After becoming comfortable making bagels using a baking soda bath, I noticed several comments online that “real” bagels are made with lye. Of course I had to try this. Baking soda is sodium bicarbonate, a reasonable alkali that serves to help give bagels their characteristic crust and chewy texture. Lye is sodium hydroxide, a much stronger alkali, and a bit harder to find in food grade quality (though not that hard: Amazon has it).
The key is that you have to be a bit more careful. Lye can be quite caustic when concentrated, and most online resources recommend using protective equipment (at least gloves and some sort of eye protection). While the concentrations used for bagels are not as high as those used for pretzels, it’s best to play it safe.
So decked out in latex gloves and my largest pair of glasses, there I stood with an 0.8% lye solution boiling in a stainless steel pot on my stove (that’s 8g, or about one teaspoon, per liter of water). Following my usual recipe, I added the bagels for a minute, flipping them after 30 seconds. It probably ended up being a bit longer because of my efforts to be extra safe. The bagels developed a yellowish hue that they didn’t have after being boiled in baking soda.
I baked my usual 5 minutes at 500° F followed by 6 minutes at 450° F. As expected, the crust was considerably browner, due to the facilitation of the Maillard reaction by the lye. However, the bagels were also softer and end ended up quite chewy. I’m not sure how much was the lye vs a slightly higher dough hydration this time around. At this point, I’d say I prefer the baking soda version, but I plan to try the lye again in the future with a shorter boil and a longer cooking time.