The Joy of Mayonnaise

by Brian O'Malley | January 1, 2008 11:08 am

If cuisine1 is the coming together of traditional food ways in the presence of a regional larder, then no diatribe on local food could pretend to breach the subject without focusing at least a little bit on technique. To say that more plainly – local food needs local cooks, so let’s talk about cook’n.

I love mayonnaise.

I know. People are lining up to holler at me about it; my doctor because he says it’s bad for me, my wife because she finds it “icky”, my little sister cause it is not fat free and all things not fat free are the devil, chef Kevin cause I put it on my royal treat from Little King and that just gives him the creeps—not because he doesn’t like mayo, he is as willing to go two knuckles deep into the jar as anyone I know, he just thinks it doesn’t make sense to put mayo on an Italian sub. I will concede. The Italians were definitely fans of taking their oil and vinegar not emulsified2 – as in vinaigrette.

On second thought, to concede that point would be to accept that Little King has direct culinary lineage to the masters of the Italian artisan sandwich community, which would take a little more research than I am willing, or perhaps capable, of pulling off. Therefore, Kevin is right, but he should let me order mine with mayo anyway and stop complaining.

I love mayonnaise for what it does.

There is a smoothness and cleanness of flavor that is unmistakably mayonnaise. Mayo, or mon chéri3 –abbreviated mc from this point forward, brings lots of goodies to a party when invited.

Consider the blt: a low-skill, high-quality classic. Contents: rather apparently, bacon, lettuce, and tomato, and not-so-apparently, bread and mc. We get different and critical things from each component. They combine in such a way to deliver a taste and flavor definitively linked to those three letters. B.L.T.

Without mc we are in trouble. For the T, we need thick slices of ripe garden-fresh tomato that is sweet and above all juicy. Trouble with the juicy from T is that it could take our lightly toasted bread to a place it can’t come back from. That is where the functional properties of mc save the day. Due to its high fat content, mc repels water; thus creating a barrier between the water craving toast and the water containing tomato. This barrier is then broken at the opportune time—in your mouth. As you take a bite of this well-prepared sandwich you create that intermingling of textures that is so famous in both the diner and my mom’s kitchen. Without mayo, it is a soggy mess. Mayo is about mouthfeel4. It is all about changing, protecting and enhancing how foods feel when they get into our mouths. Mc does many other fine things for our food:

  1. Provides needed richness and savory to otherwise bland items
  2. Provides a vehicle for fat soluble flavors to present themselves
  3. Increases caloric value (not considered a benefit by the vast majority of Americans)
  4. Can provide visual appeal through contrast of the color scheme and/or through increasing sheen

I love mayonnaise for what it teaches.

There are three benefits to making mayonnaise from scratch. First is a deepened understanding of the ingredients used to create mc. Second, the techniques used require attention to detail and commitment to perfection, attributes essential all over the kitchen. Third, and above all else, is the ability to control the quality of the products that you serve others or consume yourself.

The essential ingredient list is pretty simple: egg yolk, lemon juice, and vegetable oil. The list gets a touch more complicated as you look at flavoring the concoction, but the three key elements are the liquid, the emulsifier, and the fat. Having the liquid be acidic, as lemon juice is, is critical for “setting” the emulsion or allowing it to hold over the long term. The acid will also decrease pH, therefore retarding the growth of seemingly omnipresent salmonella. (The last couple sentences read a bit like a term paper, sorry.) Understand the role each ingredient plays, each time, and cooking starts to feel like you are the conductor rather than third chair bassoon just trying to read the music and keep up.

The techniques used to make mayonnaise are very basic. Pouring and mixing are the two most critical, and not surprisingly, the two most screwed up. I am going to include a recipe for mayo, so I won’t get all wonky5 and long-winded here about techniques.

I do need to say one thing to the novice about making scratch mayonnaise…fail. Fail. Fail. Fail. Your first, best, right mayonnaise is the tenth one you do, regardless of how many did not break, or turn grey in the previous nine. Until you can execute over and over and over, the technique is just something that you know about, not a skill that you posses. Enough said. Read the recipe.

The quality. I love to babble on about the quality of scratch-local-cookery being superior in every way to non-scratch-non-local-cookery. But there are drawbacks of time, money, consistency and safety that must be addressed. Especially when considering a move from a tried and true packaged food item like Extra Heavy Duty Sysco Imperial Mayonnaise to a recipe whose success is hinged on everything but the weather. I have actually heard the weather be blamed for a failed mayo, but federal privacy laws protect you from the whole story.

