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Making Hominy With Wood Ash Lye  RSS feed

 
Brandon Greer
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I've recently become interested in cooking hominy from scratch using wood ash lye. But after doing some reading about lye, I am a little worried about putting it on food and ingesting it! Does anyone have experience cooking with wood ash lye? How dangerous is it? I asked about it on another forum and I got a response saying "You screw this process up and it can kill you in a gruesome way." which obviously didn't help ease my concerns. Can anyone share some thoughts on this? Is it too risky to try?
 
Joseph Lofthouse
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I make hominy and masa harina using lime. A collaborator makes them with plain old wood ashes (a source of lye). Lye and lime have similar chemical properties in that they are very strong bases. Masons are careful when working with lime to not get it onto their skin, because strong bases dissolve protein, so their skin would fall off if exposed to a strong base for a long time. The effect and rate of action is very much time and concentration dependent. Someone can touch lime mortar momentarily and get only a mild drying of the skin. Touching it all day long can lead to severe injury. Putting wet hands in a bag of lime can lead to rapid injury.

Chemically, lye is more reactive than lime thus making lime safer to handle. I bet that wood ashes would fall in between.

The drying of the skin from short exposure to lime is similar to the drying from spilling gasoline on my hands. Not something I'd choose to do intentionally, but a temporary exposure to my hands won't put me in the hospital or incapacitate me.

I know that lime is dangerous. I keep the storage container away from the grandkids. I measure it carefully into the cooking pot, and use caution to not splash while stirring or by boiling too fast. I rinse my hands immediately if necessary. I don't let the spoon drip around the kitchen.

I use a colander and dump the cooking water down the drain and rinse the corn kernels before using my hands to massage the skins from the kernels if any of them are still hanging around. I haven't had a problem with my skin falling off, or the inside of my mouth dissolving.

Never use an aluminum pot with a strong base, because strong bases dissolve aluminum and release highly flammable hydrogen gas. Strong bases would dissolve the seasoning from cast iron skillets. I use stainless steel pots, spoons, and colander.

Edit to add... I love the taste of nixtamalized corn!!

 
Brandon Greer
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Joseph Lofthouse wrote:I make hominy and masa harina using lime. A collaborator makes them with plain old wood ashes (a source of lye). Lye and lime have similar chemical properties in that they are very strong bases. Masons are careful when working with lime to not get it onto their skin, because strong bases dissolve protein, so their skin would fall off if exposed to a strong base for a long time. The effect and rate of action is very much time and concentration dependent. Someone can touch lime mortar momentarily and get only a mild drying of the skin. Touching it all day long can lead to severe injury. Putting wet hands in a bag of lime can lead to rapid injury.

Chemically, lye is more reactive than lime thus making lime safer to handle. I bet that wood ashes would fall in between.

The drying of the skin from short exposure to lime is similar to the drying from spilling gasoline on my hands. Not something I'd choose to do intentionally, but a temporary exposure to my hands won't put me in the hospital or incapacitate me.

I know that lime is dangerous. I keep the storage container away from the grandkids. I measure it carefully into the cooking pot, and use caution to not splash while stirring or by boiling too fast. I rinse my hands immediately if necessary. I don't let the spoon drip around the kitchen.

I use a colander and dump the cooking water down the drain and rinse the corn kernels before using my hands to massage the skins from the kernels if any of them are still hanging around. I haven't had a problem with my skin falling off, or the inside of my mouth dissolving.

Never use an aluminum pot with a strong base, because strong bases dissolve aluminum and release highly flammable hydrogen gas. Strong bases would dissolve the seasoning from cast iron skillets. I use stainless steel pots, spoons, and colander.

Edit to add... I love the taste of nixtamalized corn!!



Thanks for the detailed reply. I think the handling of the actual lye is less of a concern for me. If worst case is a little skin burn, that's not so scary. But the idea of burning holes in my stomach and intestines freaks me out! So my bigger concern was the actual eating of the corn if prepared incorrectly. How big is the risk of messing up a batch unknowingly then eating it and messing up my innards?

Would it be possible for you to get some instructions/recipe from your collaborator? If nothing else, how much ash per corn? One recipe I saw online called for 1/2 cup of sifted hardwood ash per 2 cups of corn and another was 1 cup of sifted ash per one cup of corn - but his were softwoods which I've read aren't as effective.
 
Joseph Lofthouse
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My collaborator was taught by a traditional Mohawk Indian. She uses 1:1 Ash:corn. With ashes fresh from the stove he uses 1:2 and says that seems too strong. Cooking times are heavily dependent on the variety of corn.

After I've rinsed the corn briefly in a colander I haven't noticed the skin on my hands drying out from handling fresh hominy.

