A baker’s tips for safely working with lye (2024)

Lye isn't used frequently in baking, but when it does show up in a recipe, it must be approached carefully. Lye can be dangerous to work with if you're not exercising caution; at the same time, it'sessential for achieving the distinct taste and texture of classic pretzels and pretzel-style buns. Ultimately, it's a good staple for serious bakers to have in their arsenal of skills.

To help with your baking, we’ve put together an introduction to the world of lye and some tips forusing it safely. We encourage you to treat this resource as what it is —a starting point —and continue to conduct additional research byconsulting reputable sources for more information on safely using lye in your kitchen.

What is lye?

Lye —also known as sodium hydroxide —is an alkaline compound used in everything from manufacturing (cleaning supplies, dyes, aluminum, paper) to food production (pretzels, cured fish, olives, hominy). With proper handling, it can be safely used in a home kitchen with delicious, impactful results that you can’t really achieve with other baking methods.

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Why lye should be taken seriously

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, sodium hydroxide is strongly irritating and corrosive. Sodium hydroxide produces an exothermic (read: hot!) reaction when combined with water. When improperly handled, it can cause severe burns and damage upon contact with skin or eyes. Inhaled sodium hydroxide can also cause internal damage, as can ingesting lye that hasn’t been neutralized during baking.

While lye can be dangerous if mishandled, proper usage greatly reduces associated risks —just like an oven, a cook top, a grill, a sharp knife, common household chemicals, and other everyday kitchen tools.

How lye is used in baking

Lye is primarily used to make pretzels, and it’s the reason for their unmistakableshiny, mahogany color. To prepare, shaped pretzels are dipped in a lye bath, then baked in the oven. This method can also be used with rolls or buns. Once lye-dipped pretzels are baked, they're totally safe (and delicious!) to eat.

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The most important aspect of baking with lye is that it’s diluted, which greatly reduces (but doesn’t eliminate) the risk of harm. Doughs are typically dipped in a solution made up of 3% to 4% (by weight) lye-to-water before baking.

In addition, bakers use food-grade lye, which is a higher grade lye with fewer impurities than technical grade sodium hydroxide. The standards for food-grade lye must meet guidelines set by the FDA, ensuring it's safe to use as directed withfood.

Tips for safely baking with lye

1) Start with food-grade lye

This one may seem obvious, but it's worth stating: Make sure you're using food-grade lye every time you bake. You can easily find it available to purchase from online sources; check for product labeling marking it as "food-grade."

2) Use proper safety gear

To handle lye, you need to wear plastic or rubber gloves, eye protection such as goggles, clothing that protects your skin from splashes or spills, and closed-toed shoes. The goal is to prevent any contact with your skin or eyes.

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3) Work in a well-ventilated space

It’s best to work in a room with good airflow and not a small, confined space in order to reduce the risk of inhaling concentrated lye fumes.

4) Use the correct equipment

You must use a non-reactive bowl, such as stainless steel or glass, when dealing with lye. In addition to the containers you use, make sure to have some rags on hand in case of a spill.

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5) Protect your surfaces

Lye may discolor wooden work surfaces (or some other surfaces, such as marble) if it comes in contact with them, so it’s good practice to put down a plastic sheet to protect your work surfaces before you start baking.

6) Practice thorough cleanup and disposal

After you’re done baking, wipe your work surface with an acid such as vinegar to neutralize any lye that might have inadvertently come in contact. If you spill lye at any point while baking, wipe it up immediately rather than waiting until you’re done to start cleaning up.

To dispose of your already-diluted lye solution, pour it directly down the drain, then follow with a few seconds of cold water from the sink faucet. If you’d like, you can neutralize the solution by stirring in vinegar or another acid before disposing, but this step isn’t necessary.

7) Work in pairs

Until you’re comfortable working with lye, consider working with someone who can help with the process. It’s always helpful to have an extra set of hands, and if something should happen, you’ll have a buddy on hand to assist with cleanup or other necessary steps.

Not ready to start using lye just yet?

If this all seems like too much, we have plenty ofoptions for boiled or baking soda-dipped versions of baked goods traditionally made with lye. Try recipes like Classic Pretzels and Stuffed Rye Pretzel Buns. If you use baking soda instead of lye, you won't get the same glistening, deep brown sheen on your pretzels and baked goods, but they'll still be delicious all the same.

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Start baking with lye

Despite the serious nature of lye, it can be perfectly safe to bake with as long as you take the proper precautions. Prepare thoroughly, follow the tips above, then try your hand making German-Style Pretzels or Pretzel Sandwich Buns.

