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Originally published Wednesday, May 23, 2012 at 9:30 PM

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Homemade mayonnaise: Oil, egg and a drop of magic

A Good Appetite: The trick for homemade mayonnaise that keeps its emulsion: whisk in a few drops of water. Recipes: Mayonnaise (and numerous flavor variations), Savory Gruyere-Olive Bread, Sweet Potato Salad with Lime Pickle and Cashews

The New York Times

Video

Making Mayo by Hand. For a good workout and a great emulsion, try making mayonnaise by hand with a whisk. Melissa Clark demonstrates in a New York Times' video: http://video.nytimes.com/video/2012/05/21/dining/100000001554994/making-mayo-by-hand.html
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Don't you know the mayonnaise trick?"

My friend Dori and I were standing in front of Empire Mayonnaise in New York City, the city's first and only artisanal mayonnaise shop, ogling its wares: flavors like lime pickle and, of course, bacon, when she asked me that.

If there was a trick for making mayonnaise, I certainly did not know it. And what a trick — a potential game-changer, the kind that turns homemade mayo from a special-occasion recipe into an everyday endeavor, ending our dependence on subpar, corn-syrup-filled commercial stuff.

Because here's the thing about mayo: While it's easy to buy high-end mustard and ketchup, good-quality commercial mayonnaise is a rare thing indeed. If you want really delicious mayo, you have no choice but to make it yourself. Despite my deep and committed love of mayo, my success rate for making it had been about 50 percent. To make mayonnaise, you need to slowly beat oil into egg until an emulsion forms — that is, the oil molecules are uniformly dispersed in the egg and then hold there. Whether I used a food processor, blender or whisk, my mayonnaise often broke: the oil and egg separated, heartbreakingly deflating from a thick and attractive froth into a thin and oily puddle.

Adding a teaspoon of water to the yolks before dripping in the oil helps create a stronger and more stable emulsion, Dori said. She picked up the secret in culinary school years ago, and her mayonnaises haven't collapsed since.

The first time I tried it, I achieved the lightest, most ethereal mayonnaise I'd ever made. It tasted deeply of the good olive oil I used, seasoned with lemon and mustard. We ate it with roasted asparagus, dunking the spears two, three and four times into the tasty sauce until we swabbed the bowl clean. The next day I whisked together another batch, stirring in minced anchovies at the end. It made some of the finest egg salad I'd ever had.

Heady with success and inspired by the flavors on offer at Empire, I knew a mayonnaise spree was in the making. Dancing in my head were visions of sweet potato salad tossed with pungent lime pickle mayonnaise, moist pieces of swordfish slathered with garlicky aioli, and hot biscuits spread with bacon mayonnaise and topped with slices of ripe tomato.

Why did a teaspoon of water make such a difference? And why hadn't anyone told me this before?

The only cookbook I knew of that mentioned adding water to the yolk before whipping was published by the Culinary Institute of America, and so I called there and spoke with Tucker Bunch, a chef and instructor.

"A little water physically broadens the space between fat droplets, helping them stay separate," Bunch said.

If the oil droplets don't stay distinct from one another and evenly dispersed in the oil, the mayonnaise will break. He explained that while you need not add water for an emulsion to form, just a teaspoon increases the odds that it will.

Lemon juice and vinegar accomplish the same thing, but if you add too much you run the risk of ending up with mayo that is too tart. A dollop of mustard can help create and hold an emulsion, too, which, beyond flavor, is why many mayonnaise recipes call for it.

Adding water also heightens the fluffy factor.

"Without any added water, mayonnaise can be like petroleum jelly," Bunch said. "Water gives you that nice, light texture."

Another reason to add water is that it dilutes the yolk and opens up the complex matrix of lecithin and proteins it contains, said Richard D. Ludescher, the dean of academic programs at the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences at Rutgers. The lecithin binds the oil droplets and the water in the yolk; that's the essence of a mayonnaise emulsion. As long as they are bound together, the emulsion is stable.

With a blender or food processor, a little cold water can keep everything from overheating as it whirls — another frequent emulsion buster. To really bolster your chances of creating and holding an emulsion, use a whisk. Although mayonnaise can come together more easily in a food processor, Bunch said, it is prone to breaking. Overbeating, along with overheating, can make the molecules come unglued.

"This isn't going to happen when you use a whisk," he said. "We make students on campus make mayonnaise with a whisk first before they can use a machine so they understand what it takes to work."

The last piece of wisdom Bunch shared was that initially the oil should be added to the yolk drop by drop; the emulsion should form when about a quarter of the oil is beaten in. Once that happens you can go a lot faster, increasing the drops to a steady stream.

Thus educated, I became bolder, adding my oil even faster at the end while whisking the heck out of it. Fifty-eight seconds is my personal record from start to finish. When I added the oil faster than that, the mayonnaise broke.

