully scoop out the lye water on top. You can also strain the water if scooping it out seems a bit arduous.
As mentioned before lye water is used for its alkaline qualities. While both the baking soda solution and hardwood ash water are alkaline they are nowhere near the levels of lye water made with sodium hydroxide. So while both make decent home made substitutes you will find that they are not perfect replacements. Where they may be found wanting is in recipes like pretzels. Lye water is used to harden the outside of pretzels. The lack of alkalinity means it will not carry out the chemical processes as well as commercially sold lye water so you must bear this in mind. The hardwood ash solution has the disadvantage of providing you water that is discoloured thanks to the use of ash. You can get rid of some of this pigmentation by filtering the ash water to catch all the ash particles. You may also get a subtle hint of ash which in many cases not strong enough to be a problem.
If you’re looking for a lye substitute you have two options available. The easier of these is boiling baking soda in water and allowing it cool. Baking soda is easily available. The other option is boiling hardwood ash as was done in traditional recipes that use lye. These substitutes are viable for most purposes but are limited by not being as alkaline as lye water.