A sensitive sauce

With Christmas just around the corner, I thought it appropriate to share some thoughts on a sauce that is almost certainly going to make its way onto your Christmas table in one form or another. Mayonnaise.

And although we all love mayonnaise, only a few actually make their own. In fact, the very thought of making mayonnaise is enough to scare even the toughest home cook. Why? Because it SPLITS.

That ‘s right, it’s an emulsion. And emulsions are fragile creations that, if not treated right, break apart. Herein lies the fear, for a broken emulsions remind us all of the times when babies and regurgitated sour milk solids ruled the household.

But fear not, because if this sensitive sauce is treated with love, understanding and devotion, it will reward you many times over, and set you free from the bland concoctions that you buy in a jar. For mayonnaise is a blank canvass on which you can paint with many colours and flavours. Christmas will never be the same.

One school of thought traces the origins of mayonnaise back to the town of Mahon in Menorca (Spain). Most specifically the sauce –then known as salsa mahonesa – is thought to have developed after the British were banished from the Spanish town in 1756 and believe it or not, there was a Du Plessis involved.

The British were defeated by Armand de Vignerot du Plessis, a French soldier and statesman with exceptionally loose morals and a deplorably defective education who later became the Marshal of France. He was, however, also the godson of King Louis XIV of France. This fact might have boosted his political career much more than the fact that he was locked up in the infamous Bastille three times, but let me rather get back to mayonnaise.

mayonaise 3

Other (French – who else?) schools of thought trace the emulsion of egg, oil and water, to France. Possibly, to the old French word moyeu, which means ‘yoke of an egg’. The French food bible, Larousse Gastronomique (if you do not have one, get one now!), cites Montagné that it is likely a corruption of moyeu into moyeunaisse.  Or in yet another case, Carême argued that is a corruption of the French word ‘manier’ meaning ‘to stir’. A final possibility is that the sauce was called mayennaise after Charles de Lorraine, duke of Mayenne, because he took the time to finish his meal of chicken and cold sauce before being defeated in the Battle of Arques.

Debates aside, all agree that mayonnaise is nothing but an emulsion of oil in a base consisting of egg yolk, lemon – or limejuice or vinegar, and water. Stirring, whisking or beating oil into the yolks and water forms the emulsion. In the French tradition, mustard is added which provides both flavour and stabilizing agents (i.e. it helps to further with the emulsion).

Whisking the oil into the water and egg yoke causes the oil to be broken up into much smaller drops or orbs separated by sheets of water. As more oil is added, the mixture becomes denser and thickens to a semi-solid consistency. The lecithin in the egg yoke helps the oil and water to remain separate, causing the emulsion to hold. An emulsion of this nature will hold as long as the tiny oil drops remain separated by water. As soon as they break through the water barrier and join with other oil drops, the emulsion will split. Thus, the key to making mayonnaise that does not split, is ratio oil to water.

The water for the emulsion process comes from flavour agents such as lime or lemon juice, vinegar and the yolk itself. Thus, do not panic if your mayonnaise splits, it is a difficult child after all and is bound to be stubborn and strong-willed.  Your mayonnaise will split if too much oil is added, relative to the volume of water in the mixture. If that happens, just add a little more water or an extra yolk and reintroduce the split-mixture a little at a time and whisk.

Finished mayonnaise can contain up to 80% oil.

One yolk is enough to emulsify an astonishing 12 cups of oil, so one yolk is more than enough to make enough mayonnaise for your potato salad.

Michael Ruhlman states in his book “Ratio” (another must for this Christmas) that the ideal ratio for mayonnaise is 20 units oil to 1 unit water (plus one yolk).

To make a perfect mayonnaise, make sure all your ingredients are at room temperature (not cold and not hot). Add the all the ingredients except the oil, in a bowl and start whisking. Add the oil slowly, only a few drops at a time. Keep whisking and adding small amounts of oil until the emulsion of formed and completed. A little salt added to the yolk at the beginning of the process might help the yolk granules to break down.

Storing your mayonnaise in the refrigerator might cause it to split. If that happens, stir to emulsify and if needed, add a few drops of water.

mayonaise sauce

Although you could use an electric food processer or whisker to make you mayonnaise, it’ll be easier to make using a hand whisk. Chances are that you’d need only a small amount of mayonnaise, too little for the mighty blender or mixer. Also, it is easy to over-process the emulsion with electrical appliances, which in turn will heat the mixture and cause it to split. Anyway, the physical exercise is good for you, and you’ll have less to clean.

I have played around with some flavouring agents – chilies, limes, pomegranate white wine vinegar, black garlic and coriander and came up with three different flavour profiles for you to try this week. And I insist that you use your freedom creatively and try some more.

Black garlic is not available locally, so roast whole heads of garlic and use that.

I had a dream recently wherein I floated down a river somewhere in the Far East. Dressed in nothing but my underpants, I tried to avoid detection by hostile bandits whilst trying to get my hands on more black garlic. I guess I should learn something from this dream, but I am not sure what.

Maybe, that it is never a good idea to get on a boat in a foreign country and face a hostile crowd dressed only in your underpants. Or maybe my subconscious is trying to tell me that I am obsessed with black garlic to the point where I’d get on a boat in a foreign country to face a hostile crowd dressed only in my underpants.

Clearly more analysis is required.

In the mean time, take good care of your sensitive sauce.


Did your mouth water? Did you laugh or cry? Let me know!

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