But given my newfound proficiency, even a batch or two of broken mayonnaise didn't bother me. I just substituted it for the oil and egg in my favorite savory cake recipe, with olives and Gruyere. (The same cake recipe also works with unbroken mayonnaise and is a great way to use up the last of a batch of the homemade stuff, which has a fridge life of about a week.)

Lime pickle was my first flavored mayonnaise experiment, which I made by chopping up the pickle, an Indian condiment sold at Middle Eastern and Asian markets, and stirring it in at the end. The texture, nubby and a little crunchy from the pieces of pickle, was a far cry from the velvety mouth feel of the version by Empire Mayonnaise. That's because the owners, Elizabeth Valleau, a designer, and chef Sam Mason, make their mayonnaise using infused oils so there are no particles to interfere with the smoothness.

My rustic version pleased me nonetheless. Mixed with soft cubed sweet potatoes, crunchy cashews and cilantro, it was bright, barbecue-ready fare.

I then played with all kinds of mayonnaise flavorings, stirring various ingredients in at the end after the emulsion had safely formed. I added citrus zests, chili sauce, herbs, garlic, capers and olives.

I also played with the variety of oil, changing the ratio of intense extra virgin olive oil to a mellow neutral oil. The more olive oil I used, the better I liked the resulting mayonnaise when eating it plain, but using all neutral oil makes a better canvas for adding flavors. Safflower, canola, grapeseed and peanut oil all do nicely. Just make sure the oil is at the same temperature as the egg. You can use cold oil and cold eggs, but I found room temperature eggs and oil to be the easiest to work with.

After dozens of happy experiments, my confidence was high and I felt ready to take on the mother of all flavored mayos: bacon mayonnaise.

I had tried this before my self-researched seminar in mayonnaise making, and it broke every time, I think because I tried to use the bacon grease while it was still too warm, fearing that it would congeal if I let it cool. This time I mixed the warm grease into the oil. The oil cooled it down and kept it from solidifying, so it was easy to drip into the eggs. I added a pinch of smoked paprika and some chopped bacon at the end to intensify the smokiness.

On the recommendation of Valleau, I whipped up what she called a "skinny BLT," with lettuce, the first local greenhouse tomatoes and my homemade bacon mayonnaise on toast. It was crisp, juicy and lighter than the original — ideal for summer eating.

Of course, I thought as I ate, it might be even better with both bacon and bacon mayonnaise. Or bacon and sriracha mayo.

I'm sure I'll get around to whipping it up.

The Raw Egg Conundrum

I'm aware that there is a certain amount of risk in using raw eggs. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 42,000 cases of salmonella infections are reported annually in the United States — just a fraction are from eggs, but using pasteurized eggs for recipes that call for raw ones is recommended. And even infected eggs don't necessarily lead to illness. There is a range of contamination and sensitivity.

Personally, I'm comfortable with this level of risk. But it's an individual choice and not for everyone. You can easily make mayonnaise with eggs that have been pasteurized. That's what the people at Empire Mayonnaise do. There are also numerous recipes for cooked-egg mayonnaise. Or try doctoring commercial mayonnaise with good olive oil, mustard and a little garlic. It's a pretty good compromise if you're at all concerned.

HOMEMADE MAYONNAISE BRIGHTENS MANY DISHES

Knowing how to make mayonnaise and many variations of it can expand a home cook's repertory of meals.

Mayo-Marinated Steaks or Lamb Chops: Marinate steak or lamb chops in chipotle, olive or bacon mayonnaise for at least 3 hours, or in the fridge overnight. Grill and serve with more sauce on the side. Alternatively, grill steak or lamb naked and serve with a dollop of mayonnaise on top. (It will melt and turn into a piquant sauce, like a compound butter but lighter.)

Broiled or Grilled Fish with Aioli: Coat fish steaks or fillets with a thin layer of aioli or rouille and grill or broil until golden. Serve with more sauce on the side. Mayonnaise encourages browning and helps keep fish moist.

Pasta Salad Carbonara: Boil your favorite chunky pasta (fusilli, penne, etc.) and dress with bacon mayonnaise while still warm. Serve topped with Parmesan curls and lemon wedges. This is nice warm or at room temperature, on a bed of ripe tomatoes.

Creamy Linguine with Olives, Herbs and Breadcrumbs: Top hot cooked linguine or spaghetti with olive mayonnaise and chopped fresh basil or chives. Garnish with homemade breadcrumbs toasted in olive oil and more olives. Serve hot or warm.

Rosemary Chicken: Swab a chicken with rosemary black-pepper mayonnaise and roast or grill. This works especially well with beer-can chicken on the grill.

Lime Pickle or Sriracha Deviled Eggs: Use flavored mayonnaise instead of plain to make deviled eggs, garnishing the sriracha eggs with Thai or regular basil, and the lime pickle with cilantro. This works well for egg salad, too.

