Some of the alkaline materials used to make hominy are dangerous as purchased. Once diluted to a pH of around 12, per these recipes, they make the same strength solution and are much less dangerous. Even when diluted, all can damage eyes and shouldn't be ingested!
The pH scale is lograthmic: a pH of 12 is 10 times stronger than pH 11, a pH of 13 is 10 times stronger than pH 12.
Baking Soda--not considered dangerous.
Pickling Lime (CAL, Food Grade Lime)--dangerous only in eyes or to skin with extended contact
Sodium Hydroxide (Lye), Potassium Hydroxide, and homemade lye from ashes are very dangerous before dilution and require special handling. Before using, read the detailed cautions below.
Alkalines Commonly Used to Make Hominy
• Baking Soda aka: Sodium bicarbonate, sodium hydrogen carbonate, NaHCO
This is the safest chemical that can be used to make hominy but it isn't very satisfactory with whole corn. It takes about 16 hours of simmering, the hulls are only partially removed, and the hominy has an unpleasant flavor. Four hours of boiling does a better job of removing the hulls but the unpleasant flavor remains. I haven't been able to find references indicating if baking soda is a strong enough alkaline to improve the nutritional value of the corn.
• Pickling Lime aka: Calcium Hydroxide, CA(OH)2, CAL, Food Grade Lime, Edible Lime, White Lime, or Chuna. Mrs. Wages Pickling Lime is the most common brand and can often be found in the canning section of grocery stores.
This is the best choice for those making hominy for the first time. It's much safer than Sodium Hydroxide (Lye) and the results are as good or better as with lye. (It takes longer but most of that is resting time.) However, you don't want anyone coming home and sampling your hominy-in-process! The solution is about pH 12.5
- "Mrs. Wages Pickling Lime" is commonly available in the canning section of grocery stores
- CAL is commonly found in grocery stores with a large selection of Mexican Foods
- White Lime, or Chuna, can often be found in Asian-food markets
The precautionary statement from the Mrs. Wages container:
Caution: Prolonged contact with hydrated lime may cause irritation or burns to wet skin. In case of contact with eyes, flush throughly with water Call Physician.
Warning: You do not want: Calcium Oxide, aka Quck Lime. You do not want construction grade versions of Calcium Hydroxide commonly called: Slaked Lime, or Slack Lime. (They are used in plaster and mortar and contain impurities.)
Note: Garden Lime is crushed limestone or crushed chalk and is not useful in making hominy.
The hominy recipe at Anson Mills calls for soaking the lime by itself for 5 hours so that the solids can separate from the liquid. This avoids consuming any lime solids which can reduce stomach acidity and could possibly have other effects.
Making Lime Water (takes 5.5 hours, this can be done in advance but make sure the clear liquid is labeled and stored so that it can't be ingested.
- Add 10 cups of water to a stainless steel (or enameled) pot of about 6 qt capacity. This is a different pot than what you will cook the hominy in. It should be easy to smoothly pour the liquid out of it--see steps below.
- Bring to a simmer.
- Add 1/4 cup Pickling Lime and stir with a non-reactive spoon.
- Cover and let rest for 5 hours
- The pH of this solution is approximately 12.5
- There will be a skin on top of the water and white solids on the bottom. You want to use the clear liquid in between.
- Make a simple filter using a paper coffee filter and a mesh strainer.
- Place the strainer-filter in a stainless steel (or enameled) pot of about 6 qt capacity that can be used to simmer the corn.
- Slowly pour the lime-water from the soaking pot through the strainer-filter into the simmering pot. Keep the solids on the bottom of the soaking pot as long as possible to avoid clogging the coffee filter.
- If the filter clogs and there's less than about a cup of liquid left, you can dump the unfiltered portion down the drain. If there's a lot left to filter, continue with a new coffee filter.
- The final liquid should be mostly clear. If not, re-filter. The second pass will go a lot faster.
All three chemicals below are very dangerous until they are diluted. Even then, you need to make sure no one ingests them and prevent eye contact.
The crystals and concentrated solutions cause immediate chemical burns on contact and will quickly eat away skin, eyes, or throat tissue. A stray crystal on the counter or a spoon, will attract moisture from the air and self-dissolve into what looks to be just a drop of water--but's it's just waiting to cause damage on contact. The crystals and concentrated solution will remove the glossy finish on laminate counter tops (such as formica). They etch aluminum and copper.
Storage of the materials is problematic and can cause serious injury to unsuspecting children, spouses, visitors, or pets. Always use goggles and gloves while handling, or measuring the crystals.
In case of contact, flush eyes and skin with water. Vinegar or lemon juice can be used as a neutralizer on skin but not eyes. In case of ingestion, call your local poison control center.
At the pH of 12.5 used to convert corn to hominy, the solution becomes less dangerous but the risk of ingestion increases. You don't want anyone coming home and sampling your hominy-in-process!
Do not use aluminum or copper pots or utensils. The alkaline solution will eat away at the metal--etching the finish and ruining the hominy. Stainless steel, un-chipped enamelware, and plastic are the materials of choice.
Working with strong alkaline materials is not a group effort or something to share with children or pets. A small crystal falling to the floor can cause them damage. This is something that's best done when no one else is around so you can be in complete control.
Proceed at your own risk--the author accepts no responsibility for any injuries.
• Sodium Hydroxide (when added to water it forms Lye--although Sodium Hydroxide crystals are often called Lye)
Food Grade Lye is most easily found online at suppliers catering to home soap makers.
Non-food grade Lye can sometimes be found in the drain cleaner section at hardware stores. Make sure the can says: 100% Sodium Hydroxide. You do not want DRANO! It has added ingredients and pieces of aluminum. If it isn't pure white (has black specks, etc.), it's not suitable!• Potassium Hydroxide aka: KOH, Sometimes called Potash--but Potash refers to any potassium compound.
This is much harder to find than Sodium Hydroxide and more expensive. It is most easily found at suppliers to home soap makers but it's not usually labeled as being of food grade.
Read the warning section above.
• Homemade "Lye" from Wood Ashes
Typically the alkaline portion is a mixture of roughly 90% Potassium Hydroxide, and 10% Sodium Hydroxide. The amount of total alkaline is variable. There are several methods of checking the concentration:
- pH meter -- Handheld models can be found around $50 but they are temperamental and prone to failure.
- pH indicator strips -- Easy to use, you need ones that cover the range around pH 12. (0-14 or 1-14 are accurate enough) You may have to order them online.
- The egg test. An old-time test for homemade lye in home-soap-making was to float a fresh egg in the cold lye solution. The lye strength was about right for soap if the egg floated mostly submerged but part was just breaking the surface. That's too strong for making hominy. Start by adding a couple of tablespoons of the lye solution to 10 cups of water and see if it works to make hominy. If not, add more homemade lye to the water and continue to simmer.