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Food Based Lye vs. Baking Soda for making authentic German Pretzels?

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guerrillafood's picture

Food Based Lye vs. Baking Soda for making authentic German Pretzels?

I am an American that lived in Germany for many years, and misses the breads of Munich so much. I have a European culinary apprenticeship under my belt and countless years of restaurant experience, but I am not able to recreate “simple” German pretzels. I find that there is a phenomenon in the American bread world. I find everyday breads in supermarkets and even artisan bakeries that look identical to European breads, but when you pick them up and take a bite, they are much softer, and well… weaker breads.

The same things happens with my pretzels. I have tried literally a dozen recipes from American baking books and even from German books written in German. And they come out looking exactly like German pretzels, but the crust is always softer than in Munich. In Munich the inside crumb is soft and supple, but the brown crust is deeply brown with a crisp crackle.

My big question is about food grade lye. Will this save my pretzels? I’ve been using a baking soda/water boiling solution before I bake the pretzels. If I switched to lye, would that make the crust better? Baking soda is an 8 on the pH scale, which is only slightly alkaline, while Lye is a 13-14 which is about like the strongest alkaline you can find. I’d hate to spend a month and $50 tracking down some food grade lye, only to find out that it is a huge hassle that produces the same or worse results than baking soda.

Can anyone help?


alconnell's picture

If you do a search for this in this forum, you'll find supporters of both camps. I, for one, use the lye and feel it makes all the difference.  The baking soda just doesn't give it the authentic taste and browning.  It is not cheap to buy because of quantities, but it lasts forever.  I use like 3-4 tbsp per liter of water, which can be used over and over.  Everyone loves my pretzels!

Now, if you could help me with my kaiser rolls.....

guerrillafood's picture

Thanks for the tip on lye. I did do a search and read through what some are saying. I guess what I really should have asked is more about where to buy lye? I went to the hardware store looking for "Red Devil Lye" as it talks about in some of my books. But now I think I heard a rumor that this lye is discontinued. And now I am reading about "food-grade lye" on this website. I certainly don't want to boil my pretzels in a toilet bowl cleaner, so now I am really confused. Also, if this stuff is so poisonous, then it seems like even 3-4 Tbsp diluted into a liter of water would still be poisonous. 

 Anyway, if you could tell me where you get your food-grade lye from (if it's the web, which website?), and if you could calm my mind about poisoning my customers, students, family, and self... I'd be forever appreciative. 

Ha! Yeah, Kaiser Rolls are my next hurdle. I saw the photos of Floyd's in the gallery section and in the recipe section of this website, and they seem to be top notch. At least they LOOK top-notch. That is always my problem with breads though. They very often look great, but don't have that crispness or that special something that European bakeries have.

alconnell's picture

Here's one place:

As I said, it is not cheap but that is a lifetime supply.  I've also heard you can buy it at craft stores with soapmaking supplies.  Now as to safety, lye is sodium hydroxide.  It is used in soap making and for drain cleaning.  It is also used in making pretzels and tortillas, or so I'm told.  I use the powdered form, which would burn you quickly if you came in contact with it.  I always wear rubber gloves.  In it's diluted form, if you dip your hands in it, they might get irritated, but again, I wear the gloves.  You also want to use glass or plastic, no metal when handling or storing it. 

I make pretzels with my 8 year old daughter all the time.  She is not allowed near the lye, which is kept way up on a shelf in the laundry room.  I do all the dipping from the sink and use plastic utensils to remove them from the bowl.  You can put them on parchment or the silicone mats and then bake them.  It is safe when properly handled.

Aah, Kaiser Rolls....The NY German Delis have such good ones.  I've tried most recipes, but haven't reached nirvana yet (no offense to Floyd - his are great!)


goetter's picture

My sister the soapmaker buys her lye in 50 lb sacks.  I'll have to ask her if she's shelling out $2000 for those sacks... horrifying thought.

guerrillafood's picture

Well if she is, tell her to get into the retail business and start packaging it in small quantaties for bakers. I'd gladly throw her five bones for half a cup or so. But $40 plus shipping is pretty steap.

goetter's picture

My sister's soapmaking lye isn't food grade (or "pharmaceutical grade" in the terms of her supplier).  I figured as much after she quoted the ridiculously low price she pays for a 50lb bag.  Sorry to tease so.

moochoo's picture

as it applies to basic chemicals, this 'food grade' myth has gone far enough.

if  one is making the items at home, privately, and not selling them commerically, for example a statutory business, then the soap-making lye works, as long as it just labeled sodium hydroxide. It doesn't need a special 'food grade' approval mark from some probably corrupt licensing or regulatory establishment (i.e. FDA), which also exists on the commercial side.

If a professional soapmaker, and it is chemistry, is to depend on the raw ingredients, there can't be adulterants in it. Baking is also chemistry.

Adulterants tend to show up in food for the cattle, i.e. humans (not men). These labels are also designed with them in mind. So make it yourself and source the ingredients yourself, and know and maintain a private trust relationship with the baker, et al.

Disclaimer: I don't eat meat. So I treat the cattle well.

dscheidt's picture

Mercury is a contaiment in quite a lot of lye intended for industrial use.  It's present in levels that are unwise to consume.  Wouldn't make a bit of difference to opening a drain or making soap, or most of the industrial uses of NaOH, but sure might to your brain.

moskaluk's picture

I'm a chemist and lye can cause a lot of damage.  If you do use it and I recommend that you don't.  Have some vinegar nearby to neutralize it.

Instead, you can make your own sodium carbonate (washing soda) which while not as basic as lye, it is more basic than baking soda.

You can make your own washing soda by baking "baking soda"

The NY Times had a good article on doing this.

