Don't you know the mayonnaise trick?”
My friend Dori and I were standing in front of Empire Mayonnaise in New York City, the city's first and only artisanal mayonnaise shop, ogling its wares: flavors like lime pickle and, of course, bacon, when she asked me that.
If there was a trick for making mayonnaise, I certainly did not know it. And what a trick — a potential game-changer, the kind that turns homemade mayo from a special-occasion recipe into an everyday endeavor, ending our dependence on subpar, corn-syrup-filled commercial stuff.
Because here's the thing about mayo: While it's easy to buy high-end mustard and ketchup, good-quality commercial mayonnaise is a rare thing indeed.
If you want really delicious mayo, you have no choice but to make it yourself. Despite my deep and committed love of mayo, my success rate for making it had been about 50 percent. To make mayonnaise, you need to slowly beat oil into egg until an emulsion forms — that is, the oil molecules are uniformly dispersed in the egg and then hold there. Whether I used a food processor, blender or whisk, my mayonnaise often broke: the oil and egg separated, heartbreakingly deflating from a thick and attractive froth into a thin and oily puddle.
Adding a teaspoon of water to the yolks before dripping in the oil helps create a stronger and more stable emulsion, Dori said. She picked up the secret in culinary school years ago, and her mayonnaises haven't collapsed since.
The first time I tried it, I achieved the lightest, most ethereal mayonnaise I'd ever made. It tasted deeply of the good olive oil I used, seasoned with lemon and mustard. We ate it with roasted asparagus, dunking the spears two, three and four times into the tasty sauce until we swabbed the bowl clean. The next day I whisked together another batch, stirring in minced anchovies at the end. It made some of the finest egg salad I'd ever had.
Heady with success and inspired by the flavors on offer at Empire, I knew a mayonnaise spree was in the making. Dancing in my head were visions of sweet potato salad tossed with pungent lime pickle mayonnaise, moist pieces of swordfish slathered with garlicky aioli, and hot biscuits spread with bacon mayonnaise and topped with slices of ripe tomato.
Why did a teaspoon of water make such a difference? And why hadn't anyone told me this before?
The only cookbook I knew of that mentioned adding water to the yolk before whipping was published by the Culinary Institute of America, and so I called there and spoke with Tucker Bunch, a chef and instructor.
“A little water physically broadens the space between fat droplets, helping them stay separate,” Bunch said.
If the oil droplets don't stay distinct from one another and evenly dispersed in the oil, the mayonnaise will break. He explained that while you need not add water for an emulsion to form, just a teaspoon increases the odds that it will.
Lemon juice and vinegar accomplish the same thing, but if you add too much you run the risk of ending up with mayo that is too tart. A dollop of mustard can help create and hold an emulsion, too, which, beyond flavor, is why many mayonnaise recipes call for it.
Adding water also heightens the fluffy factor.
“Without any added water, mayonnaise can be like petroleum jelly,” Bunch said. “Water gives you that nice, light texture.”
Another reason to add water is that it dilutes the yolk and opens up the complex matrix of lecithin and proteins it contains, said Richard D. Ludescher, the dean of academic programs at the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences at Rutgers. The lecithin binds the oil droplets and the water in the yolk; that's the essence of a mayonnaise emulsion. As long as they are bound together, the emulsion is stable.
With a blender or food processor, a little cold water can keep everything from overheating as it whirls — another frequent emulsion buster. To really bolster your chances of creating and holding an emulsion, use a whisk. Although mayonnaise can come together more easily in a food processor, Bunch said, it is prone to breaking. Overbeating, along with overheating, can make the molecules come unglued.
“This isn't going to happen when you use a whisk,” he said. “We make students on campus make mayonnaise with a whisk first before they can use a machine so they understand what it takes to work.”
The last piece of wisdom Bunch shared was that initially the oil should be added to the yolk drop by drop; the emulsion should form when about a quarter of the oil is beaten in. Once that happens you can go a lot faster, increasing the drops to a steady stream.
Thus educated, I became bolder, adding my oil even faster at the end while whisking the heck out of it. Fifty-eight seconds is my personal record from start to finish. When I added the oil faster than that, the mayonnaise broke.
But given my newfound proficiency, even a batch or two of broken mayonnaise didn't bother me. I just substituted it for the oil and egg in my favorite savory cake recipe, with olives and Gruyere. (The same cake recipe also works with unbroken mayonnaise and is a great way to use up the last of a batch of the homemade stuff, which has a fridge life of about a week.)
Lime pickle was my first flavored mayonnaise experiment, which I made by chopping up the pickle, an Indian condiment sold at Middle Eastern and Asian markets, and stirring it in at the end. The texture, nubby and a little crunchy from the pieces of pickle, was a far cry from the velvety mouth feel of the version by Empire Mayonnaise. That's because the owners, Elizabeth Valleau, a designer, and chef Sam Mason, make their mayonnaise using infused oils so there are no particles to interfere with the smoothness.
My rustic version pleased me nonetheless. Mixed with soft cubed sweet potatoes, crunchy cashews and cilantro, it was bright, barbecue-ready fare.
I then played with all kinds of mayonnaise flavorings, stirring various ingredients in at the end after the emulsion had safely formed. I added citrus zests, chili sauce, herbs, garlic, capers and olives.
I also played with the variety of oil, changing the ratio of intense extra virgin olive oil to a mellow neutral oil. The more olive oil I used, the better I liked the resulting mayonnaise when eating it plain, but using all neutral oil makes a better canvas for adding flavors. Safflower, canola, grapeseed and peanut oil all do nicely. Just make sure the oil is at the same temperature as the egg. You can use cold oil and cold eggs, but I found room temperature eggs and oil to be the easiest to work with.
After dozens of happy experiments, my confidence was high and I felt ready to take on the mother of all flavored mayos: bacon mayonnaise.
I had tried this before my self-researched seminar in mayonnaise making, and it broke every time, I think because I tried to use the bacon grease while it was still too warm, fearing that it would congeal if I let it cool. This time I mixed the warm grease into the oil. The oil cooled it down and kept it from solidifying, so it was easy to drip into the eggs. I added a pinch of smoked paprika and some chopped bacon at the end to intensify the smokiness.
On the recommendation of Valleau, I whipped up what she called a “skinny BLT,” with lettuce, the first local greenhouse tomatoes and my homemade bacon mayonnaise on toast. It was crisp, juicy and lighter than the original — ideal for summer eating.
Of course, I thought as I ate, it might be even better with both bacon and bacon mayonnaise. Or bacon and sriracha mayo.
I'm sure I'll get around to whipping it up.