How to make mayonnaise, the King of Sauces

It's science! It's magic! And here are the tricks to make it stress-free, too


Francis Lam
April 24, 2010 4:20AM (UTC)

I'm all for diversity and tolerance, but I have my prejudices: I look upon people who don't like mayonnaise with a mixture of pity and terror. One second, I'm all, "There, but for the grace of God, go I," and the next I'm like, "What if they let you breed?"

I'm not proud of this, but look: Mayonnaise is the King of Sauces. On its own, it's the all-purpose sauce of the South. You add some buttermilk and some garlic powder or whatever, and it's ranch dressing, aka Midwestern Sauce. Mix in some garlic and extra virgin olive oil, and it's aioli -- Mediterranean Sauce. Add some chipotle peppers to it and, well, there are whole swaths of the restaurant industry that serve the indigenous cuisine of Chipotlemayolandia. Basically, a love of food necessitates a certain love of mayonnaise, and if I need to explain to you what's good about mayonnaise, our friendship is probably not going to go very far. At least not today, because mayo is all we're going to talk about -- what it is, how it works, how to make it, and how to fix it if it breaks on you.

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There is, I admit, a certain level of faith involved. You have to believe in its goodness, because when you really start looking into mayo, it kind of falls apart. (And sometimes, when you make it, it does fall apart, and nothing tests the faith of a cook like a broken mayonnaise.) It's a little shocking to realize that it is basically a sauce of lemon (or vinegar) and oil -- up to 80 percent oil, in fact. Its rich, beguiling creaminess doesn't come from dairy, but from the magical way the oil hits your tongue when it's bound up in an emulsion. Instead of tasting and feeling flabby and greasy, it's tight and focused, its flavor magnifies whatever it's with, and lingers beautifully.

How can oil and lemon juice turn into the white cloud of goodness called mayo? Or, the magic of emulsion.

Mayonnaise is an emulsion, a mixture of oil and water against their nature or better judgment. Usually, what happens when you put oil and water together is that the oil molecules are attracted to themselves, the water molecules are attracted to themselves, and it's like the nerds and jocks in the high school hallway. (The oil floats on top because it's less dense than water, but that's beside the point.)

When you shake or mix them up, the oil and water will disperse into each other for a moment, but soon, the like molecules will find each other and recombine, separating -- or "breaking" -- the mixture. If you mix them with greater physical force -- in a blender, say, rather than by hand with a whisk -- you're dispersing the oil and water into more, tinier droplets, so it takes them longer to find each other and recombine. But they will eventually. Oh, they will.

Unless you have something getting in the way. In the vinaigrettes we talked about last week, seasonings like mustard, sugar or powdered spices can help stabilize the mixture: As Shirley Corriher puts it in her classic food-science cookbook, "Cookwise," these powders will coat the droplets of oil, "as if dusted with a powder puff," and prevent them from sticking back to one another. But these are just stabilizers, like fingers in the dam, and given time (maybe a long time, but still), these mixtures will break.

But there are also true emulsifiers -- most famously lecithin, found in egg yolks -- that can permanently join oil and water. These emulsifiers have a water-attracting end and an oil-attracting end, which really lets them get in the way. The oil-loving ends crowd into a droplet of oil, forming a "shield" of water-loving ends on the outside, which then serves to coat it in water, separating it from all the other oil droplets. (Click that link for a diagram.) Repeat this millions of times over, and you have a permanently suspended mixture of oil in water. (For a more complex discussion of the science, check out "Cookwise," or Harold McGee's "On Food and Cooking.")

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Why is mayonnaise thick?

Once emulsified, the mixture refracts light differently (hence its whitish opacity) and becomes thicker. The thickness comes from the fact that the oil droplets are dispersed in water, but there's really not much water to go around. (Remember, mayo can be about 80 percent oil.) Most of the water comes from the lemon juice or vinegar, maybe mustard if you're using it, and whatever water is naturally in the egg yolk. It's weird to think about, but as you add more and more oil, the "net" of water that forms around each molecule of oil gets "stretched," and so the whole mixture kind of tightens up, becoming thick. But it's this thickness that makes mayonnaise -- it's what makes it spreadable, what makes it taste and feel different than a greasy, runny mess, and what focuses its flavor on your tongue, almost like a solid rather than a liquid.

Making mayonnaise

OK, just a few more things to keep in mind before we get to making the good stuff.

• There is a chance that the emulsion won't come together for you. The mayo might break as you make it. Don't panic! It's horrifying to see your beautiful sauce fall apart, turning into a greasy mess of slime and oil, but don't let it shake your faith. We can fix it. Or you can start over.

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Have everything at room temperature before you start; cold oil and cold eggs don't flow as freely as warm, and so they won't combine as thoroughly, making the emulsion more risky.