"The Curious Cook

For Old-Fashioned Flavor, Bake the Baking Soda"

by Harold McGee


"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 is also strong enough to make a good lye substitute for pretzels. In order to get that distinctive flavor and deep brown color, pretzel makers briefly dunk the shaped pieces of raw dough in a lye solution before baking them. Many home recipes replace the lye with baking soda, but the results taste like breadsticks, not pretzels."


The entire article is worth reading for some good kitchen chemistry.

copyu's picture

is pretty safe, so good advice, there...but watch out for the 'commercial' stuff, because it can often contain half a dozen different compounds, apart from the usual Na2CO3...Commercial washing soda is, therefore, not usually recommended for food-stuffs

The same goes for painters' "Sugar Soap"'s alkaline, turns fats into soap fairly quickly and makes a great wall-cleaner (and is usually a 'cocktail' of 5-6 alkaline salts) but not usually recommended for foodstuffs

"Washing Soda" and Chinese "Lye Water" are basically the same; pH about 11-12,  which is good enough for soap-making. I don't know if it's strong enough for pretzel-making, but could very well be! (I haven't tried it...)

Chinese "Lye Water" and Japanese "Kansui" powder make great noodles and MIGHT be strong enough to make good, tough-skinned, brown pretzels. They contain some Potassium Carbonate, as well...(about 70-30 parts Na to K carbonates respectively...and a few other Na/K salts) The pH is a bit over 12 when mixed with water, but quickly drops to a lower level (hypothesizing: as the carbonates become BI-carbonates, perhaps?)

Baking soda (Sodium Bicarbonate—NaHCO3) is lousy for pretzels and Chinese noodles, because it's barely more alkaline than tap-water or sea-water...pH about 8.0-8.8. (Sea-water 'tops out' about pH8.4; tap-water from around the world would average around pH7.9-8.3 without softening and double-filtration...)

Tentative conclusion: Plain water is probably as effective for noodles and pretzels as water with NaHCO3 (baking soda) in it...Your mileage may vary, as we used to say...


PS: I'm not a "chemist" but my hobbies and my "DIY life-style" means I need to know these things just to stay alive...or, at least, alive and happy! ;-) c.


rotiboi's picture

It's easy enough to get a bottle of alkaline water where I live (from a bakery store) but there are no instructions about whether it needs to be diluted for an alkaline bath for pretzels. If anyone is familar, it's the Red Man brand from Phoon Phuat. Any help?

tananaBrian's picture

I don't think the Red Devil and other 'cleaner' or 'drain unclogging' type of lyes are being discontinued but they've become less popular as other products have become safer and more effective.  Drano and others have similar compounds in them, but exist in a less reactive form that's safer... the aluminum bits in the lye products react with the sodium hydroxide, are caustic, and produce hydrogen gas.  Some evil-minded people have been making bombs out of the stuff by putting it in those 2-Liter plastic bottles, with water in one end, the lye powder in the other, and lay them on people's lawns.  When the home owner picks up the 'trash', the water and lye mix and produce a tremendous amount of gas and the bottle explodes ...splattering the strong caustic solution all over the home owner.  I've heard that some areas are trying to outlaw the stuff because of this issue.  I doubt the food-grade lye contains the aluminum bits that are necessary for the reaction...




copyu's picture

contain aluminium pellets, to make the reaction more violent.

Plain old NaOH (caustic soda) works OK, too. but there is a MUCH bigger and better reaction with Aluminium, hence..."Drano" et al...


Bill_the_Baker's picture

If top quality Lye is what your looking for, check out , their lye is far superior to others and gets the job done perfectly! Essential Depot is the only place i will get my Lye!

harrygermany's picture

Hi guerrillafood,

I am German, and I try to give you some information.
Sorry for my poor English.

First a recipe for "Laugenbrezel"
The hydration is very low (only 50%), but that is OK.
You will have a rather dry and stiff dough.

500 g wheat flour
250 g water
21 g fresh yeast or a pouch (7 g) dry yeast
10 g salt
5 g sugar
coarse crystalline salt

1/16 gallon (250 ml) soda lye

About the soda lye:
It should be sodium hydroxide solution (NaOH) 3%.
Caution! That lye is dangerous. It etches most metals and your fingertips, too.
Wear disposable latex gloves when you work with it and use it in a plastic container or a plastic bowl to dip the Brezels. You can use it many times and store it in a glass bottle.
DO NOT WARM OR BOIL !!! Only use it cold.
For baking you need a thick anti-adhesive foil or a very well greased baking sheet.

In my country (Germany) you can buy it in a pharmacy.
The quality must be something like "food purity". "Technical purity" is not enough.
100 g of sodium hydroxide cost about 8 USD.

Solve the yeast in the water, add all ingredients and knead for 9 minutes.
Let the dough rest for 10 minutes.
Then form 6-12 Brezels.
Dip the Brezels in soda lye. Wear disposable latex gloves!!!
Put the Brezels on a well greased baking sheet, cut the thick parts, salt with the coarse salt and let the Brezels prove for 20 minutes.
Bake with 390°F for 22-25 minutes.


Everyone is a stranger somewhere -
so don´t give narrowmindedness or
intolerance no chance nowhere.

guerrillafood's picture

Vielen Dank für deine Hilfe. Dein English ist schon sehr gut. Wahrscheinlich viel besser als mein Deutsch. Aber ich übe sehr gern. Also, jetzt schreibe ich auf Englisch, denn es gibt hier so Viele die kein Deutsch können. Ich will nicht unhöflich sein.

Thanks for your recipe. Now if you just had a good recipe for Schwarzbrot like I always had when I lived in Munich. 

