The Fresh Loaf

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Lye Bagels

Stefania's picture

Lye Bagels

Lye bagel Crumb Fresh and Toasted

Latest Batch of Lye bagels


Some photographs of my latest batch of Lye Bagels.  I've been working on this for some time and feel I have finally achieved the bagels I remember as a child in Philadelphia in the 1960's.  The lox in the picture are home made, this cream cheese wasn't but sometimes it is.  I grew up in an Italian household but my mother frequently craved bagels and lox and knew the Jewish Delicatessen to get them.  I remember her stressing "novies" for the lox and then the deli manager would smile and out would come the good stuff.  The bagels were chewy and moist and did not require toasting to be edible.  I now live in the South and can't buy good bagels (lox/novies are now accessable but I prefer to continue to make them.)  Recently at a Jewish wedding in Gainsville, Florida, I was invited to the family's brunch the following day and sat at a long table discussing the bagels.  To a person they all lamented that, while good novies were available, there were no good bagels in the town, hell, the south, including all of Florida, down to Miami.  I bragged that I knew what they wanted and had learned to make them.  In May I plan to bring them a couple of batches (10 bagels to a batch).  Since I'm finally happy with the recipe (and I'm really picky) let me share it with you.

(recipe ADAPTED from "The Professional Pastry Chef" by Bo Friberg, 4th edition, 2002, John Wiley and Sons press, pp 187, 188)

All Measurements are by WEIGHT, grams for small quantities and ounces for larger ones, that includes the water, measure by weight.


7 grams Instant Dry Yeast

10 1/2 ounces of Water at 115 deg. F.  By the time you get the yeast into it in the bowl it will have dropped a few degrees.

About 1 Tablespoonful of honey (just guess but don't leave it out)

20 grams Sugar (I use raw or turbinado)

10 grams Salt (I use kosher but may try sea)

1 pound 4 ounces of High Gluten Bread Flour


Dissolve the honey, salt and sugar in a mixing bowl, when fully dissolved add the yeast and stir until its disssolved (suspended).  Add all but about a 1/4 cup of the flour and mix with the paddle.  The dough will be heavy and dense.  If the dough is not, add the rest of the flour.  change to dough hook and knead for 5 minutes, pausing to pull the dough back into the bowl if it climbs the hook and test for smoothness/density.  Add more flour if dough is sticky at all.  You should not need bench flour to work this dough after rising.


cover with plastic wrap and rise for 60 minutes on top of the local water heater, about 85 degrees F.  When doubled, place onto a board and work with fingertips and knuckles to keep a round log about 20 inches long.  Try to compress the dough and redistribute the co2 avoiding folds.  Cut into 2 inch rounds.  Poke a finger though the middle of the round and form a ring with about a two inch hole in the center, keep the ring even in thickness by pushing thin areas together and stretching fat ones.  Put on a silpat and let rise while you bring the water to a boil.  Add a ratio of 1 teaspoonful of lye crystals (available at Lowes in the plumbing section labeled as Crystal Drain Opener) to 1 quart of water, I use a 6 quart pot with 2 quarts of water and 2 teaspoonfuls of lye. You may want to start heating the water earlier so the bagels have time to rise to slightly less than double their volume before boiling.  Do not let alot of water evaporate and concentrate the lye or you will make round pretzels. (in fact for pretzels use 1 tablespoonful of lye per quart and the same recipe but roll into pretzel shapes)


Boil the bagels 3 at a time for 1 minute turning at 30 seconds with chopsticks.  Place on silpat for 1 minute or so to cool enough to handle with only minimal pain and no permanent damage.  The lye will not burn you once dissolved to this concentration (more on lye later).  Once you can handle the bagels apply topings if desired.  I put sesame seed, poppy seed, dried minced onion, dried minced garlic, caraway seed, charnuska or any combination thereof and kosher salt, or nothing, they're good plain and plain good.


Bake for 7 minutes (or until deep golden brown) at 410 degrees F. under convection, rearrange trays halfway through if your oven is uneven. Use 450 degrees F. for 10 minutes or so if no convection. Cool on wire rack, they freeze realy well.


About Lye.  I have yet to have a bagel that I would consider as even anywhere close to my childhood memories that was not boiled in lye.  Same goes for pretzels, remember I'm from Philadelphia.  So here goes my treatise on lye in baking written from the point of view of a Pharmacist, yes, I'm a pharmacist.  Lye is the strongest of alkalies and is dangerous in concentrated solutions.  The crystal form is not dangerous per se, but mix in a little water, say dampness on your skin and it will burn.  Do Not Get Crystals Or Solution in Your Eyes. Once diluted to the degree used in baking the solution will not burn the skin in brief contact (don't soak in it and rinse your hands if you get some on you and there will be no problem.) If you spill the crystals immediately dilute it with water and mop up, remember once sufficiently diluted it will not burn you.  the crystals will, however, pull enough moisture out of the air if left on a counter top or floor to form a very concentrated and dangerous solution, once again, just dilute further.  Lye, while toxic itself, does not contain toxic ingredients.  It contains sodium (Na), just like table salt and a hydroxyl group (OH) as in Baking Soda.  It just the degree of dissassociation between the OH in baking soda and lye that make the difference.  Nothing can live in lye crystals (for many reasons), so its basically sterile in the container.  Be sure the container you use states Sodium Hydroxide as the only ingredient.  I've read the discussions in the forums on this site and many other references and have come to the conclusion that lye is safe when properly handled and the only available compound to do with it does.  What does it do? It hydrolizes proteins in the flour and makes them brown by the malliard reaction like nothing else.  Or you could just say it makes things brown, tasty, and chewey.  Keep the lye container in the safest of places, away from kids and pets and accidents.  Only open the container to measure the needed amount and immediately close tightly and put away. Don't shake it up before opening and don't breath any dust. Keep it in the original container (once again, for may reasons).



Stefania (the husband half)

Stefania's picture

Correct, no aluminum pots but stainless steel is fine.  I use All Clad or heavy Bottom Belgique for any alkaline solution.  You will find that stainless is nicely cleaned by the lye and comes out shiney as new, I sometimes pick the dingiest pot to do the boiling in.  Professional brewers clean their stainless with lye (called caustic in the trade) to remove a sticky problem known as beerstone (a protein-calcium oxylate scum that clings to all equipment that holds beer.) Non-stick that's not deeply scratched or porcelin enameled steel would be ok too.

Sourdough bagels sound great.


Stefania (husband half)

nbicomputers's picture

this is from basic chemistry

if you spil the power dont use water for the clean up

first sweep as much of the powder up using rubber or any other type of protective gloves. Lye is a base you can nuteralize it with an acid such as vinagar or acidic liqued you might have like orange juice.

remember acid plus base equals water and salt.

Stefania's picture

Right you are, I re-read my MSDS.  Only one problem, what do you do with the swept-up stuff?  I actually had a spill on a tile floor and used the process I described above but forgot to mention that the final mopup was with white vinegar diluted 25/75 with water.  Man the floor got clean.  Thanks for your input.



nbicomputers's picture

you will have a very clean drain

meryl's picture

1 teaspoonful of lye crystals to 1 quart of water  /boil for 1 minute.

Is there a weaker alkaline (i.e., sodium bicarbonate) which could be used equally effectiveley by increasing its concentration?


alconnell's picture

I have been a fan of lye since I started making pretzels.  I don't feel any other method makes them taste the same.  I bought a container of food grade off an Internet Web Site.  Once dissolved, it can be used repeatedly so it doesn't cost much.  Not sure if you can re-use it after boiling for bagels, but I don't see why not.   I was warned away from drain opener lye since it isn't food grade, but what folks need to remember most is that is VERY diluted.  Also, many homes have it kicking around in their utility closets. 

Alton Brown has some recipes that use baking soda instead of lye and he claims they work as well as lye.  But i am a believer in the tried and true.  And lye is easy to handle safely. 

