Saponification, or Why Not to Buy The Discount Lutefisk

Soap is ubiquitous in modern life, in many forms, from hand soap to laundry detergent to shampoo. Chemically, soaps are alkali salts of fatty acids, and are formed by taking a fat or oil and combining it, either at room temperature or at or around the boiling point of the fat, with a strong alkali compound like sodium hydroxide. (Alkali compoounds are chemicals that have a high pH; please see the post on the pH scale for reference.) The alkali compound used is usually a hydroxide, either sodium, potassium, or occasionally lithium. All these hydroxides are very reactive, which is useful for forming soap, but they are also very corrosive, and so soapmaking must be done very carefully to avoid accidents.

A typical chemical reaction to create soap

A triglyceride is a fatty acid with three branches. It reacts with NaOH to produce soap molecules with a hydrophobic tail and a hydrophilic head and a molecule of glycerol.

At the heart of soap’s effectiveness is that soap molecules have two distinct parts. One part is hydrophobic (ie, does not mix will with water) and grabs on to dirt (which typically is oil based, ie, also hydrophobic) while the other part is hydrophilic (ie, mixes well with water).

A bit of dirt gets covered in soap molecules, all with the hydrophobic end attached to the dirt, with the hydrophilic end trailing like a string away from the dirt. This structure is sometimes called a micelle, though the term is not just used for soap.

A micelle is formed when soap molecules surround a bit of dirt.

Lutefisk is made in a similar manner to soap, and it’s one of those things, like soy sauce, that I wonder how on earth someone figured out how to make it (and thought to try eating it). It’s a Nordic dish made by taking salted fish like cod, treating it with lye (ie, a very strong alkaline compound) for a couple of days, and then soaking it in water for several days to rinse out the caustic lye. Traditionally, the fish is treated with ash, which is alkaline but not nearly as strong as lye, and then buried for several months. Either way, the chemical reaction between the fats and oil in the fish and the lye needs to be stopped before all the fats saponify; though the whole point of making lutefisk is that some of the fats saponify, rendering the entire fish soap seems even more unsavory than only a partial rendering. The end result is a fish concoction that is somewhat gelatinous and falls apart easily, is either baked or broiled, and looks about as appetizing as you’d expect given how it’s made. I’ve never eaten it myself, but it’s got a reputation for smelling and tasting awful with a very unpleasant texture, but apparently some people genuinely enjoy it. While on description alone I can’t say as I’d recommend it, if you’re going to eat it, it seems especially prudent, given the chemistry involved in making it, to avoid the dented can on the discount shelf at the grocery store.

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2 responses to “Saponification, or Why Not to Buy The Discount Lutefisk

  1. I still remember Bill Nye the Science Guy explaining how soap “makes water wetter.” So now all I can think is: “Soap makes fish grosser.” Perhaps not quite the takeaway you were expecting, but there you go.

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