I'm glad you told me about the food-grade lye, and that I shouldn't boil it. Now my only problem is where to buy it. On the internet I have found Lye online at the International Scientific Supply Services:

But it costs $40 and comes in 3 lb. batches. I need maybe 3-4 Tbsp at the most. Then I found Lye at the Green Bulldog:

They sell if for "home bio-diesel production". It is MUCH cheaper $18.99 (this includes shipping!!!) for 1 lb. But as you pointed out, I can't rest assured that it is food-safe.

So, although I'd love to try out the lye, I can't see myself paying $40 + shipping charges for a trial. So if anyone knows of a cheaper place to buy food-quality lye, please let me know.


Noch mal, vielen Dank.


alconnell's picture


I will mail you some if you like.  Send me an email (remove the dashes)

Another recipe for German Pretzels:



guerrillafood's picture

I sent you an email about the Lye. Let me know if you didn't get it. But the recipe for Laugebrezela II looks fantastic. The "green dough" aspect of it is something I never expected but makes perfect sense now that I see it. And making a large pizza shape and cutting the dough into triangles to be rolled up into ropes to be shaped into pretzels... absolute genius idea for not over developing the gluten by pulling, stretching, and rolling little balls into ropes. And slashing the "belly" of the pretzels is something I've never done, but now that I see it, every pretzel in Munich had that tell tale bursting slash mark. Now I can't wait to find some lye.

I went to the chemical website suggested earlier in this post and found the lye that he ordered in 1999 for $38. It is $75 now for the same 500g. Things seem to be getting worse. Well, I live in Athens, GA which is a really big college town with UGA two miles from my house. I think I'm going to email the Family and Consumer Science Dept, and see if they don't maybe have some Sodium Hydroxide in bulk. If not, I guess I'll just have to save up a month and make the plunge for the $75 bottle. Scheiße!!!

Thanks for your help!

alconnell's picture

Here's another site which wasn't around when I bought mine for $40!

 Not sure what micro beads are, but it is food grade and probably comes with MSDS sheets and warnings.


Antilope's picture

Here are working links for the above German Pretzel Recipe posted by alconnell, on The Wayback Machine (www. cs. uml. edu /~dm / brezla /):

Laugabrezla I

Laugabrezla II


JERSK's picture

   I was at the King Arthur Flour store in Vermont and they had food based lye on the shelves. I just remember it because I'd never seen it before and wondered what it would be used for. It seems like it wasn't a very big container. I don't know if it's safer than the stuff they use in Drano. I'm sure you can contact them and they can tell you what you need to know.

pmcgrah608's picture


 A nutrition forum (yahoo group microbial nutrition - all about fermenting foods, etc.) I subscribe to had information about Oriental Grocery stores that sell a pre-diluted food grade lye.  It looks like a Korean product in the photo.

 Also, I am a soapmaker and I buy lye for about $3 per pound.  I buy in small quantities so that is not discounted.  Thanks to meth makers, it's almost impossible to find lye in the grocery or hardware stores any more.

 Good luck with the pretzels!


goetter's picture

Their soapmaking lye (at $75 for a 50 lb bag) isn't suitable for pretzels.  To quote an exchange I had with my sister, who priced it for me:

<blockquote>He hadn't heard of food grade lye, but after I described what you wanted to do, he figured maybe it was pharmaceutical grade lye that you needed. He kinda freaked out a bit when I said that "my customer" wanted to make pretzels with a lye bath, and he said that he definitely would not go there with the product that he sells me.  He also said that pharmaceutical grade lye would be very expensive. He asked if I wanted him to try to find some for me, but I figured that you don't need 50 lbs.</blockquote>
GabiGabi's picture
rgruenhaus's picture


Much less expensive.

AndreaReina's picture

I would like to second AAA chemicals as a supplier. Their 2-pound bottle should last you a while, and they do have a food-grade version available. No hazmat fees is another great plus.

ErikZ's picture

I'm so excited to have found this thread! I've put in an order for the 2 pound food-grade lye.

A friend of mine wanted to know how to make pretzels. Between "Laugabrezla II" and the lye, I can hardly wait! :D

I can't imagine how difficult doing something like this was in the days before the Internet.

Also, Instead of a super non-stick foil, why not just put down a light layer of salt? I've found that if the dough isn't too wet, the huge salt granules stay intact.

MiserDD's picture
Indy Bob's picture
Indy Bob

When I lived in Germany (it was West Germany at the time so you know it was awhile ago) we could get these fantastic rolls from the local bakeries.  Looked and tasted like they were made from bretzle dough. Has anyone tried to make these with this recipe?



rradzik's picture

I find that food grade lye makes a big difference when you make pretzels.  I found a source at:  They charge $4.95 for twp pounds, but the shipping to my address in Georgia brought my order up to $14.74.  This still isn't bad.  They do have a 10 pound offer that includes shipping for $39.99.  That is only $4.00 a pound including shipping.

doctormarje's picture

Yesterday, I found a lengthy discussion on The Fresh Loaf about making authentic Bavarian-style pretzels. And I mean long. I read the whole thread, though, because I love sourdough, I love to bake breads, and I thought it would be fun to try my hand at pretzels. I wanted soft pretzels, crisp outside, made with sourdough starter. I read all the opinions (pro AND con) about lye baths, baking soda baths, to boil or not, etc., etc. What an education. I ordered food grade lye from Anyway, taking all that I learned yesterday, and some of the sourdough starter I've been nursing on my counter, I made my first batch of sourdough pretzels. It's a very simple recipe, no sugar, no egg washes, and no boiling liquids. But I did use a cold water lye bath, and with the results today, I am very impressed with the texture, crustiness, and inner consistency of the pretzels, and they have that wonderful sourdough aroma and flavor. What fun! No angst about the lye; I figured if I'm really interested in baking exceptional products, I could spring for the 6 bucks it cost to buy 100 powder-free latex gloves at our local restaurant supply store.