I will be trying this for my next batch of bagels!  Thanks Stefania! 

Stefania's picture

I've seen and tried many substitutes for lye including baking soda, malt powder, egg wash, etc. and have tried several.  Most of the substitutes will give you the color but none of them will give you the chewey crust and the flavor that lye does. 

My mother used Red Devil Lye after we moved south for bagels and pretzels which was readily avalable at any hardware or grocery store.  Recipes still call for Red Devil but it was never food grade.   Shortly before I began my quest for bagels the manufacture of Red Devil was stopped and very quickly disappeared from store shelves.  It was a year or more before I was able to find the Crystal Drain Cleaner at Lowe's through an internet search.  During this time I tried everything that looked like it might work and was disappointed at every turn.

I would gladly use food grade lye if I could get it at a reasonable price (shipping is astronomical in cost) and if anybody knows where to get it let me know.  I don't worry about the product I'm using because I researched it thoroughly, including getting the MSDS off the internet.  Lye is Lye (sodium hydroxdide) and I don't know of any other toxins except heavy metals that could survive the manufacturing process.  Technical grade, USP, and food grade are simply labeling and testing standards to assure the compound meets their requirements and could come out of the same batch and vat as my drain cleaner.

As for Alton Brown, he starts out using lye but is quickly stopped by his lawyers in the pretzel episode who force him to find a substitute. I was all excited until Itchy and Twitchey showed up.



bpezzell's picture

You just opened up my world a little bit!

As to ingredients, how do you feel about whole wheat and multi-grain bagels?

beeman1's picture

I really don't understand the chemistry. But would Calcium Hydroxide work? It is available as a food grade chemical.

Stefania's picture

Calcium Hydroxide (slaked lime) is use to make nixtamal and is called "Cal" by the Hispanics.  I keep cal as "pickling lime" for making nixtamal for tortillas, tamalies and pozole.  This won't work for bagels as the pH of the dissolved powder just isn't high enough.  However, if you have never made nixtamal, its a blast.  All you need is some high starch corn.



Oldcampcook's picture

I checked with Low'es here in Tulsa and they told me that they no longer carry it (since about 6 months ago) as it is an ingredient used in meth.

I did find it at ACE hardware, however.

And I went to a brew shop and picked up some malt syrup and now on to trying bagels for the first time.


nbicomputers's picture

don't use drain cleaner!!!

you want to use pure lye pure enough for food use.

It can be found here

Stefania's picture

When dissolving any concentrated acid or alkali you should add the compound to the water to reduce splattering or sputtering.  I always add the lye to cold/cool water and then bring it to boiling.


I too went to my local Ace Hardware and found the shelf space but it seems that a soap maker bought all they had.  It was $3.99 a pound and they are to have more by Wednesday.

alconnell's picture


I tried a little experiment, boiling a few bagels in lye solution(1 tsp to 1 qt. water) and most in the malt/sugar solution using Peter R's BBA recipe.  The lye ones browned much more and I actually cooked them a bit less.  The poppy seed on the right was boiled in lye. The taste was quite similar, though the lye ones were a bit softer from less cooking.  Will try again using an even milder solution.

tikidoc's picture

It has been a bit since I bought lye, but most places that sell soap making supplies sell lye.  Just do an internet search for "soap making supplies" and you should find it easily.

sewcial's picture

OK. I decided, based on this thread, to try lye for bagels. I had a bottle of lye water left from pretzels (so maybe it was a bit strong), so I heated it up to a rolling boil as per the instructions in the bagel recipe. I gently slipped a bagel into the water and it exploded into a volcano of foam all over my stove. Fortunately, it did not go onto my laminate counter next to the stove. I now have a very clean half of my stove, The bagel turned a bright yellow brown immediately and, after baking, it was *dark* brown and tasted like a pretzel.