Bases are neutralized by acids... Hominy is often served in a tomato/vinegar based soup which would neutralize any residual base. The stomach is acidic, which would also neutralize any residual base, and thus protect the stomach and intestines from being eaten away... Not so much for the throat!!! NO TASTING THE COOKING WATER... The key to safety is to rinse the hominy well before eating...

Dried masa harina or hominy is not of concern, because any residual hydroxide in it absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and thus becomes inert.

 
Brandon Greer
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Joseph Lofthouse wrote:My collaborator was taught by a traditional Mohawk Indian. She uses 1:1 Ash:corn. With ashes fresh from the stove he uses 1:2 and says that seems too strong. Cooking times are heavily dependent on the variety of corn.

After I've rinsed the corn briefly in a colander I haven't noticed the skin on my hands drying out from handling fresh hominy.

Bases are neutralized by acids... Hominy is often served in a tomato/vinegar based soup which would neutralize any residual base. The stomach is acidic, which would also neutralize any residual base, and thus protect the stomach and intestines from being eaten away... Not so much for the throat!!! NO TASTING THE COOKING WATER... The key to safety is to rinse the hominy well before eating...

Dried masa harina or hominy is not of concern, because any residual hydroxide in it absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and thus becomes inert.



You have some great info indeed! You mention 1:1 Ash: corn and 1:2 ash:corn if ashes are fresh. Does this mean that the fresher the ashes the more lye they contain?

You say "The key to safety is to rinse the hominy well before eating" is there a measurable way to define "well" in this case?

It sounds to me that for extra precaution, drying the hominy would be a safer bet. Is that being over cautious or is it a best practice?
 
Joseph Lofthouse
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As soon as the fire cools down, the lye in the ashes starts absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and loosing potency. Getting the ashes into an airtight container as soon as they cool would retain the most potency.

For thousands of years, people have been nixtamalizing corn and eating it immediately after rinsing. Three to Five rinses with water is sufficient to thoroughly remove the lime/lye and residual skin. Hydroxides are highly attracted to water and only a little attracted to corn.


Mmm. Mmm. Mmm. I just got some nixtamalized frozen tortilla dough out of the freezer. Very nice! Yum.

 
Brandon Greer
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Joseph Lofthouse wrote:As soon as the fire cools down, the lye in the ashes starts absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and loosing potency. Getting the ashes into an airtight container as soon as they cool would retain the most potency.

For thousands of years, people have been nixtamalizing corn and eating it immediately after rinsing. Three to Five rinses with water is sufficient to thoroughly remove the lime/lye. Hydroxides are highly attracted to water and only a little attracted to corn.


Mmm. Mmm. Mmm. I just got some nixtamalized frozen tortilla dough out of the freezer. Very nice! Yum.



Yum, indeed! Mexican, well actually Tex-Mex, is my favorite food in the world! I can't wait to try my hand at this process!

Thanks for all your help!
 
Alder Burns
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I've also played around with homemade hominy using ashes. A couple of pointers:
---the variety of corn is important. Ordinary modern field corn won't do. It needs to be, I think, what's called a flour corn; usually white. "Hickory King" is an old heirloom that I found did well. Other varieties will swell up on cooking, but the skin won't slip off easily.
--The corn and ash need to be vigorously boiled for several hours. A solar cooker, as sustainable as it is, just won't do it. Again, the skins won't separate easily, which is part of the reason for the process....
 
Brandon Greer
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Alder Burns wrote:I've also played around with homemade hominy using ashes. A couple of pointers:
---the variety of corn is important. Ordinary modern field corn won't do. It needs to be, I think, what's called a flour corn; usually white. "Hickory King" is an old heirloom that I found did well. Other varieties will swell up on cooking, but the skin won't slip off easily.
--The corn and ash need to be vigorously boiled for several hours. A solar cooker, as sustainable as it is, just won't do it. Again, the skins won't separate easily, which is part of the reason for the process....


Thanks for the advice. I was actually looking around for a different white corn to buy. I am currently growing Reid's Yellow Dent Corn. Only later did I find out that white corn is more common for hominy as you mention. I will try Hickory King for sure.
 
Xisca Nicolas
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How useful!
Want to verify the reason why this method: is it just to get rid of the skin?
Is it because of some sort of anti-nutrient like phytic acid?
Any other effect?
Does it make it better suited for holding the masa because corn has no gluten?
Really curious to know...
 
Joseph Lofthouse
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Getting rid of the skin is a nice side-effect, but the primary reason for nixtamalization is to create niacin in the corn. Or perhaps it's for the improved taste... Hard to know.

Using lime (typically called pickling lime in North America) it takes about 40 minutes of just below boiling temperatures for the more stubborn skins to fall off my varieties of flour corn. Then I usually allow them to soak overnight before washing.
 
