Don’t Hold the Mayo

There is a saying in France that Le sauce est tout—“The sauce is everything.” The great chefs of France have given the world a plethora of glorious sauces with which to adorn our repasts. There is Béarnaise, Hollandaise, Bordelaise. But perhaps the most famous and widely used of France’s sauce creations is, due to its ubiquity, rarely thought of as anything special these days, and is only occasionally acknowledged as being French. That sauce is Mayonnaise.

There are a few stories about the creation of mayonnaise. The most common and widely accepted story is that it was invented in 1756 to honor the victory of French Admiral La Galissoniére and Louis François Armand de Vignerot du Plessis, duc de Richelieu, who had commanded the siege against the British at Port Mahon in Minorca. In whipping up a victory feast, Richelieu’s chef created a new sauce to celebrate the occasion. The sauce was dubbed Mahonnaise, in honor of the Duc’s victory at Mahon. This tale seems likely both because the date corresponds to the world’s initial awareness of the sauce, and because there are regions where the name is still spelled and pronounced Mahonnaise. An alternate version of the tale is that Richelieu’s chef simply took with him to France a sauce he discovered in Mahon. There is also a claim in some parts that mayonnaise is connected in some way with the town of Mayenne. However, whichever tale is true, mayonnaise as we know it was developed by the French in the mid-1700s.

Mayonnaise was originally made by hand, and many contend that this offers the best possible results. It is richer, deeper in color, and bigger in flavor than the type you buy in a jar. You can also make mayonnaise in a blender or food processor, but the recipes are not the same. Blender mayonnaise is a bit more like the stuff you buy at the grocery store, but still offers more flavor than commercial brands. Also, using either method, you can alter the flavor simply by picking different oils and vinegars, or by changing the ratio of vinegar to lemon juice. Of course, the flavor can be further enhanced by adding herbs, spices, or garlic. In fact, a number of great sauces actually start with a base of mayonnaise or are variations on mayonnaise (for example, aioli or rouille).

Because the ingredients in mayonnaise are things most people usually have on hand, these recipes can save you when you run out of mayo but don’t want to run to the store. Also, in addition to tasting better than commercial products, there is a special joy in watching the creamy, billowing clouds of mayonnaise form right before your eyes. Enjoy.

Mayonnaise by Hand
2 egg yolks
1/2 tsp. dry mustard
1/2 tsp. salt
Scant dash of cayenne
Lemon juice
1/2 tsp. confectioners’ sugar
1/2 cup olive oil
1-1/2 Tbs. vinegar
1/2 cup vegetable oil

Place the egg yolks in a clean, dry, medium-sized bowl. Beat with a wire whisk or wooden spoon until lemon colored. Beat in the mustard, salt, cayenne, sugar, and 1/2 tsp. lemon juice. Continue beating and begin to add VERY slowly (about a teaspoon at a time) the olive oil. The mixture will begin to thicken and emulsify. Continue until the full 1/2 cup of oil is incorporated.

Mix together the vinegar and 2 Tbs. lemon juice. Have this and the additional 1/2 cup of vegetable oil close at hand as you continue. While beating the mixture, alternate adding oil and lemon juice/vinegar mixture very slowly (a few drops at a time).

The sauce will not thicken correctly if you add the oil too quickly (this can range from a slightly thinner mayo to curdled slosh), or if you add cold oil to warm egg yolks. Fortunately, there is a remedy. You might first try beating in a teaspoon of warm water. If this doesn’t help, place an additional egg yolk in another bowl, begin beating it, and then v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y add the curdled or otherwise imperfect sauce to the egg yolk, beating constantly until it thickens.

Mayonnaise by Machine
1 egg
1 tsp. dry mustard
1 scant tsp. salt
Dash of cayenne
1 tsp. sugar
1-1/4 cups vegetable oil
3 Tbs. lemon juice

Put the egg, mustard, salt, cayenne, sugar, and 1/4 cup oil in the bowl of your food processor or blender. Cover and blend on HIGH until thoroughly combined. If using a blender, remove the top while still going. If using a food processor, just utilize the “drizzle hole” that allows you to add liquids while it is processing. While the machine is still running, slowly drizzle in 1/2 cup oil (though this needs to be slowly, it can be a fairly steady stream, rather than the teaspoon at a time of the hand-beaten method). Then slowly add the lemon juice, letting machine run until it is thoroughly blended in. Finally, with the machine still running, add the last 1/2 cup of oil (still slowly).

With the blender, because it is deep and narrow, it might be necessary to stop the machine and push the mayonnaise down toward the mixing blades.

NOTES: Because the eggs in these recipes (as in all mayonnaise recipes) are not cooked, you have to refrigerate the mayonnaise as soon as possible after you’ve made it (or use it right away). Refrigerated, the mayonnaise will last at least ten days. I also suggest getting good-quality eggs, such as the free range or vegetarian-fed varieties, as these types are less likely to have any germs on them. Also, don’t even think about using a previously cracked egg (those must be cooked).

Vinegar can be blended with lemon juice in the machine-made version, and most types of oil or vinegar can be used in either recipe. A fruity, full-bodied, extra virgin olive oil gives the mayo a heartier flavor, while a lighter olive oil will make it more delicate (and olive oil would have been the original oil used). A wine vinegar might be picked to match wines used in other dishes. Safflower or other light-tasting oils work best when you want the mayo to be more “generic.” Be aware that if you use balsamic vinegar and dark olive oil, you’ll end up with tan mayonnaise—but it will taste great.

For both versions, all ingredients should be at room temperature before you start.

Reliable sources say that mayonnaise will not bind if an electrical storm is occurring or even approaching. Don’t know why, but there you go.

I have never had to “rescue” a machine-made mayo, but have read that sometimes rescue is necessary. The same trick above, of using an egg yolk and beating in the damaged product, should work with blender mayo, too.

And for the record, I use the machine version vastly more often than the hand made, because life is short, and the machine version takes a lot less time. But I think it’s good to know how to make it by hand.

© 2008 Cynthia Clampitt

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Filed under culinary history, Food, History, Recipes

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