Thursday, June 10, 2010

Hands On - Homemade Mayonnaise

Today we are going to talk about how to make mayonnaise from scratch.   Before we get too far into this discussion I need to say one thing.  It is okay to bring home the Hellman's.  It is decent mayonnaise and it keeps a long time in the fridge.  But once in a while you owe it to yourself to try the real thing.  You might decide it is not worth the extra trouble.  On the other hand you might decide the homemade kind is fabulous and you will add a new simple pleasure to your life.  Either way, you have made an informed choice.  You know the difference.  You are discriminating, in a good way.  That is a big deal. 

I have used the blender or food processor method for making mayo for years  -- fast, easy and uses egg white as well as yolk.  That kind of mayo is pretty darn good.

But yesterdat\y morning I decided that I would finally take on the challenge of making classic mayonnaise by hand.  This kind does not require an electrical appliance - just a whisk, patience and a little sensitivity to what is going on between the oil, the egg yolk and the acid (vinegar and lemon juice).  What is going on is called an emulsion and it is a little kitchen miracle. Here is a jar of miracle dill mayonnaise.

First I consulted Julia Child.  Well, not Julia Child herself - because she is dead.  She lives on in her classic book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking.  And sure enough, right there on pages 86-89  was pretty much everything a person needs to know about homemade mayonnaise.  (She even has a blender mayo recipe.  Good old practical Julia.)   Julia says the ingredients for mayonnaise need to be at room temperature.  She also said that you must "beat constantly." Two strokes a second is fine.  Consistency is more important than speed here.  Switch hands or direction if you get tired.  I did.

This is not one of those quick and easy recipes.  It took me about 45 minutes from beginning to end.  This would be a great project to work on if you are listening to a favorite radio show or album or just visiting with a good friend.  It would be a great way to teach patience and a little kitchen chemistry to an older child.  I was solo yesterday but ideally this would be a two person endeavor - one person slowly drizzling the oil and the other whisking and stirring.

For a culinarily inclined couple, making mayonnaise together could be a lot of fun.  I can see it now - a platter of freshly steamed seasonal vegetables on the table.  Candles.  Wine.  Lazy stirring and talking as the mayo gradually takes shape.  Chopping some fresh herbs.  Dipping vegetables and eating them,  maybe with some crusty bread and poached fish or chicken.  A few fresh berries for dessert.  For those of you old enough to remember the famous Tom Jones eating scene - this would be in the same league, for sure.

But I digress - back to mechanics.  This recipe makes about 1 1/2 cups of dill mayonnaise
two egg yolks (it is worth looking for the best and freshest eggs you can find for this dish.  Freeze the egg whites.  We will talk about those another day.)
1 T. Fresh lemon juice
1 T. white wine or sherry vinegar
1/4 t. kosher salt  (maybe a bit more)
1/4 t. (rounded) dry mustard powder
1/4 t. white pepper
pinch of cayenne if desired
1 cup salad oil (You could use olive oil if you want that strong a taste.  I used sunflower oil for a milder and more neutral taste.  You could use part olive oil as well.  Julia Child recommends a ratio of 1 egg yolk to 1/2 cup oil "for beginners" - easier to emulsify.  As you get more experienced you could use as much 3/4 cup oil per yolk - but no more.   I like the 1/2 cup option just fine.)
1/4 cup chopped fresh dill (or more, to your taste)

Place two egg yolks in non reactive bowl - glass, pottery or stainless steel.  If you are doing this yourself and the bowl is not super heavy, place in another bowl on a towel so the bowl will stay in one place while you stir with one hand and pour oil with the other.
Add all other ingredients except herbs and oil.  Whisk for 2-3 minutes to fully disperse the acid throughout the yolk molecules.  Then SLOWLY add the oil.  I mean that.  Start with about half a teaspoon at a time.  If you have a steady hand after a while you can pour a thin stream of about one teaspoon at a time.  If you look at what you are doing, you will see how each new addition of oil gets bonded to the yolk mixture.  After you have added a half cup or so, you can increase the stream a bit. Julia says "After 1/3 to 1/2 cup of the oil has been incorporated, the sauce will thicken into a very heavy cream and the crisis is over.  The beating arm may rest a moment."

Once all the oil is whisked in, the mayonnaise should be thick and creamy.  Taste.  Adjust salt if necessary.  Add a few drops lemon juice if you like.  Fold in dill or other favorite herb.  Store in a covered glass jar in the refrigerator.  Should keep at least 10 days. Good with sandwiches, steamed vegetables, or as a salad dressing in potato or pasta salads.  Also this would make a great binder for chicken, tuna or egg salad.

Postcript: A frank talk about salmonella
Julia never mentioned salmonella.  Harold McGee, the food science guru, never mentions salmonella in his five page discussion of mayonnaise in his famous book On Food and Cooking.  But some public health authorities are worried about this so I have to bring it up.  It is possible to virtually eliminate risk by heating the yolks to 150 degrees after the acids and some water have been added.  The combination of the acid and the heat will kill any pathogens.  Since only about 1 in 20,000 raw shell eggs are contaminated and since I have been using raw yolks from my egg lady without incident for years and since I used sherry vinegar which has a higher acid content (acid kills the little buggers) -- I decided to not mess around with heating the yolks.  If you are worried about this issue, let me know and I can e mail you a 13 page pdf file which will tell you all about how to eliminate salmonella risk.  You also might be interested to know that according to the American Egg Board, an average consumer would encounter a contaminated egg once every 84 years, based on current incidence of contamination.

Tommorow:  Focus: Garlic (and we will learn about those curly things called scapes)


  1. It is my understanding that it wasn't until fairly recently that salmonella made its way into the chicken reproductive system (and therefore _inside_ the eggshell), so older sources will not mention it much if at all.

    The dill mayonnaise sounds fabulous. I'll have to try it!

  2. I think you are correct. Harold McGee's book was first published in 1984. This raw egg yolk/salmonella thing is a fairly recent development. One wonders about the cause of this phenomenon? Could it have to do with modern practices in chicken and egg husbandry? And if so, is the risk less if your eggs are from a small "old fashioned" producer? I clearly need to do a little more research.

  3. From what I understand the salmonella risk is completely related to current agricultural practices (overcrowding of animals, antibiotic resistance, etc). I'm wondering about the "salmonella inside the eggshell" quip. Is that the current theory? That the organism has made it's way into the chicken's reproductive system? Basic science (I was a microbiology major and hold an MD) would make one believe it is related to fecal contamination on the outside of the eggshell (thus explaining why I ALWAYS wash my hands immediately after handling an egg). I might take you up on that PDF file Peggy but mostly I just avoid using raw eggs (or use the less fresh, grocery store pasteurized version on the rare occasion I plan to consume raw eggs).

  4. Peggy
    I love your blog! You are funny and it makes me want to cook! I am so glad to be part of the featherstone program