How to Make Your Own Woodash Lye

Four quarts of homemade lye made from hickory and water oak ash (separately).

Four quarts of homemade lye made from hickory and water oak ash (separately).

A note of caution: lye is caustic, and though the first batch of woodash lye you make will not be as strong as commercial lye, it should still be respected and handled with extreme care. Properly label your materials, wear rubber gloves when handling, and always keep out of the reach of children and your pets! And if you get any one your skin, run that area under cold water until it no longer feels slippery (that slippery feeling is the lye corroding your skin!).

One of the most important ingredients for making traditional hominy is woodash lye. While both commercial lye and pickling lime can be used to remove the hulls and to nixtamalize your kernels, I think they have a subtle yet different flavor from woodash lye. I think maize that has been soaked then cooked in the latter tastes woody–that should come as no real surprise. Using either pickling lime or commercial, food grade lye creates a distinct alkaline taste, but lacks that subtle woody flavor.

Based on ethnohistoric accounts as well as ethnographic interviews, it also seems that different woodashes produce different flavors. Couple this with the different flavors and textures that different flint maizes have, and you could spend an incredible amount of time perfecting your hominy recipe!

For my dissertation, I made two batches of woodash lye–one from pure hickory woodash, and one from a mix predominately of water oak but also some laurel cherry ash. Based on my research, I discovered that no source from the Eastern Woodlands specified using oak ash, a surprising find since oak are the most numerous hardwood throughout the region. Hickory, on the other hand, was frequently mentioned.

The ash I used was collected over the winter of 2014 by my advisor, Jim Knight, and his wife, Judy. Before I could make lye, I had to screen the ash, removing any larger particulate matter (i.e., charcoal and unburned pieces). I used a steel collander for this.

Two buckets I used to make woodash lye.

Two buckets I used to make woodash lye.

Once I had relatively fine, clean ash, I needed to acquire a few materials: 2 3.5 gallon food-grade plastic buckets with lids, clean Mason jars with lids (to store the lye; or any other non-reactive containers), a pH meter (which you won’t need, but I wanted to know how strong the lye was), a drill with a 1/8″ bit, and two small screws.

First, I drilled a small hole in each bucket about an inch from the bottom that I could plug with a screw. One site recommended a nail, but the method I used made a tight seal, and no excess lye escaped. After I made a hole in each bucket, I plugged them with the screws.

Next, I packed 9 cups of clean ash into the bottom of each bucket. You really do want to pack the ash as tight as possible–this slows the draining process.

lye making steps

Lye making steps. Top: ash compacted into bucket. Center: boiling water added to ash. Bottom: the solution after the ash has settled.

Once the ash was packed, I brought a large pot of water to a boil. One site recommended filling the bucket with half the amount of water it could normally hold–so, about 1.75 gallons per bucket. Once the water was boiling, I slowly poured it into the ash bucket. The ash will bubble and it may even hiss when you do this–no worries, that’s what should happen. I added all the water, I covered the bucket and set aside for an hour, or until the water had cooled.

While waiting for the mixture to cool, I found two (empty) terracotta planters on my patio to use as a bolster under each ash bucket. You will need to elevate the buckets high enough to fit your Mason jars underneath the hole you drilled. Once the ash has cooled, and once you have your bucket elevated and a glass jar placed underneath, you can remove the screw and begin making your lye. The first few drops that come out will be a bit ashy, but after that, you should have nice, amber or yellow colored liquid dripping out.

With only a drop or two every ten seconds, it will take several hours to fill your container. When I did this, it took about six hours to fill a one-quart Mason jar. I made two quarts per ash container, though I could have made more. What I found interesting was that the two lyes were different colors–the hickory lye was a deep amber, and the water oak lye a yellow. And, for each, the second Mason jar of lye was lighter than the first.

If you want to make stronger lye, you can pour your collected lye back into the container and drain it again. However, the lyes I made were more than sufficient to soak and cook hominy in!

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