Condiments Quickly: Making Mayonnaise

Some time back we hosted at our Old Town store a book signing with New York Times Food Columnist, Melissa Clark, who had been making rounds to promote her then-new cookbook, “Cook This Now: 120 Easy and Delectable Dishes You Can’t Wait to Make.” We entertained a small crowd as attendees had the opportunity to meet the author, get her autograph, and pick her brain as she fielded questions about cooking and beyond. The book’s release, and subsequently the event, landed in mid-Fall, so it was no surprise that many of the questions and much of the advice she doled out, centered on, among other seasonal topics, brining, stuffing, or otherwise preparing turkey. Melissa Clark, I realized then, is uniquely talented. Besides being a good cook, she has a way of making some perennially nightmarish kitchen projects sound and look surprisingly manageable. Case in point: I’d been trying for a good while with limited success to concoct my own flavor-infused mayonnaise when I stumbled upon some classic Melissa Clark wisdom in the form of a recent column, “Mayonnaise: Oil, Egg, and a Drop of Magic.”

Photo courtesy of BlackMasterPiece/Mona-Lisa

The drop of magic, as she fittingly calls it, is actually a teaspoon of water, which greatly aids the emulsion process. Creating an emulsion, it should be said, is a markedly and undesirably touchy process, and amounts to the most difficult part of preparing mayonnaise. The good news is that creating an emulsion is, in fact, the only part of preparing mayonnaise, so if you can get the emulsion right – all you really need is a steady hand, some patience, and bit of tenacity – you can make a good mayo.

If you’ve never made your own mayonnaise before, here is what to do:

Crack and separate an egg. Discard the white or save it for use elsewhere (adding the white won’t ruin the mayo, but will cut some of its richness). Place the separated yolk in a mixing bowl, along with a pinch of salt and pepper, a teaspoon of water, a teaspoon of fresh lemon juice, and another teaspoon of  mustard. Whisk these ingredients together until the mixture becomes light yellow and slightly frothy.

Now gather about 3/4 cup of oil of your choice. Vegetable oil and olive oil both work fine, and they can be mixed if you please. Here is the hard part. While vigorously whisking the egg yolk mixture, begin pouring in the oil, one drop at a time.  It is important to add these first drops of oil very slowly. The biggest pitfall of making mayonnaise at home, as anyone will tell you, is adding the oil too quickly.

Keep whisking, and you should see pretty quickly whether or not your emulsion is working out. If everything has gone well, the mixture should begin hold its form in the bowl as it thickens. When this happens, and you can be sure your emulsion has taken, you can begin adding the oil a bit faster (in a thin stream) as you continue whisking furiously until all the oil has been incorporated and you have in front of you a bowl of delicious, viscous mayonnaise.

On the other hand, if you find you are left with a thin, oily soup, then everything has not gone well; your emulsion has broken. Once your emulsion has broken, there is very little you can do to save the mayonnaise, besides starting over. If this is the case, whisk up another yolk and begin again by adding the “broken” mixture, drop by drop, to the yolk until your emulsion takes. Then, revert to your leftover oil and resume the process of slowly adding it to the mixture until well incorporated.

As I’ve said previously, creating an emulsion is not easy, and you shouldn’t be discouraged if your first batch of mayonnaise doesn’t take. Mine didn’t, and many times don’t. Even Melissa Clark herself admits to about a fifty percent success rate with homemade mayonnaise. Still, it is worth trying. When you succeed, you will find that your mayonnaise is richer and more nicely textured than what you are used to bringing home from the store, and you can take some satisfaction in knowing you’ve pulled off a neat a culinary trick (and practiced a bit of science).

After you've developed a knack for making mayonnaise by hand, there are a few things you can do to keep from getting bored with your mayo.  Try making a flavor-infused mayonnaise by cooking your favorite flavors into the oil (over low heat) before whisking it with the egg.  A bit of rosemary makes a nice addition to a basic mayonnaise.  Similarly, a clove or two of garlic, cooked with olive oil, can set you up to make a flavorful garlic aioli. There really are endless flavor possibilities for this sort of thing, and the best way to begin tackling all those possibilities is, as usual, to experiment.  So get whisking!

(Note:  If you are having trouble creating an emulsion with a bowl and whisk, try processing your ingredients with an immersion blender or in a food processor. Should you need the extra direction, Youtube has a whole slew of tutorials to get you started.)

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