When most of us think of mayonnaise, we think of Best Foods, or Hellmann’s (depending which side of the country you are on). Few people actually TRY to make mayonnaise, because it has the reputation of being difficult to make. Mayonnaise is a popular sauce for pairing with a wide variety of foods, was used in many ways, and had abundant variations. Much of this variety has been lost because of the ease of opening a jar. We have become so imprinted on the Hellman/Best Foods standard flavor that we overlook the delight to be found in fresh, homemade mayo.
I suspect that the commercial mayonnaise makers were responsible for the unreasonable claims that it is finicky and difficult to make. There are still pervasive myths. Among the most outlandish: Mayonnaise cannot be made by a menstruating woman. (It will fail to emulsify.) Also, mayonnaise cannot be made on a warm summer’s day, during a thunderstorm or a rainstorm, or when the barometer is showing a winter storm approaching. Some recipes insist that all the ingredients must be very cold, whereas others caution that they should be at room temperature. The mystique that surrounds creating the emulsion known as mayonnaise is certainly interesting. It makes you wonder: If it is so difficult to make, how is it that factories are able to consistently churn out truckloads of mayonnaise every day. (Do they ban menstruating women? Shut down during thunderstorms and fluctuating barometric pressure?)
The truth is: Mayonnaise is not difficult to make. If the idea was mastered in the 1500s, without refrigeration, by cooks during war campaigns — mayonnaise just cannot be that difficult.
The thing about making mayonnaise is that it, like most other cooking, is anything but an exact science. The most important ingredient (aside from good eggs and bland oil) is patience. A homemade product will, predictably, not turn out exactly the same every time. That is the nature of homemade, and the variations are part of the charm. The thing to remember about homemade mayonnaise is that it has a quality that cannot be mass-produced. It is an affordable luxury.
The science behind it is simple. Mayonnaise is an emulsion, which is a mix of two immiscible ingredients. Immiscible means incapable of mixing without a third substance called an emulsifier. In the case of mayonnaise, it is oil with a few drops of lemon juice or vinegar, which is mixed SLOWLY into egg yolks’ (lecithin in the eggs acts as an emulsifier). A pinch of mustard powder or squeeze of prepared mustard (called for in most recipes) is an additional emulsifier. The acid (lemon juice or vinegar) strengthens and lengthens the yolk’s proteins.
It is egg, and oil, with a little acid added (any kind of vinegar, lemon, or lime), plus a dash of salt. Mustard does help the emulsion hold together, so it is a good addition. Everything else is a suggestion. Keep this in mind when you read the following recipes. You can experiment with different kinds of mustards (grain, brown, dry powdered, prepared yellow) for different flavors. You can use different oils or oil mixtures. You can add various spices or other ingredients. The worst thing is to try to duplicate Hellman’s/Best Foods in flavor, texture, and color. It is nearly (if not completely) impossible to obtain the white color of commercially made mayonnaise. Yours will always be a richer, more interesting yellow. The flavor will be broader and the texture richer and creamier. The final product will often be thick. Add a tablespoon or more of cold water (or cream) to thin it.
The natural variation of homemade mayonnaise is due to the ingredients, the temperament of the cook, and the eggs. Eggs are not just eggs. They vary in seasonal quality—a spring egg is “wetter” than a late summer egg. A stored egg or an older refrigerated egg is thicker and dryer than a newly laid egg. An egg from a chicken fed on natural grasses is vastly different from an egg from a chicken raised on commercial pellets. A pastured chicken egg is different from a battery cage chicken egg. A freshly laid egg is different to work with than a commercial store-bought egg. Eggs from different strains of chickens probably have some minute differences, and eggs from different species have some very different characteristics. (A duck egg yolk and white are thicker than those of a chicken egg. A goose egg yolk is creamier than either a duck’s or a chicken’s.)
A freshly laid chicken egg is the easiest to work with for mayonnaise. But, unless you have chickens, this won’t be an option. Duck eggs make a very thick and rich mayonnaise, although you might need to add milk, cream, or water to thin it. Goose eggs make delicious mayonnaise, although some people find that it is too intensely egg-flavored.