• Because I'm a down-home kinda guy, I like to separate egg yolks simply by breaking the egg into my hand and opening my fingers slightly to let the white fall off. Just wash your hands first.

• The choice of oil is up to you. I prefer a mild-tasting vegetable oil like corn or canola. I warn you against extra virgin olive oil, though, because 1) while I lurve it, emulsified I often find it very bitter and harsh-tasting (weird, I know); 2) it has a tendency to break more (weird, I know); 3) it's expensive if you screw it up! If you want that flavor, make the mayo with vegetable oil, and whisk in some EVOO at the end, as if it were a seasoning.

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• I like using a whisk, because I'm old school and because it's more interesting to watch the process and because I don't like cleaning my blender or food processor. But to be honest, blenders or food processors make for a more fail-safe mayo. (Remember what I said earlier about breaking the liquids up into tinier droplets?)

• And after all is said and done with emulsification, remember that your mayo's got to taste good. Last week, we talked a lot about how to balance flavors in vinaigrettes. The most successful ones, to me, are ones in which the tartness from the lemon or vinegar and the richness and softness of the oil are so even that you can't really pick them apart from one another. (Of course, lemon or vinegar are much stronger-tasting than oil, so balance is not just a matter of measuring them equally.) That's my preference; you may have your own. But taste, taste, taste as you make your mayo to know if you should be adding more lemon or more oil until you get the flavor right.

Mayonnaise

Makes ¾ cup

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1 large egg yolk
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon lemon juice (or combination of lemon and vinegar)
¾ cup oil

Special equipment: A blender or food processor are great, but a whisk and bowl work just fine. Put your oil in a pourable measuring cup, or something that lets you control how fast you pour.

  1. Combine the salt, yolk, mustard and about half the lemon juice and whisk together. The salt will help to break the yolk down into a thick liquid, which makes for more thorough emulsions. (Keeping the yolk mixture thick at the start is why I recommend saving half the lemon until later.) Whisk for about 30 seconds (or buzz in your machine), until the mixture is bright-colored and thick.
  2. If your bowl has a tendency to slide, put a towel under it, or roll a towel up lengthwise into a "rope," and wrap it around the bottom of the bowl for stability. Whisk (or buzz) away, slowly drizzling in the oil. The point here is to start the emulsification process; add too much oil at once and the oil droplets will have too many like-minded friends to cling to. Like a psychopath, you want to isolate the oil droplets in the yolk mixture so they have no one to turn to. I can't believe I just said that.
  3. After you've used about ¼ of the oil, pause and take a good look. Is the emulsion sticking? Is it opaque and thickening with no oil floating at top? It's working! Yes! Whisk or buzz in the rest of the lemon juice, and continue slowly streaming in the oil. At this point, you can pour the oil in a little faster. But still whisk just as vigorously, and don't go too crazy with the oil. If at any point you see oil start to pool at top, stop pouring and really work at it until the pool is emulsified in. Patience is key here; this is where most people break their mayo. They get cocky and start just dumping in oil. Be calm. It won't take long. Meditate.
  4. When all the oil is in and the mayo still stands, congratulations! Give it a taste; again, flavor is the next challenge. Balance, adjust with salt or lemon or more oil. Check the thickness; it's your preference, but to my mind, it should be stiff enough to hold soft peaks, but not much more. If it's thin, whisk in more oil. Remember: Oil will thicken the mayo. If it's too thick, add a little water or lemon, but just a little. You'd be surprised at how much even a little lemon (or water) will thin it out -- it gets in between all the oil drops, and makes it "slip." So add it in ¼ teaspoon increments or so.

Fixing a broken mayonnaise

OMG WTF! Your mayo is a slimy, greasy mess! IT'S OK! CALM DOWN! Get a nice stiff drink and chill out. You can fix it.

  1. If there's a lot of oil sitting at the top, pour it off back into your oil container. Did you use enough lemon/vinegar/water? If not, add a little. Try to whisk what's in your bowl back together, or transfer it to a blender or food processor and let the machine go at it. If it comes back together, slowly drizzle your oil in and continue.
  2. If it doesn't come back together, use more magic: In a clean bowl, get a fresh egg yolk, a pinch of salt, and a little water whisking. When it's thick and bright, whisk or blend your broken mayo to it, and watch the emulsion come together. Now slowly add the poured-off oil and whatever left over that you didn't use the first time, and taste and adjust. And if that doesn't work, well, I'll let you in on a secret. There is no mayonnaise better than Hellman's anyway.

 

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Francis Lam

Francis Lam is Features Editor at Gilt Taste, provides color commentary for the Cooking Channel show Food(ography), and tweets at @francis_lam.

MORE FROM Francis Lam

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