To tell the truth, I just don’t have the words to talk you into believing that the quality difference is worth it. So I just implore you to try it. Make ten batches of mayo. Make a couple identical BLTs, except that one has pre-made mayo and one has your tenth batch. Although this time of year I may recommend away from the BLT toward something a bit more seasonal like pommes frites6. You may not go back.

I love mayonnaise for what it is.

Scratch mayonnaise is a symbol. It represents the craftsmanship, harmony, and respect that make life in the kitchen so grand. Perhaps better than a symbol it is a philosophy. A philosophy that says, “I know my ingredients and what to do with them”. Perhaps better than a symbol or philosophy, scratch mayonnaise is something even more special, delicate, and worthy of our continued attention and accolade. Scratch mayonnaise is, in a word, delicious.



1Cuisine*: (from French cuisine, “cooking; culinary art; kitchen”; ultimately from Latin coquere, “to cook”) is a specific set of cooking traditions and practices, often associated with a specific culture. Religious food laws can also exercise a strong influence on cuisine. A cuisine is primarily influenced by the ingredients that are available locally or through trade. For example, the American-Chinese dish “chop suey” clearly reflected the adaptation of Chinese cuisine to the ingredients available in North America.

2Emulsified*: an emulsion is a mixture of two immiscible (unblendable) substances. One substance (the dispersed phase) is dispersed in the other (the continuous phase). Examples of food emulsions include butter and margarine, espresso, and mayonnaise. In butter and margarine, a continuous liquid phase surrounds droplets of water (water-in-oil emulsion). Emulsification is the process by which emulsions are prepared. Food emulsions are classified into three categories: permanent-i.e. butter and mayonnaise, semi permanent-i.e. mustard vinaigrette, and temporary-i.e. oil and vinegar dressing.


3Mon chéri: French phrase meaning “my darling”

4Mouthfeel*: a product’s physical and chemical interaction in the mouth not related to the tastebuds. It is a concept used in many areas related to the testing and evaluating of foodstuffs, such as wine-tasting and rheology. It is evaluated from initial perception on the palate, to first bite, through mastication to swallowing. In wine-tasting, for example, mouthfeel is usually used with a modifier (big, sweet, tannic, chewy, etc.) to the general sensation of the wine in the mouth. Some people, however, still use the traditional term, “texture.”

5Wonky: Kitchen slang referencing the classic book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory wherein Willy Wonka’s crazy ideas are brought to life in exhaustive detail.

6Pommes Frites: French fried potatoes

*Adapted from

Quick Facts



MAYONNAISE Servings: 4-8 Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cooking Time: N/A
Ingredients Amount Notes
egg yolks 2 each
dry ground mustard 1 tablespoon helps establish emulsion
fresh lemon 1/2 juiced and strained
kosher salt 1 teaspoon finely ground
cayenne pepper 1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper is also used
white distilled vinegar 2 teaspoons
vegetable oil 10-14 ounces safflower oil preferred
  1. In a medium mixing bowl, add egg yolks, mustard, lemon, salt and pepper. Combine with a wire whisk until the yolks are frothy and all ingredients are well combined.
  2. Fill a squeeze bottle with the vegetable oil. While mixing continuously, begin to aid the oil one drop at a time. (A new drop every second or so.) After the first 20 drops have been incorporated, begin adding the oil in a steady, yet still slow, stream. Having the bowl secured by placing it into an empty pot with a wet kitchen towel helps immensely here – so does having a friend to take over whisking after a couple minutes.
  3. Each yolk should be able to hold about 7 ounces of oil, but your mayonnaise may be thick enough for your taste before you get all of the oil added. When it has reached your desired consistency (it will become thicker the more oil that you add) add half of the distilled vinegar. This will whiten and thin the emulsion.
  4. TASTE the mayonnaise now. Check to see if it is too greasy – a touch more pepper or a touch more distilled vinegar. Too salty? Too much lemon? More oil. Too savory? A touch more vinegar.
  5. Store the mayonnaise tightly covered at room temperature for 1 hour before use to allow the flavors to marry and the acid to act on any bacteria present. Keep for 3-4 days in the refrigerator.


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