Thanks to everyone who posted to the thread; I learned a lot!

mkrishnan98's picture

How long can you use the lye solution?  And when you are done with it what is the safe way to dispose of it?  Down the drain?  Into a storm drain?

MiserDD's picture

Lye or "sodium hydroxide" is one of the three ingredients in Crystal Drano and one of the two ingredients in Liquid-Plumer, it is safe to dump it down the drain.

rradzik's picture

Lye is one of the most important ingredients in making German Pretzels.  As posted above, I too get my lye from essentials depot on line.  They are reasonable in price, ship quickly and have great customer service.

When making the pretzels, be sure to place a slit in the dough in the lower portion (largest) of the pretzel.  This helps the dough to breath and to release excess moisture, giving you a better outside crust.

I have been doing this for years and also went through the learning process.  Depending on where you live, you may have to adjust your oven temperature and baking times to offset the effects of altitude.


halfrice's picture

you can buy lye water from chinese supermarket.

wawkiku's picture

The reason you want to be careful about where you get your lye is that there are still chlor-alkali plants in the USA, Europe, and elsewhere in the world which use 19th-century vintage technology to produce sodium hydroxide by bubbling salt brine through vats of mercury. The resulting lye can contain up to 1 part per million of mercury, which is a dangerously large amount. Believe it or not, the US Food and Drug Administration allows this mercury-laden lye to be used in food processing.

Mercury can cause mental illness as well as a wide variety of auto-immune disorders.

In the old days, people made their lye from wood ash, and that would probably be the safest way to go.

MiserDD's picture

..."dangerously large amount"... by who's standard, you just said the FDA considers it safe enough to allow food labeling to go on it, which means they pumped a ton of it into a rat with no negative results.

If you're going to post fear statements, please be considerate enough to state a reputable source to back up your comments, as well as an alternative purchase location.



moochoo's picture

why trust people who work for a for-profit corporate commerical entity like the FDA?

yes, it's listed on dun & bradstreet just like MCDONALDS.

Do you trust MCDONALDS name to deliver a real hamburger?

Do your own due dilligence and quit trusting 'FDA approval' as though it's some magic. Only magic for the cattle who believe it.

Claimer: I don't eat cattle.

MiserDD's picture

Replied to both below.

wawkiku's picture

Sure Miser, here's a link to an independent report.  It focuses specifically on high fructose corn syrup which has been contaminated with mercury from caustic soda (chemical name sodium hydroxide, also known as lye).

According to the report, you would want to source your sodium hydroxide from chlor-alkali plants that use the more modern membrane cell technology. In the link below you can see that only 13% of the caustic soda produced in North America is made with membrane cell processing. Another 13% is still manufactured with mercury cells, whereas the remaining 71% is produced using diaphragm cells which may contain asbestos, which, as we know, causes cancer.

MiserDD's picture

Wow, this is getting political.  Weather you trust the FDA or any other "Corrupt" government or private company is not the point.  If it is FDA approved, whether or not it's from a government source or a private source, it was suppose to be handled a certain way (i.e. not use the same scooper you just used for the arsenic).  Non, FDA approved sources have no such requirement.  I'd rather use a source that is suppose to follow certain handling guidelines and faces fines if they don't, than one that is under no such requirement.

I do eat cattle - as well as every other meat; and having lived much of my life in third world countries, I can tell you that FDA and MacDonald's standards are about a 1000% higher than the "natural" foods I often have to eat with a hand full of antibiotics to wash them down.

copyu's picture

Not 'officially', anyway!

However, the same political lobbyists that badger politicians can have a similar influence on the FDA's decisions

If you or I made a 100% puffed rice (or puffed wheat) cereal and slathered it with multi-colored and artificially-flavored cane sugar, (to appeal to elementary-school kids) we could lobby the FDA to have it branded as having "Whole-Grain' goodness (to appeal to the parents who buy the breakfast foods...) and we'd probably succeed...many others have.

Perhaps I just agreed with you...

My tip: It's probably best to avoid any food (or food-like) product that makes 'health claims' on the package. That's nearly a sure sign that the contents are tasty, but over-processed 'muck' that you wouldn't feed to a dog (even a dog that you didn't like)  



highmtnpam's picture

We lived for some years in Memmingen, east of Munich.   Do you have a recipe for what was called 'Brown Bread'?  I have tried several and have not found one close enough to what I remember.  T

Thank you so much, Pam


cheshire-cheese's picture

Great thread.  I've only just started to try to make pretzels.  I'll be looking out for lye in the UK.

copyu's picture

that we just can't seem to drop from our's not quite "meaningless", yet, but an extremely confusing term

Think of it as just an abbreviation of 'al-ka-LI'. Every liquid you test will be either alkaline, acidic or neutral. That means: if it has a pH lower than 7.0 (which is the pH of pure water), it's "acidic"; if it has a pH of over 7.0  then it's "alkaline". However, that alone does NOT mean it will make good pretzels. (eg: sea-water is 'alkaline' doesn't react well with pretzel dough, however...)