A little about oil: Olive oil is the standard go-to for mayonnaise, but many olive oils are too flavorful and any undesirable traits, such as bitterness or an overbearing acid flavor, will be accentuated in the mayonnaise. In most cases, this detracts from or clashes with the flavors in the meal. It is better to find a neutral olive oil (such as a Spanish one) or use another type of bland, neutral oil such as safflower or sunflower oil. You can even try melted unsalted butter, it makes a very interesting mayonnaise, which is quite rich, and very unique.
(What causes me the most challenges is one of my own human foibles: impatience. Do not attempt to make mayonnaise if you are in a hurry. Mayonnaise cannot be rushed.)
Making an emulsion takes patience! By its very nature, an emulsion is something that does not want to blend. You have to coax the egg into accepting the oil and dribble the oil in slowly. I use an eyedropper and try not to add more than a few drops at a time. (I have never tried “pour in a thin stream” without awful results). I dribble the oil, drop by drop, at the start, and then move up to teaspoonfuls. I also give the yolk ample time to “rest.” Stopping for a moment is handy. Stop and take a breath. This tip is good to remember if you begin to see the emulsification stalling and the mayonnaise just beginning to “break” (forming big, ugly curds that will not go back together again). You can settle the mixture down by pausing, adding a few drops of cold water, and just waiting a moment before continuing.
If you want a good workout, use a wire whisk and a large bowl that will allow the yolk to spread out into a very thin layer. It will give you a clear view of what is going on, and if any breaking starts, you can stop it quickly. (A deep, narrow bowl does not afford as much control.)
I’ve read that you can use a hand whisk, a rotary hand mixer, an electric hand mixer, a stick blender, an upright blender, or a food processor. However, I have used only a whisk or an electric hand mixer. It took me about three tries (one afternoon) before I managed to find a technique that worked for me. I have tried since then to use a blender and a food processor but always return to what I find easiest: the hand mixer and a big bowl with a flat bottom. But there is no one right way. Experiment, and find what works for you.
Expect a few mishaps before you get your technique down. The most common error, from my experience, is rushing it and adding the oil too fast. The point is to keep the egg yolk (or yolks) in motion while you add the oil, a drop at a time.
Basic Simple Mayo Recipe:
3 egg yolks
1 tablespoon wine vinegar or lemon juice
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon prepared mustard
1½ cups olive oil, salad oil, or mixture
2 tablespoons boiling water
Beat egg yolks with salt, mustard, and vinegar or lemon juice. Add oil, a drop at a time, and keep beating. Dribble oil in, in short bursts, beating constantly to make sure egg mixture absorbs oil smoothly. Dribble, and then stop and beat. Dribble, stop, and beat. When 1/3 cup oil is mixed in, the chance of the whole sauce’s breaking is lessened, so you can add oil in larger amounts (such as a teaspoon at a time). Continue until all oil has been used. The end result will be very thick and creamy. Thin with a little boiling water or a mixture of hot water and more vinegar or lemon juice if mixture is too thick. Add seasoning after mayonnaise has been chilled, covered, for an hour. (If not covered, it may develop an unsightly “skin” on top.)
If you are at all fearful of the dreaded “salmonella” (which I will cover on a different post, and best avoided by buying the freshest eggs, from the most natural source you can find — like a farmer’s market with the actual chicken wrangler right there selling them, or, naturally, from chickens wandering your backyard) then here is a “cooked” mayo recipe:
2 egg yolks
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons water
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1 cup very light olive oil
In double boiler, over simmering water, stir egg yolks, lemon juice, water, mustard, and pepper until blended. Continue stirring constantly. Using a glass cooking thermometer, get temperature to 140 degrees and maintain that temperature for 3½ minutes. Remove from heat (take pan off hot water), and let sit for several minutes to cool. Pour into blender, cover, and blend at high speed. Add oil, drop by drop, slowly. Keep adding more oil while blender is going, until all oil is absorbed. Yolk will become very thick and smooth. Occasionally turn off blender to scrape down sides with rubber spatula. Remove mayonnaise from blender, and placed in covered container. Keep refrigerated.