In Making Food on April 8, 2010 at 10:03 pm

Week 7

Mayonnaise, like popcorn, is something I’ve always been skeptical about. Not that I don’t believe in its existence; not that I don’t eat it. It’s just that it seems too simple to actually work. (You mean I just put these kernels into a heated pot, cover it, and they’ll explode? And then I eat them?) Mayonnaise is basically an egg yolk and some oil, whisked together until awesomely thick. Really, that’s it? Really. That’s it.

I’ve been so incredulous about mayonnaise being so easy to make that I’ve never made it. Plus mayonnaise, like salted Irish butter, is something that The Husband insists on having in the house at all times; we’ve constantly got it in the fridge, and so I’ve never exactly needed to make it.

But I’ve been reading Michael Ruhlman’s Ratio, a book about reducing classical cookery to its simplest mathematical proportions, and though he devotes a whole nine-page chapter to mayonnaise, at its most elemental it’s absolutely nothing more than one egg yolk, a tablespoon of water, and a cup of oil. And since we had some eggs from our CSA kicking around the fridge, as well as a jar of high-end organic mayonnaise, I decided the time for mayonnaise-making — and a subsequent blind taste-test — was nigh.

Place a relatively large bowl on the counter — you’ll want plenty of room for wide, vigorous whisking. Twist up a slightly damp dishtowel, as if you’re about to snap someone’s ass post-game in a locker room, then wrap the towel around the base of the bowl; this’ll keep the bowl from sliding around the counter while you’re whisking.

Here’s what I did, following Ruhlman’s ratio and directions:

Whisk together 1 egg yolk, 1 teaspoon water, 2 teaspoons lemon juice and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Measure out 1 cup canola or vegetable oil into a vessel that’ll allow you to pour the oil in a slow, steady stream — like a Pyrex measuring cup or a small cruet. Start whisking, then add a couple of drops of oil to the egg yolk; add a few more drops and whisk to emulsify. Then add the oil sloooowly, whisking continuously and energetically. It took me two full songs on iPod shuffle to finish the whisking-and-oil-adding. (Appropriately enough, and with no exaggeration, the songs were “I Am Waiting” by the Rolling Stones and “Bored” by Mike Merenda.) About halfway through the oil addition, the mixture will start to both thicken in texture and lighten in color. By the time you’ve added all the oil, the mayo should hold a very soft peak when you lift the whisk out of the bowl.

Like I said, the mayo should be thick enough to cling to your whisk; if it’s runny and pourable, it’s broken. (Which is, in fact, the technical term.) If that’s what you’re ruefully staring down at, pour the brokennaise into the oil measuring cup, wipe out the mixing bowl, and put a teaspoon of water in the bowl. Pour the brokennaise drop by drop into the water while whisking rapidly to re-start the emulsion, then pour the rest in a steady, slow stream, whisking all the while until you’ve got functional mayonnaise.

According to Ratio, homemade mayonnaise was “a heavenly sauce of creamy consistency and satisfying flavor” and one of a cook’s greatest pleasures. I could hardly wait to do the blind taste test with The Husband. But once I opened the jar of storebought mayonnaise, I knew the jig was up. Mine was buttery yellow; the jarred stuff was white. I spooned a bit of each into a small dish and brought them out to the living room, where The Husband was watching baseball. He took one look, pointed at mine, and said, “you made that one.” Yup.

We dipped our fingers into the storebought one first, then the homemade one. Then we shrugged. The storebought one was tangier, a little sweeter, a bit bouncy; the homemade one was a little richer, a little smoother, more velvety. We checked the ingredients on the jarred mayo — way more ingredients, including vinegar, whole eggs (in addition to egg yolks) and sugar.

I have to say, I was disappointed. I’d expected it to be ethereal, mindblowing, something — like homemade ricotta or salad dressing — that would forever liberate me from storebought jars of gloop. But it was, well, boring. Fine but boring. It seemed like it needed a little more acid, or an oil with more personality, or maybe both. To get a perspective beyond Ruhlman’s, I pulled out my encylopedia-sized copy of How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman. His recipe called for twice the amount of acid, and replaced up to half — or even all — of the neutral canola/vegetable oil with extra-virgin olive oil.

Lesson learned: in mayonnaise, as in medical, matters: always get a second opinion.

  1. what you made is in effect a base. try it again and add a healthy pinch of cayenne and a tablespoon of minced shallot that has soaked in a tablespoon of lemon juice for five or ten minutes. and a little more salt, it sounds like. if it tastes like it needs more acid, then it does! hope you’ll give it another shot. try dipping some blanched asparagus into it instead of your fingers!

    • Totally a base, which I doctored up with salt and some white wine vinegar.

      I get that the aim of Ratio is to reduce recipes to their absolute skeletal form (at least initially; after learning the basics, the reader-cook can then proceed to put some meat on those bones via improvisation and experimentation). What I find so fascinating, and befuddling, is that everyone’s base is completely different. Mark Bittman (which hi! if you’re reading this) calls for twice the initial acid of your base. The Joy of Cooking warns that one egg yolk can emulsify “up to about 3/4 cup oil, no more” — then recommends using only a half-cup, if you’re interested in success as a certainty. McGee dismisses this out of hand, saying a single yolk can emulsify up to a dozen cups of oil if the ratio of liquid to oil is appropriate. (He follows this with an awesomely titled sidebar: “Olive Oil Can Make Crazy Mayonnaise.”) Classic cookery texts often call for the liquid (whether acid, or water, or both) to be added at the end.

      It’s the classic more-than-one-way-to-skin-a-cat thing, I guess. Everyone’s right, no one’s right. (Or everyone’s wrong, no one’s wrong.) And I’m totally more of a french-fries-in-my-mayo kind of girl — at least until asparagus starts hitting the farmers’ markets around here!

  2. I have to say, this has inspired me to try making my own mayo, too!

  3. Well written, and inspiring! I think I might try to make some this weekend. Thanks for the post!

    • I’m teaching a class in June on DIY condiments for grilling season. So rest assured I’ll be practicing, and writing about, my (mis)adventures with ketchup, mustard, hot sauce and barbecue sauce. Stay tuned!

  4. oh my god ruhlman actually commented on your blog!!!! you, sunny, are my new hero.

  5. Love your writing- glad to have come across your blog!

  6. I’m looking forward to your homemade Miracle Whip adventure 🙂

    Also, it would probably go well with this.

    Be ready for this.

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