German pretzels are made with food-grade NaOH, sodium hydroxide, a very strong and dangerous alkali (caustic soda). A strong solution goes up around pH14 (the MAX!) Soap-makers use it, as well as KOH (which is potassium hydroxide) and the latter seems to be the more common for soap-makers, these days. I don't know why, exactly—perhaps it's the cost? I've never seen KOH recommended for pretzel-making, or any other baking, so personally, I'd forget about that one

Our ancestors made their own wood-ash 'lye', which is usually a tad stronger (higher pH) than baking soda, but nowhere near NaOH in strength. Similarly, Chinese 'lye water' is also 'wood-ash' (soda-ash) or commonly, a mixture of sodium carbonate and potassium carbonate. OK for noodle-making and a little bit stronger than baking soda. I doubt it would be as effective as NaOH for pretzels. If you use a weaker alkali, you may need to soak (or simmer) your pretzels in your alkaline solution for a longer time, which may not make the best pretzels. I've never tried it

On US websites, I've seen food-grade NaOH for $4.99 per 2lb. In Europe, it's much more expensive, but they only ship to a few locations—Germany, Austria and either Switzerland or Holland...I forget which. My relative in Germany ordered some and shipped it to me among some other baking-related supplies



moochoo's picture

local chemistry supply for teachers. Where one can get beakers and other scientific supplies.

Cost: about 8 bucks for 100ml of 47% KOH.

I use KOH because it's more traditional. NaOH is a 20th century thing.

Also I got a few drops of KOH on my skin, the 47%, and no burns. Didn't even notice it.

moochoo's picture

thanks. and i did talk with someone wiser than me on the issue and he said yeah, be careful.

it doesn't burn like an acid, he said.

Went to the chemistry supply today. It's 18 bucks for a liter of NaOH or KOH. Or 9 for 100ml... grrr i needed 600ml for my chemistry project it turns out... nothing left over for baking.

I read the article link. I'd still go with KOH if I had the choice, it seems more traditional. I like the vibe more. The next trip would be to make it myself out of wood ash.

KYHeirloomer's picture

Just worked through this thread, and I'm really confused.

Can't speak for Europe, but food-grade lye is readily available everywhere in the U.S. Just go down to the nearest hardware store. I get mine at the local ACE, for instance. Cost's less than four bucks for a pound---which lasts two days longer than forever.

I think we sometimes get carried away in our search for ingredients.

BTW, I've made Bavarian style pretzels using both lye and baking soda. I'll take the lye, any day, for that hard, shiny crust. Baking soda, on the other hand, is great for bagels.

Bread Buddy's picture
Bread Buddy

Please explain how to use the lye when making pretzels.  When I have used baking soda, the formula read to boil the pretzels in the baing soda/water solution for 30 seconds.  Here I have read not to heat the lye in water, or use a metal container.  What is the process?  If the pretzels are just dipped into the water solution are they to be boiled afterwards, then baked?  I understand the lye solution provides the shinny hard crust, but I think the boiling provides the chewy inside.

Does anyone have a formula for the soft pretzels using lye with the full details on the method and the proportions of lye to water?


copyu's picture

Add lye pellets or powder to water, slowly; NEVER add water to lye

Use 3% to 4% [MAX] solution

Make sure lye is FULLY dissolved before dipping pretzels. It can take time

ALWAYS use glass (or plastic) containers for dipping

Wear rubber gloves and splash goggles for safety

Keep well away from children and VERY far from anything ALUMINIUM. Best to avoid ALL metals

Dipping is fine, if you can manage it safely, or use a NEW pastry brush to paint the lye on the pretzels. Leave them for a while on parchment or a wooden board (follow your formula) before adding salt or seeds and slashing

Store lye solution in a plastic bottle with a tight-fitting lid and clearly labelled, preferably with a scary warning (or tip it down the drain in the bathroom's drain cleaner!)

Check txfarmer's blog for good dipping, shaping info

Hope this helps!


crazyknitter's picture

My first experience with pretzels were in Germany.  My father was in the Army and we were stationed in Germany.  I fell in love with them!

So, my first and only attempt at making pretzels was dissatisfying.  And I believe it had to do with the lack of lye.
Now I have got to try it again with the lye.



KYHeirloomer's picture

One comment on copyu's post: Lye will stain wood a lovely black. So, if you use wood as a work surface, don't use your good cutting boards or wooden peels.

Bread Buddy: After shaping the pretzels let them sit in the fridge overnight, so the surfaces become dry and crust-like. Then---following copyu's mixing and safety instructions---prepare the lye solution. If you're using lye crystals, dissolve 1 tablespoon in 1 cup of water to achieve the proper solution. I've not used anything else, so can't help with proportions when the lye is in other forms.

Wearing rubber gloves, dip each pretzel in the lye solution for about 15 seconds and transfer to a parchment-paper lined sheet pan. Top with seeds, salt, or whatever, and bake as usual.  

You can find the entire procedure (along with a pretty good formula) in the Culinary Institute of America's Artisan Baking At Home, published earlier this year.

One other word of caution: When working with lye, allow no distractions. Turn off the phone, kick the dog outside, send the kids to grandma's for the duration. Used with proper precautions lye is perfectly safe. But it can be incredibly dangerous if you let it be.

copyu's picture

I spent a good part of 10 years in my younger days, stripping paint and varnish, by hand, from the so-called "red pine" [some dark-colored Baltic softwood] in my first house in Australia, built about 100 years ago...13 paneled doors (=26 architraves!) skirting-boards 12 inches tall in seven rooms, coved architraves with little pyramids in each corner...beautiful woodwork, but a PITA to strip the paints and stains!

Caustic soda would make the beautiful, dark wood turn a nasty, dark-gray and also affected the (animal-glue) joints...a friend of mine, who was a chemist, sent his doors and skirting-boards out to be dipped in caustic soda and then spent many months bleaching, then re-staining them to the original color...

I'm probably the only person of my generation (in that city) to do the job completely by hand! (Hooray for me? Maybe I'm stupid!) Most of my other friends just gave up, removed everything and replaced the woodwork with modern reproductions...they had more money than I did, though...

