Just want to know how to do it? Go straight to the recipe at the bottom of the post.
For a cheat’s mayonnaise, using ready-made but better, follow this link.
“Then someone asked me how I managed to be so breezy about it, how I stopped it from curdling. From then on, I scarcely made mayonnaise which didn’t split. It’s not surprising: when confidence is undermined or ruptured, it can be difficult to do the simplest things, or to take any enjoyment even in trying.”
-Nigella Lawson, How To Eat
Nigella Lawson writes that many of the problems encountered while making mayonnaise stem from a lack of confidence.
It’s not my experience.
Every now and again I give it a go, mindful that making mayonnaise successfully is one of the rights of passage of the serious chef. Every time I fail, and I know it’s because what I lack is patience and not confidence. I even fail when I try the ‘failsafe’ way which uses the whole egg.
But not long ago I was blessed with a glut of eggs. More than enough with which to experiment. This is the result.
The science behind making mayonnaise – what, exactly, are we trying to do and why is nature conspiring against us?
It helps to understand a bit of what is going on ‘behind the scenes’ – the science of it all.
Mayonnaise is an unlikely mixture of oil and water – which everybody knows do not mix. Water molecules are strongly attracted to each other (‘polar’ in scientific terms); whereas oil molecules are ‘hydrophobic’ – they fear water molecules and want to stay away from them.
So what is required is a third party (or parties) which will take oil and water (which is in the egg yolk – about half an egg yolk is water) firmly by the hand (or rather the atom) and hold them together – what’s known as an emulsifier. The smaller the droplets of oil, the more ‘hands’ the emulsifier is given to hold everything together.
And everything needs to be done to make the job of the emulsifiers easier.
The main emulsifier is the lecithin in the egg yolk (lekythos – λέκιθος – means ‘egg yolk’ in ancient Greek).
But mustard is also an emulsifier – there is a thick, gluey substance surrounding the mustard seed hulls which contains chemicals which are also emulsifiers.
Alcohol bonds with both fat and water molecules, which allows it to carry aromas and flavour – in this case either from the mustard, or its own gin botanicals. Additionally, according to Dickenson and Golding, “Reducing the mean diameter of droplets in alcohol-containing emulsions by prolonged homogenisation was found to enhance the short-term emulsion creaming stability.”¹ So the alcohol helps to reduce the size of the oil droplets, and it gives the emulsifiers more opportunity to do their job.
Conditions to make the job of the emulsifier easier
If the egg and the bowl you are using are room temperature you will make the job of the emulsifiers easier. If you are in a hurry and have forgotten to take your egg out ahead of time you can put it in the bowl and cover it with warm water from the tap – leave about ten minutes.
If you add the salt at the start, although you will be flying in the face of Gordon Ramsay, who says the salt attacks the yolk, you will cause the yolk to become stickier – the lecithin within it will act more strongly.
You will be giving yourself even more of a head start (as well as avoiding the question of what to do the remaining white) if you use the whole egg, including the white, because the white helps to stabilise the whole caboodle.
The amount of oil you need to make mayonnaise may seem to be against every rule of health. But you need it. Any mix with less than 70% oil will be unstable.
From a flavour point of view most chefs and food writers advocate using mostly groundnut oil, with a little additional olive or walnut oil for flavour. If you use only olive oil the result can be heavy and bitter.
As well as giving emulsifying back up help, it’s the mustard (or rather the isothiocyanates in the mustard) which is the key source of flavour in mayonnaise. As a random aside, other foods containing isothiocyanates include wasabi, horseradish, radish, Brussels sprouts, watercress, nasturtiums, and capers. In any case, these isothiocyanates are stabilised by the addition of acid at the end of the process.
This can be lemon juice – which gives a fresh result, especially good with fish for example; or vinegar (Ottolenghi uses cider vinegar) which some think is better in, for example, a potato salad. Personally, I think the juice and zest of half a lemon (with the amounts in the recipe given below) is best.
¹Influence of Alcohol on Stability of Oil-in-Water Emulsions Containing Sodium Caseinate
Dickinson E1, Golding M, Journal of Colloid and Interface Science, 1998 Jan 1;197(1):133-41
…and now a bit of history
The most often cited, and the most likely dawn of the fame and popularity of mayonnaise occurred in 1756 when the Duke of Richelieu was defeating the British in a naval battle outside Port Mahon in Minorca (one of the Balearic islands, now part of Spain). While the the Duke was triumphing in his sphere, his chef was struggling in his. He was trying to make a creamy egg sauce, but the cream had run out.
So, like many other happy inventions (see Mary Rose sauce) he improvised. He had oil, so he used that instead.
But where did he get the idea? Some say it was just a happy, serendipitous discovery. But others (and I think, with more evidence) say that this was a local development of a Roman emulsion of garlic, salt and olive oil, first documented in the first century AD by Pliny. Some island bright spark, seeking to reduce the endless labour involved, had the idea to add eggs and acid.
Or he might have got it from amending the suggestion of a countryman – François Pierre, a chef who went under the name of La Varenne, who, in 1651, published a recipe for a sauce made of egg yolks, acid, and melted butter – effectively a hollandaise sauce. Richelieu’s chef wouldn’t have needed to be Einstein to substitute oil for the melted butter. If there wasn’t any cream on the island, there is a good chance there wasn’t a lot of butter either.
Things to add to mayonnaise
- Capers (turns it into a tartare sauce)
- Spinach (use a little, well-drained, frozen spinach ball)
- Watercress (turns it into sauce verte)
- Garlic (turns it into an aïoli)
- Curry powder, tomato puree and Greek yoghurt – for a great dip with chipolata sausages
A recipe for miraculous mayonnaise for the impatient
Makes enough for about six people
- one egg – yolk and white and all – AT ROOM TEMPERATURE – if you’ve left it a bit late put the egg, still in its shell, in the jug/beaker you are going to use and cover with hot water from the tap for ten minutes.
- 240 ml/1 cup sunflower oil
- 60 ml/¼ cup walnut oil (or olive oil)
- 2 tsps grainy mustard
- 2 tsps gin
- juice and zest of half a small lemon
- smoked salt
- generous grinds of Indonesian long pepper
- Make sure your egg is at room temperature.
- Put the egg, both the oils, the mustard, the salt and the gin into a large tall glass jug or a big cocktail shaker. You need something which will enable you to see what you are doing. It needs to be tall and thin or you will just end up mixing everything too quickly.
- Clean the sink and place the jug in it.
- Get your stick blender plugged in nearby.
- Place the stick blender at the bottom of the jug, over the egg. Switch it on to its lowest setting.
- Keep it there for at least a minute. You will start to see that the stick blender is sucking in oil from above…keep going.
- When it seems to have stopped sucking from above, VERY slowly move the blender up a fraction so that it begins to suck in the oil from above again. By the time you get to about half way you’ll start to hear the sound of the blender change a little as the mayonnaise begins to thicken.
- Continue, just as slowly as before until you reach the top. It may splutter a little – that’s why you’re doing this in the sink.
- It should be a lovely, thick, creamy texture now, but you need to adjust the flavour.
- Add the lemon juice (not too much) and the zest, stirring in slowly and carefully. Add the pepper. Again, stir in.
Still not convinced? Follow this link for the best ready-made mayonnaise to buy.