Sugar Snap Peas with Walnut Mayo: Steam or quickly blanch trimmed sugar snap peas; they should be crisp-tender. Drain and plunge into ice water to stop the cooking. Drain again and pat dry. Serve with walnut mayo for dipping.

MAYONNAISE

Time: 5 minutes

Yield: 1 cup

1 large egg yolk, at room temperature

2 teaspoons lemon juice

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

¼ teaspoon kosher salt

¾ cup neutral oil like safflower or canola

In a medium bowl, whisk together the egg yolk, lemon juice, mustard, salt and 1 teaspoon cold water until frothy. Whisking constantly, slowly dribble in the oil until mayonnaise is thick and oil is incorporated. When the mayonnaise emulsifies and starts to thicken, you can add the oil in a thin stream instead of drop by drop.

Food Processor Mayo: In the bowl of a food processor, whip together the yolk, lemon juice, mustard, salt and 1 teaspoon cold water. With the motor running, slowly drizzle in the oil until mayonnaise is thick and oil is incorporated. This works best if you double the recipe.

Electric Mixer Mayo: Double the ingredients for the mayonnaise and use an electric mixer instead of a whisk, dribbling the oil down the side of the bowl.

Fluffy Whole Egg Mayo: Use a whole egg instead of just the yolk, and eliminate the water. This works best in the food processor or mixer.

Olive Oil Mayo: Substitute extra virgin olive oil for all, or at least ½ cup, of the neutral oil.

Garlic Aioli: Finely chop 2 garlic cloves and mash with a pinch of salt until they form a paste; mix with egg yolk before adding oil. Substitute extra virgin olive oil for at least half of the neutral oil.

Rouille: Combine a large pinch of crumbled saffron threads with 2 teaspoons boiling water. Let mixture cool completely. Whisk saffron water with 1 egg yolk, 2 teaspoons lemon juice, 2 finely chopped garlic cloves, ½ teaspoon tomato paste, ¼ teaspoon salt and a pinch of cayenne. Whisking constantly, dribble in ½ cup extra virgin olive oil and ¼ cup neutral oil until mayonnaise is thick and oil is incorporated.

Lime Pickle Mayo: Whisk in 2 tablespoons finely chopped lime pickle at the end. (Lime pickle can be found in Middle Eastern and Asian markets.)

Sriracha Mayo: Whisk in 1 ½ teaspoons sriracha, or more to taste, at the end.

Anchovy Mayo: Whisk in 4 minced anchovies at the end.

Walnut Mayo: Substitute 1/3 cup walnut oil for an equal amount of the neutral oil.

Olive Or Caper Mayo: Whisk in 2 tablespoons chopped olives or capers at the end.

Spicy Chipotle Mayo: Whisk in 2 to 3 teaspoons chopped chipotle chili in adobo sauce at the end.

Rosemary Black Pepper Mayo: Whisk in 2 teaspoons chopped rosemary leaves and ½ teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper at the end. If you like you can add ½ teaspoon grated lemon zest and a minced garlic clove, too.

Smoky Chile Bacon Mayo: Fry 3 strips of bacon until crisp; chop and set aside. Pour the fat from the pan into a heatproof liquid measuring cup and add enough oil to make ¾ cup total. Make mayonnaise, omitting mustard and using bacon fat-oil mixture. Stir in chopped bacon and ¼ teaspoon hot smoked paprika at the end.

SAVORY GRUYERE-OLIVE BREAD

Time: 1 hour plus cooling

Yield: 8 to 10 servings

Olive oil, for greasing pan

210 grams all-purpose flour (1 ¾ cups)

2 teaspoons baking powder

¼ teaspoon fine sea salt

¼ teaspoon black pepper

¾ cup mayonnaise

1 large egg

1/3 cup milk

4 ounces Gruyere cheese, grated (1 cup)

3 tablespoons pitted, chopped calamata olives

1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease an 8-inch loaf pan.

2. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt and pepper. In a separate bowl, whisk together the mayonnaise, egg and milk. Fold the wet mixture into the dry until just combined. Fold in the cheese and olives.

3. Scrape the batter into the loaf pan and smooth the top with a spatula. Bake until golden and firm, 40 minutes. Let bread cool in the pan for 5 minutes. Run a knife around the edge of the pan and turn onto a wire rack. Cool 20 minutes before slicing and serving.

SWEET POTATO SALAD WITH LIME PICKLE AND CASHEWS

Time: 30 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Salt

1 ½ pounds sweet potatoes, peeled and diced into 1-inch pieces

6 tablespoons lime pickle mayonnaise (see recipe)

2 scallions, thinly sliced

2 tablespoons chopped cilantro plus whole cilantro leaves for garnish

½ cup chopped roasted, salted cashews

1. Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Add the sweet potatoes and cook until just tender, about 10 minutes. Drain and cool.

2. In a large bowl, mix together the mayonnaise, scallions and cilantro. Add the sweet potatoes and cashews and gently stir to mix. Garnish with cilantro leaves and serve.

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