Thank you for the reminiscence (and the great advice!),



Bread Buddy's picture
Bread Buddy

Thank you for explaining the dipping process and other helpful hints.  I have been wanting to try using lye for pretzels and bagels but have been very apprehensive.  With your suggestions and cautionary statements, I think I have the information I need now to give it a try.

just_me's picture


I would just like to let everyone know that you can find food grade lye on  I am a soapmaker and just bought some on eBay from Essential Depot.  Hope this helps.

polo's picture

Same stuff is on Amazon, $5 for 2 lbs. Not sure what the e-bay shipping cost is, but the Amazon is high ($11). 

mrfrost's picture

2 lbs shipped from ebay is about $13.50. That's $4 for the lye plus about $9.50 shipping.

SeligmansDog's picture

I have a phd in synthetic organic chemistry and have made large scale drugs for human use (Abbott labs) and this poster is correct.  The specifications on food grade and technical grade, e.g., Red Devil, are almost identical, food grade might be slightly more pure, maybe it has slightly less carbonate.  

There is no lye that posts specifications of mercury and to say it's in there is a guess.  If you really believe food grade is better, you can get pretty small qtys on Ebay pretty cheap.  

moochoo's picture

it's what I've been saying all along.


Food grade for the paranoid or marketing/PR obsessed.


standard chemistry grade for the rest of us. Hint: our bodies are chemistry reactors. If the wrong thing goes in the wrong thing comes out. Same as table-top chemistry. Can't have noticable contaminents either way.


edit: I'm unsubscribing from this thread. I honour (accept, realize) your choice to be picky, and pay more, so and as I honour (accept) my own choice, not to give a rat's a55.

asicign's picture

If a heavy metal is a contaminant in a product, it's not going to show up on the ingredient list.  However, the 'food grade' version of a product has been tested to ensure that contaminants are below the allowable limit.  The technical version of the same product is not tested for contaminants, so it's a safer alternative to go with food grade even if it's more expensive.

polo's picture

I started out boiling my bagels in a lye solution (one tbsp/quart) and was using drain cleaner (labeled 100% NaOH). It was just fine. I suffered no ill effects and I believe the stuff is just fine to use. That being said, I now use the food grade variety.

I found that people seem to be put off by the fact that you use lye in the process to begin with, I figured they would really croak if I asked them "please hand me the drain cleaner, yeah that's the stuff, the bottle with the big skull and crossbones on it".

The lye I got was the stuff they sell on Amazon. Two pounds for a little less than $5, shipping is almost $12 (not $25!). It is labeled as high quality, food grade NaOH and it is Kosher certified. I'm glad I got it, but if I were the only one eating the bagels, I would of stuck with the drain cleaner.

copyu's picture

...but we 'humans' have this innate, hard-wired fear of "CONTAMINATION", especially when it comes to food and drink

If our ancestors hadn't had that fear, we obviously wouldn't be here, talking about it now, on the internet! However, humans, as a group, despite our lengthy education, don't have much better understanding of Math than birds or dolphins do...

If you told me there was 0.000006 grams of a very toxic, cumulative pesticide in my salad, that kills 30 out of every thousand people who eat it, my 'gut' feeling would say, "Eat something else!"

It would probably take my brain a couple of weeks to work out that my 'second choice' (grilled fish, or a steak with veges, say...) was probably twenty times more 'toxic'...but that's Math and that's 'human nature'. Math and human nature are not really very compatible in my humble opinion...





Davefs's picture

Speaking of toxicity,On the TV program "My strange addiction"recently they had a woman who had been eating Comet Cleaser daily for YEARS.Her main problem was ruined teeth.

Amazing what the human body can take!

Kind of makes the horror some see in using lye seem a bit overblown.

Of course I'm careful and did spring for the food grade stuff.

tananaBrian's picture

It said $12 when I tried getting some from Amazon too, but then during the check-out process it said they couldn't ship it to Alaska.  Through a different seller that I found that WOULD ship to Alaska, they said they had to smack the hazmat fee on it.  Maybe its because even so-called "ground" shipping to Alaska tends to go by air, that we have to pay a fee that people in the Lower 48 don't ...assuming they use ground shipping only.  Dunno...  I ended up buying a couple of pounds from a local scientific chemical supply house in Anchorage and paid a dear price, but a price that was a couple bucks cheaper than having it shipped up here on my own.



polo's picture

that there must have to be some compensatory inconvenience involved to live in such a beautiful state. I didn't realize that you lived in AK.

SeligmansDog's picture

@asicign  Residual heavy metals isn't on the label of either grade, one can't easily verify what tests were run on either, what you said is a guess.

@polo knowing what I do, I still use the food grade just so I can tell people I used the food grade, makes my friends feel better.

asicign's picture

@asicign  Residual heavy metals isn't on the label of either grade, one can't easily verify what tests were run on either, what you said is a guess.


If a company markets a product as food-grade, they are aware of the specifications that that label implies.  They are also aware of the possibility of lawsuits if their product fails to comply.  Technical grade of the same product does not have to meet that standard, and can be cheaper at least for the reason that the manufacturer didn't have to run the QA tests.


MiserDD's picture

Lye sale until Friday July 1st.  About half of normal price.

Bill_the_Baker's picture

Hey everyone, just wanted to stop by and remind you that Essential Depot ( ) is selling high quality food grade lye, 2lb's for 3.44 ... A very good price!! 

Bill_the_Baker's picture

Hey everyone, as i recall i believe that we were on a discussion of whether to use baking soda or lye for good pretzels, i may be a bit late on the subject but i was making some pretzels the other day from a recipe oi found and tweaked a lil bit and quite amazingly these pretzels were pretty darn good! as much as i would love to share the finished product i cant, but i can do the next best thing and share the recipe! so here ya go! enjoy! ..oh and may i add, for those of you who stray away from lye, dont be so finicky! agreed, this stuff is a bit touch and go, but as long as you take the proper precautions you will be cookin with lye in no time!

