Wednesday, July 11, 2007

In Praise of Mayonnaise

I made some mayonnaise the other day. Yay me. I haven’t used store-bought mayonnaise in a couple of years now because I think the homemade just tastes so much better. I use mayonnaise fairly infrequently anyway, so when I do use it, I want it to be good. Also, the store-bought kind is so often made with soybean oil, and loaded with sugar. I make mine with canola oil, and no sugar, of course. People who’ve only had purchased mayonnaise find the real thing to be dramatically different, almost to the point where some people don’t like it because they don’t really understand what mayonnaise is supposed to be.

Since I’ve been perfecting my mayonnaise making technique for about three years now, I kind of feel like I’ve got the formula down, so it always interests me to read other people’s descriptions of how to make it. I’ve discovered what I like, and I know what I don’t, so when I read how other people make it, I know immediately if I’d like their version or not, based on the ingredients they recommend. I just saw another blurb in praise of homemade versus store-bought the other day in a book I have, so I thought I would walk through their recommendations/recipe (it’s a pretty typical formulation).

Well, first of all, I always use pasteurized eggs. I’m funny that way. Salmonella just bothers me, I can’t quite put my finger on why. However, the authors did say that their mayonnaise making days were back in the 1970s, before the Salmonella problems became national news.

Beyond that, there’s always a sort of quiet debate between using a whole egg versus using an egg yolk only. No one ever comes out and says that using one or the other is better, but they specify “I use an egg” or “I use the yolk of one egg.” Personally I always use a whole egg because I don’t notice any difference between the taste of that made with a whole egg as compared with that using only a yolk, and I don’t want to throw away the egg white, but neither do I want to do something like freeze them.

Interestingly mustard is one of the primary ingredients in mayonnaise. A condiment made with a condiment, if you will. Most recipes call for dry mustard. I find dry mustard to be too strong and too bitter for my taste. What I have found that I like is Dijon mustard, and preferably Grey Poupon. I’ve tried other brands, and there was something lacking in them. Grey Poupon has just the right amount of vinegar and garlic, which adds an interesting subtle undertone to the finished mayonnaise. I use between two teaspoons and a tablespoon. I’m not very specific, so sometimes my mayonnaise is a little more mustardy, and sometimes a little less so.

Acidic Component
Most recipes call for white vinegar in mayonnaise. A few call for lemon juice, and lots specify either/or. I feel that vinegar is too harsh in general. If I use enough to add real flavor to the end product, there’s too much bite too it. Through trial and error I discovered that I really just prefer lemon juice straight. I also now like lemon juice as an acid in every instance—in a vinaigrette for example. The juice of one lemon is about the right amount for a single batch, although if it’s a very large lemon, the juice of one half would probably suffice.

Salt & Pepper
I like quite a bit of salt in my mayonnaise, but the nice thing about making it from scratch is that if you don’t like it salty, you don’t have to make it salty. I use white pepper, and just a dash of it, but again, since I’m making it myself, it’s flexible.

This is usually the biggest debate. What kind of oil do you use? Most recipes I read call for olive oil, which I think is interesting because olive oil is just too strong for mayonnaise. The olive flavor overpowers the eggy flavor and the subtleties that the mustard adds. A few recipes I’ve read do call for some kind of neutral oil—peanut, corn, canola. I myself use canola oil for several reasons. First it's sufficiently flavorless, and lets the other ingredients shine through. Second, it’s not terribly expensive (peanut oil is quite pricey). And lastly, canola is supposed to be the best (after olive oil) for one’s health. Mayonnaise in general isn’t really all that great for you, since it’s pretty much categorized as a “fat,” but using a better quality of oil makes it at least a healthy fat.

Some people prefer to beat everything by hand. Some prefer to use a food processor, or blender. I’ve also read of people using a stick blender, or a stand or hand mixer. I read an interesting theory that using something like a stick blender or food processor makes olive oil taste bitter. I’ve never experienced that, but then as I say, I don’t use olive oil anyway. I myself prefer the blender method. In my experience, it's the least likely to break. I have made it by hand with a whisk and a bowl, but I haven't been able to get it thick enough to suit me without using about twice as much oil as the recipe calls for. The blender gets it to almost the perfect consistency, which is finalized when it’s chilled.

Of course everyone insists that the oil be added in the tiniest drizzle until the mixture is emulsified. If you don’t, they warn, the mixture will break and it’ll take a rather pesky set of steps to rectify the situation. On more than one instance, I've had the mixture break toward the end of the addition of the oil, rather than toward the beginning. I suppose it’s possible that I’ve set the stage for said breakage early on in the process, and I just don’t actually see the results until the end. At any rate, I tend to be very careful all the way through, and never assume I’m out of the woods until I actually turn off the motor of the blender.

I also once read the suggestion to add one quarter of the oil to the egg-lemon juice-mustard mixture at the beginning of the recipe, blend it for a couple of seconds, and then drizzle in the remaining oil. I've always had good luck doing this, so I do it.

Once it’s done I scoop it into a plastic container and let it cool for a few hours and then it’s ready to use. Some recipes (including the one I was just reading), say to add the lemon juice or vinegar at the end, but I’ve always added it at the beginning to make sure it was really well mixed in, and also to avoid thinning down the finished product.

I use it on sandwiches (on the rare occasions on which I make sandwiches), or in cole slaw dressing. Lately I’ve been using it to make the most fantastic blue cheese dressing ever. It calls for mayonnaise, buttermilk, blue cheese, and chives (plus some other things like salt, pepper and a little white vinegar). It was intended as a dip for buffalo chicken strips, but we’ve started using it as a regular salad dressing because it’s outstanding. It came out of one of Sara Foster’s cookbooks, and it’s really a hit. I’ve never been much of a fan of blue cheese dressing, but this one is really quite good.

So there you have my thoughts on mayonnaise. For those who like mayonnaise, I highly recommend making a batch to see what the real thing tastes like. I myself was quite surprised when I realized how good and how easy it was, and just how bad the store bought product is. It takes a little while, and if I’m making something like cole slaw or chicken salad, it makes the recipe take even longer, but I find it’s time well spent. The finished recipe tastes fresher, and more homemade with real mayonnaise in it.

No comments: