Is Lye Necessary to Make Bagels?
Professional bagel makers use scientific principles to get a crispy brown exterior that customers enjoy. One way that some bagel makers do that is by dipping uncooked bagels in a lye solution before cooking them.
Lye, or sodium hydroxide, is sometimes used to make bagels because it speeds up the Maillard reaction. This is the process that browns the dough and creates a distinctive brown crust and a signature bagel flavor.
Lye is very alkaline and can be toxic and corrosive alone. This is why bagel makers wear gloves and goggles when working with it. If a bagel is dipped in a lye solution and then cooked in an oven, the dough gives off steam and carbon dioxide that react with the lye. This forms a benign carbonate, so the bagel is safe to eat.
If you want to make bagels at home but do not want to use lye because of its corrosive nature and the protective measures it requires, there is an alternative. You can use a baking soda solution. Baking soda is not as alkaline as lye, so you will not get the exact same crust color and flavor, but it is a good enough substitute.
You can increase the baking soda’s alkalinity by baking it first. This will get you a flavor that is closer to the one produced with lye. Pour a layer of baking soda on a baking sheet covered with foil and bake it at 250 to 300 degrees for an hour. About a third of the baking soda’s weight will be lost to water and carbon dioxide.
After you have baked the baking soda, put it in an airtight jar so it will not absorb moisture from the air. Do not touch or spill it because it can cause irritation. Dissolve 2/3 cup of baking soda in 2 cups of water, immerse the bagels in the solution for three or four minutes, rinse off the excess, and cook the bagels.