2 envelopes dry yeast
1 qt. milk, 2% is fine
1/2 c. warm water
3/4 c. shortening (I mix lard & butter & flavored Crisco)
1/2 c. sugar
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
12 c. all-purpose flour, unsifted
1 1/2 tbsp. salt
Coarse salt to sprinkle


2 level tbsp. lye
2 quarts. cold water

Soften yeast in 1/2 cup water. Scald milk. Stir in shortening. Cool . Add yeast with 6 cups flour. Beat, vigorously. Cover, sit in warm place until risen , this takes just about 30 minutes.

Add remaining flour, baking powder, salt and sugar. Mix until well blended. Turn out on smooth surface. Cover with moist towel 3 minutes. Knead until elastic. Put in big kettle. Cover with towel.  Put in warm place and Let rise until it has doubled in size, usually takes  1 1/2 hours. Punch dough down and let stand for 10 minutes. Cut into quarters then Cut quarters into 12 pieces. Cover with towel. Roll each piece into long strip for twisting. Place on stainless steel baking sheet, then put one at a time, pretzels on slotted, stainless steel lifter, dip very briefly in lye, usually a 3-5 second bath, drain on lifter and place back on sheet. As soon as cookie sheet is full, sprinkle with coarse salt. Bake in 400 degree oven until brown, about 15 minutes. Place on dry towel to cool. Cover twisted pretzels with towel until half raised.

IMPORTANT: Lye creates a volotile reaction with aluminum! aluminum sheets or dipping tool CANNOT BE USED. Also, I spray sheets with Pam, so there is no sticking.

Bill_the_Baker's picture

and please dont hesitate to share any renditions or tweaks to this recipe,  id love to hear new ideas, good OR bad comments and anything else!

Bohemian Mama's picture
Bohemian Mama

I found liquid food grade lye in a chinese grocery store in cairns Australia,, perhaps other Aisan food stores may stock the same product.


copyu's picture

Our ancestors made their own wood-ash 'lye', which is usually a tad stronger (higher pH) than baking soda, but nowhere near NaOH in strength. Similarly, Chinese 'lye water' is also 'wood-ash' (soda-ash) or commonly, a mixture of sodium carbonate and potassium carbonate. OK for noodle-making and a little bit stronger than baking soda. I doubt it would be as effective as NaOH for pretzels. If you use a weaker alkali, you may need to soak (or simmer) your pretzels in your alkaline solution for a longer time, which may not make the best pretzels. I've never tried it

drips's picture

Inspired by all of the great posts on here I found my way to a video of the SuperPretzel being made. They use lye solution heated to 160°F/71°C and pour it over the preztels as they travel along the conveyer. I don't think they'd bother to heat it unless it was beneficial. Possibly due to the relatively short travel time under the wall of liquid(?). It was stated in an earlier post that the reason for using boiling water with baking soda was that the heat made the reaction more active. So maybe heating lye is not as important as heating soda due to it's higher pH, but it could still get you a little bit more of that sweet Maillard reaction action you are looking for. There's an endothermic reaction when the lye and water are mixed so it heats up a bit anyway.

I've only done boiling baking soda thus far but I see no grave danger in mixing up a warm lye bath, as long as it's comfortably below boiling. 

polo's picture

..........had any trouble with a boiling  lye solution when making bagels. What is the perceived danger?

tananaBrian's picture

Splattering hot caustic solution?  Even if not very strong, I don't think I'd want that in my eyes... :(




polo's picture
polo splattering plain boiling water into your eyes? I wouldn't want either to tell you the truth.


drips's picture

I tried the baked baking soda method I found on this site today. I can't say that I noticed a marked improvement in flavor or texture to justify the extra step. I can say that after baking, the soda particles were very fine and light and dusted up all over the place if disturbed at all. I had fine dust all over the area in which I was working with the baked soda. I won't try this technique again as I'd rather use chunky lye crystals than a super fine powder that can get in your lungs and eyes. It may have been in my mind but I swear my lips felt funky for a few hours after working with it.

Here's a chart I found with the pH of various bases including sodium bicarbonate (baking soda), sodium carbonate (baked baking soda) and sodium hydroxide (lye). 

drips's picture

Finally got my lye and made a batch of pretzles. I think that the flavor was slightly better than with a hot baking soda dip but without A/B-ing it it's hard to say. I do think that in some ways the lye was easier. No simmering pot like with soda, and MUCH easier to handle than baked baking soda (which I think is not worth the hassle and due to the floating particles was potentially more dangerous). Got mine on Amazon (Red Hot Devil food grade). 

I will say that the few drops of lye solution I dribble on the counter left marks on the laminate surface, but I rent, so... Found a calculator online that gave me the pH for a 4% solution as about 11.5 which is comparable to ammonia. 

MiserDD's picture

As an owner of rental property… I guess that’s something else I’ll have to start checking for on checkout.

copyu's picture

The "online calculator" you used is quite incorrect, I'm sorry to say. The pH value it gave you is ridiculous for "Red (/Red Hot) Devil" Lye. This product has a value closer to pH14 than pH11-12, which represents an alkali from several hundreds to a thousand times stronger. You quite correctly stated that the pH of ammonia is around the figure of pH11 or so.  The "Lye Water" sold in Chinese grocery stores for making noodles is about the same value and so are 'baked baking soda', 'washing soda', 'sugar soap' and other cleaning compounds and home-made ("wood-ash") alkalis.

Drain cleaners, paint-strippers and the traditional 'soap-and-pretzel-making' alkalis are much more powerful, by several orders of magnitude. (That's probably why the counter-top was marked.) Please use "RD" or "RHD" carefully!