And for more details on baking pretzels—using either lye or baking soda —see our previous post, Making pretzels at home.

Cover photo by Kristin Teig

A baker’s tips for safely working with lye (2024)


Is lye safe to bake with? ›

To prepare, shaped pretzels are dipped in a lye bath, then baked in the oven. This method can also be used with rolls or buns. Once lye-dipped pretzels are baked, they're totally safe (and delicious!) to eat.

Does baking neutralize lye? ›

(Don't worry about eating it: Baking neutralizes lye and makes it perfectly safe to consume.) Follow this guide to make your experience safe and comfortable.

Why is lye on pretzels safe? ›

In both pretzel and bagel making, the product is typically given a brief bath in boiling water, after a dip in the lye solution. The boil and/or subsequent baking neutralized the alkali rendering it safe to eat.

What to do if you breathe in lye? ›

If you breathe sodium hydroxide, get to an area with fresh air. Artificial respiration may be needed if breathing has stopped. If it is difficult to breath, oxygen should be given. Get medical help.

What not to do with lye? ›

Lye Safety and Handling

Prevent skin contact (use gloves and long sleeves) Prevent eye contact (goggles or face shield) Wash skin immediately when contaminated. Remove contaminated clothing immediately.

Are bagels still boiled in lye? ›

So in the case of bagels, imagine a ringed pretzel situation but that are boiled in a lighter lye bath, then baked. For making bagels as with any recipe it is up to your preference. Typically I'll add either a cup of ash-made lye water to 2 quarts of boiling water or a teaspoon of granulated lye.

What neutralizes lye? ›

If you get any form of lye or soap batter on towels or cloth items you don't want to throw away, rinse under running water for several minutes. And here's where vinegar IS helpful! After the towel is thoroughly rinsed with water, give it a second rinse with vinegar. This will neutralize any residual alkalinity.

Why do people cook with lye? ›

Lye water is an ingredient used in Asian and African cooking for cooking meat, rice or noodles and vegetables like corn, beans, maize or okra to soften or add flavour or keep vegetables colour. It is usually added as part of the recipe in small amounts (spoonfuls).

Are pretzels still made with lye? ›

That ultra-deep color and slightly crispy, crunchy exterior crust is only made possible with lye. Lye is what professional bakers use, and it's what's authentic in a traditional Bavarian pretzel!

What are the side effects of lye in food? ›

Sodium hydroxide is a potentially dangerous substance. It can hurt you if it touches your skin, if you drink it or if you breathe it. Eating or drinking sodium hydroxide can cause severe burns and immediate vomiting, nausea, diarrhea or chest and stomach pain, as well as swallowing difficulties.

Does lye expire? ›

Using expired lye can mean your soap won't reach trace. To avoid any wasted soap, make sure to keep your lye tightly sealed in a cool, dry place. We like to mark all of our bottles in the Soap Lab with the date it is opened. That way we can replace the lye after a year to prevent it from going bad.

Is lye ok to eat? ›

It's real name is sodium hydroxide. It is an alkali. If taken as a solid (pure sodium hydroxide), it will BURN, the skin of your mouth, oesophagus, and stomach which will suffer terribly. The saliva in your mouth will start to dissolve the sodium hydroxide into an alkaline solution, with the generation of heat.

Does Auntie Anne's use lye? ›

Well, the cheery ladies were very clear with me: they do NOT use lye. No sodium hydroxide/poison/caustic soda—none whatsoever—in their pretzels. (They do, however, dip their pretzels in a baking soda solution.) So there you have it.

Do bagels need a lye bath? ›

Well yes, lye can do that but did you also know it is used to make bagels? Some bakers will dip the bagel in a lye solution as it speeds up the process that creates the distinctive bagel crust and taste.

How toxic are lye fumes? ›

Contact with very high concentrations of sodium hydroxide can cause severe burns to the eyes, skin, digestive system or lungs, resulting in permanent damage or death. Prolonged or repeated skin contact may cause dermatitis. Repeated inhalation of sodium hydroxide vapor can lead to permanent lung damage.

Is it safe to put lye on your skin? ›

Lye is a caustic substance that can certainly damage your skin if you're exposed to it. It can cause a number of problems, such as burns, blindness, and even death when consumed. But, and this is a big but, soap that is created with lye (which is all real soap) will do absolutely no harm to your skin.

Is lye safe for human consumption? ›

It can cause severe corrosive burns to the throat, oesophagus and stomach with permanent damage if swallowed. Children who have accidentally swallowed lye water have needed urgent medical attention in hospital. By law, lye water must meet strict safety requirements if it is sold for household use.

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