When I make pretzels, I do not boil the pretzels. I use a cool lye solution in a glass bowl, dip the pretzels and drain them, then bake them. They are great. Do you really *boil* the lye water and the bagels -- same question for pretzels?  What keeps it from foaming up into a volcano when the dough meets the boiling lye water? I realize now that the lye solution for bagels should be about half as strong, but I still fear it will boil over. My pan was not full, less than half way up the saucepan (stainless steel). 

After that first disaster, I cleaned things up and  I boiled the remaining bagels with some malt powder in the water. I like the way they turned out much better.


MiserDD's picture

I have to disagree with the first step of the recipe "Dissolve the honey, salt and sugar in a mixing bowl, when fully dissolved add the yeast and stir until its dissolved (suspended)". 

When using dry yeast the yeast should always be rehydrated prior to adding any kind of sugar.  Adding the sugar first will stunt the rehydration of your yeast and give you a lower activity rate.

 Not a problem for those of you out there using yeast cakes or liquid yeast.

s_l_cal's picture

I have used this recipe twice in the past few weeks.  I have made bagels a few times over the years.  This process definitely yields the best

I ever made.  20 minutes out of the oven, it was the best tasting bread I ever had.


bpezzell's picture

This article covers an alternative to using lye that I have found very effective over the past several months.  I've made over 30,000 bagels by hand during the past 4 years and this tip has given me the best results so far.

LindyD's picture

Transport in a paper bag, never, ever in plastic.  

You can bag them as soon as they're out of the oven, or allow maybe four or five minutes of cooling.  I'd get them there ASAP as the crust stays crispy for only so long.

Be forewarned, though, that if you are taking public transportation while carrying a bag of freshly baked, warm bagels, you'll make lots of new friends!

dosco's picture

I made a second batch of bagels (made the dough friday and boiled/baked this morning) ... I added 1 teaspoon of sodium hydroxide per quart of water.


The bagel crust smells and tastes like German soft pretzel.


I presume this indicates I used too much lye? The previous batch of bagels did not smell or taste of pretzels ...





gary.turner's picture

I prefer a little lye in the boiling water along with some malt or molasses. The 3-4% by weight you'd use for pretzels is too much IMO, for two reasons: 1) you're not making pretzels, so a pretzel taste is not appropriate, and 2) the lye in boiling water is much more chemically active.

I've pretty much zeroed in on .75% lye by weight, that is 7.5g of lye per each kg (liter) of water. There is only the smallest hint of pretzel taste, while the crust  is noticeably more crackly than when no lye is used.



kkeydel's picture

I’ve been baking bagels at home for over 10 years and even though they’re extremely satisfying (and popular), they still didn’t quite match up to the bagels I’d get from a classic East Coast deli. I thought that always using baking soda instead of lye may have been the reason. 

Well, I do think that boiling them in a lye solution has gotten me closer, HOWEVER...I can tell you it’s possible to use too much. I’ve made two batches after switching over to lye and the consistency is definitely an improvement. For the first batch, I used about 1 tbsp of sodium hydroxide to 6 qts of water. After boiling, the bagels were a very light color - about the same as if I’d used baking soda. I ended up baking them for about 20 minutes (too long) to get a nice rich brown. They were delicious, but the crust was hard and crunchy. It wasn’t quite right. 

For my second batch, I used 3 tbsp for 3 qts of water and they looked golden brown after boiling. This time, I baked them for 10 minutes to get a nice dark golden brown color. The problem is, they tasted like pretzels and the dough was really soft inside. Don’t get me wrong, they were delicious, but way too “pretzel-ly”. I think the reason was because the lye solution gave them too much color - I didn’t bake them long enough. 

Yes, I’m going to do this again, but I’m going to cut the NaOH by a third and see if that doesn’t get me where I want to be. 

As for my Sodium Hydroxide, I’m using Crystal Drain Cleaner - the label says 100% Sodium Hydroxide. Now, maybe there are some other metals in there (Cadmium, Mercury, Arsenic) but I seriously doubt it. Those aren’t chemicals that could legally be omitted from the label. It definitely does the trick.