If you have any pH measurement equipment and find the solution of "RD" measures lower than pH13, it may be that you have been impatient—the stuff I use is a little bit more 'coarse' than supermarket white sugar, but it takes quite a bit of time to fully dissolve, even  in distilled or purified water. The "bead" type takes much longer and, if you use regular tap-water, it may take longer still...

Best wishes,


PS: check out txfarmer's pretzel blog on TFL for more info...


drips's picture

Thanks for the info. I had seen that lye was about pH13 but didn't realize that a 4% solution would still have such a high alkalinity. TFL folks always come through on the knowledge; that's why I love this place!

The RHD lye is the bead-type/granular and tends to clump up at the bottom of the bowl but I always stir it/wait until it's fully dissolved. I also started keeping my dipping bowl in the sink to protect my counters :-)

henkverhaar's picture

4% NaOH is 40 g/L or as good as 1 mole/L (1 M). 1 M NaOH is, almost by definition, pH 14... Note that there's no such thing as the pH of a substance, i.e. 'lye' or 'ammonia' doesn't have a (single) pH. pH is defined by the concentration of the akali/base, as well as its strength. Sodium and potassium hydroxide, and several other alkalis/bases are strong, and the pH of an aqueous solution is in fact defined ONLY by their concentration. Ammonia is a (somewhat) weaker base, and therefore pH depends on concentration and a measure of its strength. Regardless, I can easily make a solution of ammonia or lye in water with a pH of 12, or 10, or 8...

Oh and (food grade ;-) ) lye works wonders for pretzels...

Oh, and don't get me started on wood ashes and soap. As in, you can't make soap from fats and wood ashes. Period.

catlick's picture

I make Nancy Silverman's pretzel recipe from "Breads from the La Brea Bakery" and I think they come out perfect!  Crisp thin crust, and I always use the lye solution.   They are the ones on the right.  The ones on the left are Redheads recipe.  Little softer texture, but good.

Ohsick's picture

I don’t know the difference between utility grade  lye and food grade lye,  but what I have been using is “Gillett’s lye”  that is noted on the container to be “100 % pure flake lye.”   It doesn’t say ‘food grade.’    I just have taken for granted that you couldn’t get any better.

On the other hand, I just ordered one and half lbs of “Food grade lye from Essential Depot in Florida and on the specification sheet they emailed me the break down of their Sodium hydroxide.

Spec.                          Weight %

NaOH ……………….  96    min.

Na2O…………………74.4  min.

Na2CO3………………1.6   max.

NaCI…………………..2.2  max.

Fe……………………....0015 max/     

Now I’m not a scientist so maybe someone can tell me if this Food grade that I just ordered is  in any more food grade than the lye I have been using that says that its 100 % pure?

gary.turner's picture

NaOH is very hygroscopic and very reactive. It is almost impossible to package it in pure form. Except for the elemental Fe, all those are normal results of reacting with water and its trace elements.



Ohsick's picture

Has anyone ever tried blending whole wheat flour  into the standard white flour?    How do they turn out?


MiserDD's picture

I've tried varying amounts of wheat, but using more than 1/4th by weight gives them a thicker texture then I care for.

dosco's picture

So what did you end up trying? Did it work?


Just to recap, you can get good potassium or sodium hydroxide from Essential Depot, and yes, the shipping is expensive.


Washing soda can be purchased at your local grocery store ... it is made by Arm and Hammer and can be found in the aisle with the laundry soap. I use it extensively as an additive for washing clothes.


Finally, if you're looking to try drain cleaner, Roebic brand is sold at Lowe's and, is far as I can tell, relatively pure hydroxide (especially when compared to Red Devil).


If you haven't yet tried a "pure" hydroxide, I echo the safety comments made by others in this thread. Keep some water and vinegar handy when handling it, and wear rubber gloves and eye protection. I made a batch of soap and tried the "zap test" (put a drop on your tongue) ... I got a very very nice chemical burn on my tongue. It hurt, it looked horrific, and took about a week to heal. Not fun and I shudder to think what would happen if that stuff got in someone's eyes.




goer's picture

Never heard of it. I thought lye was lye. :)'s picture


Hello there!

I would like to address your concern about looking for a food based lye. Some Filipino desserts use lye water too. So there at Asian markets, you can find lye water in small quantities! :)

and or you can use this recipe too!


Steel_Wind's picture

I loved this discussion. Read all of it. I am in the lye camp and have put out feelers through a professional baker client of mine to find a source of micropearled lye in the Toronto area in smaller, non-commercial quantities (Bringing 25 kg of sodium hydroxide into my home is basically HazMat in that quantity and a non-starter. FWIW, Sodium hydroxide is stored within desiccation vessels in a lab environment. My wife, scientist that she is, would go nuts if I have it around in quantities larger than a vitamin jar. And even then...)

One thing that was only obliquely referred to was the proffered observation that before the NYC Bagel became known for blanching the bagel in malted water before baking, the European version of the bagel may well have evolved from being dipped in lye as well. The products are very similar, after all.

We can fight about the desirability of whether a bagel should be dipped in cold or boiling 3% lye instead of malted water another day. But what has me interested is whether anybody has tried to bake their pretzels, pretzel salt, poppy seed or sesame seed side down for the first 3 minutes on well soaked burlap covered bagel boards, and then flipped the pretzels over on to their bottoms on stone to finish off. I think that might lead to a very pleasing texture and finish. 

And yes, that would be the exact approach used when baking NYC bagels. This makes sense to me and, better still, gives me yet another reason to put together some bagel boards (as I have planned to do anyways)

Anybody tried this approach when making pretzels or heard of it being done that way?