Jon Wisnoski
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Hello all, great thread. I am looking into making some hominy myself but am rather confused with all the extremely different methods posted online about how to go about it. As the question on how to cook is quite divergent from the point of this thread I created my own thread here and thought it would be helpful to point you experts to it. Hopefully that is alright.

Also, as to "why". From my understanding corn has such a low gluten content that corn flour is basically useless as anything other than a thickening agent. It will not bind together to make bread-like products. That is until you nixtamalize it, and that somehow makes the starches stickier and better at binding together.
 
Heather Davis
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In the late 60's and early 70's my folks lived in California and learned how to grow Indian corn from some Mexican Indian friends. They were given seed corn and grew it for many years. They moved to Maine and continued growing the corn, drying it and then making hominy, corn meal, etc as a staple food on their off the grid small farm. I grew up having tamales and homily and it was delicious. They used wood ashes and also pickling lime. Last Thanksgiving, I bought some dried blue corn that is a variety grown by the Tarahumara people in Mexico. I ordered Mrs. Wages Pickling Lime and found the directions on http://www.howtomakehominyfromcorn.com/making-limewater.html. It turned out well but is a lot of work, so I haven't done it again. Store bought prepared corn in the form of masa, canned hominy, tortillas, etc doesn't taste as good as freshly nixtamalized corn. Here is a good resource, as well: http://www.culturesforhealth.com/pickling-lime.html

We moved to a smaller property when I was a teen in the 80's and there wasn't enough room to grow hard corn and sweet corn without cross pollinating (and ruining both) so my folks stopped growing Indian corn. Recently they cleared more land, expanded their garden space and started growing hard corn again. I can't wait for fresh tamales again!!
 
Jay Angler
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Marjory Wildcraft did a bunch of postings on traditional ways to cook corn, and the production of niacin is key if your diet is high in corn and low in other sources of niacin. Nixtamalized corn is key to why native Mexicans didn't show disease symptoms related to insufficient niacin. Many traditional preparation methods do seem like a lot of work in our rushed times, but speed improves with practice as you learn ways to streamline the process that only comes with multiple experiences. Even if people didn't understand *why* things were done a certain way, frequently modern science can often find the reason and it usually comes down to improved nutrition.
 
alex Keenan
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On this thread we are talking about sodium hydroxide and potassium hydroxide.
Lye is sodium hydroxide and wood ash is potassium hydroxide.
The white stuff in the ashes tends to contain the potassium hydroxide.
In the old days they use to collect the ashes and put them in a wood crib that water could drip over the ash. The liquid would be collected filtered through a cloth and cooked down to a solid. This solid could then be store or the concentrated liquid could be used for cooking with corn.
One could get a handle on the strength of the liquid by floating a egg or something that would sink in normal water.


Picture of structure was used to leach the lye out of the fireplace ashes. Note the drain outlet at the bottom
on the left side. The lye was then mixed with animal fat and cooked to produce lye soap. Fireplace
ash was also used in the vegetable garden as an insecticide and fertilizer.
http://www.jessstryker.com/national-parks/great-smoky-mountains-national-park/
 
Sue Rine
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A few times now I've taken cooled woodash from the fire, in a preserving jar which I fill with water and leave overnight. The next day I strain the ash water into a pot and boil the corn in it. The result is delicious just as is, but blended then rolled into balls and flattened to make tortillas...mmwaa!
 
alex Keenan
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I keep a couple of Indian slightly curved three foot metal disks for my tortillas.
I use a fire ring and line the side with fire bricks. I then get a fire down to coals in the ring.
At which point I put the metal plate over the fire bricks.
Using a square press to make my tortillas and slap them on to the very hot metal plate. A flip over and you have great eats.
 
Bobby Clark Jr
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When I was a kid, my brother and I would make hominy in an old cast iron wash pot over a fire in the back yard. For some reason we used Arm and Hammer baking soda instead of lye or lime Probably our folks figured lye was too dangerous for kids use ( I agree, now!) and being a city girl ma may have thought ashes were too "dirty" to be in food. Whatever the reason, it worked. We would fill the pot with maybe 1/3 corn then fill with water and add a pound or two of the baking soda. And then, boil, boil, boil! This was a long project as I remember it, most of the day and some times half the night, maybe why it was a once a year deal. After the corn was swelled up and splitting the hulls we would dip it into a bucket and take it to the kitchen sink and rub it until most of the hulls were gone. Then part of it went into jars the be water bathed fer 3 more hours and the rest went back into the pot in the yard to finish cooking till done. We used the corn we grew, which was an old dent corn that had been in the family for 3 generations or more. Mostly yellow with red and striped colors mixed in. Did not know anyone that grew white corn at the time and wondered how they got the store bought hominy white! Ours tasted better anyway!
 
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