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Pantry Essentials: All About Mayonnaise

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[Photograph: Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Mayonnaise is America's most popular condiment. That news may come as a shock to fans of ketchup, or to those who find mayonnaise slick and slimy, but sales of mayo and its imitators stand at a whopping two billion dollars annually in the U.S.

That mayonnaise is such big business is especially surprising when you consider it's essentially just oil, eggs, and vinegar (or another acid such as lemon juice). Of course, it's a little more complicated than it sounds. Mixing oil with acid is challenging because of these acids' high water content. The lecithin in egg yolks serves as an emulsifying agent, binding oil and water particles together to create a smooth liquid.

If you've ever made your own mayonnaise, you may know that it doesn't always go smoothly. Mayonnaise can break—split back into oil and water—if the oil is poured too quickly or if you don't beat it vigorously and constantly. If you're nervous about making your own, we recommend this two-minute mayo method using a hand-blender that's close to foolproof.

If you don't have the time or the confidence and want to pick up some mayo from the store, it's worth knowing that commercial mayonnaise isn't made all that differently, just on a much larger scale. Oil is gradually added to a base of water, eggs, and seasonings, and sheared to a smooth consistency by powerful industrial homogenizers that can outperform the most powerful home blender. Vinegar—usually plain old white vinegar—is added last as a flavor balance, rather than as part of the base.

Commercial mayonnaise is usually around 70-80% oil, and in the U.S. it can't contain less than 65% vegetable oil. Low-fat alternatives are available, but even they tend to be about 50% fat, because flavor and texture from fat is really much of the point of mayonnaise. Miracle Whip, produced in the U.S. during the Depression, and salad cream, produced in the U.K. during wartime rationing, are two examples of mayonnaise-style emulsifications of oil and vinegar with a lower oil content, and often a higher sugar content.

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[Photograph: Robyn Lee]

If you want to be sure that what you're buying is real mayonnaise, look for the word "real" on the label. It indicates that the only emulsifying agent used in the product is eggs. If the label doesn't say "real," the mayo may use milk protein or vegetable-based emulsifiers. Thickeners and stabilizers are common additions, and flavorings can include seasonings like paprika and mustard, more flavorful vinegars like cider vinegar, or sweeteners like high-fructose corn syrup. Egg-free vegan versions of mayonnaise are also available.

In a blind taste-test of eight major mayonnaise brands, Serious Eats liked Kraft Mayo the best because of its bright, fresh flavor, with onion, garlic, and a touch of paprika. Duke's and Trader Joe's also rated highly, just edging out market leader Hellman's. We also taste-tested vegan mayonnaise and discovered they can be excellent.

Around half of mayo's two billion in annual sales go to Hellman's and Best Food—two brands that are actually the same brand, sold under different names east and west of the Rockies. Yet Hellman's Mayonnaise almost never came to be. Richard Hellman, the German-born deli owner who gave the U.S. its most popular mass-produced mayo, almost traveled on the Titanic's maiden voyage. He chose a cheaper passage instead.

But if Hellman had gone down with the Titanic, the story of mayonnaise in America probably wouldn't have been too different. He was far from the only mayo entrepreneur in those early days of the American century. Amelia Schlorer of Philadelphia was the first deli owner to sell mayo in jars. Eugenia Duke of Greenville, SC, switched from the sandwich business to the mayo business to give the South Duke's Mayonnaise, a tangy, creamy mayo that claims to be the only major brand with no added sugar or sweeteners, and has something of a cult following among many mayo connoisseurs.

Neither Hellman, Schlorer, nor Duke can claim to have invented mayonnaise, but the sauce's true origins are a little hazy. The best-known story is that mayo was invented in 1756 on the Spanish island of Minorca to celebrate the successful French siege of the British garrison at Fort St. Philip during the Seven Years' War. The fort was located near the town of Mahon, giving mayonnaise its name. However, the name has also been attributed to the town of Bayonne, the duke of Mayenne, the Old French word for egg yolk, moyeu, or the French word for "to stir," manier.

Whatever its origin, the sauce didn't actually appear in print until early in the 19th century, and it was the great French chef Antonin Carême who popularized the familiar method of making mayonnaise by stirring oil drip-by-drip into an egg yolk emulsion. Carême was the father of haute cuisine, and the man who codified the "mother sauces" that he regarded as the cornerstones of French cooking. His list didn't include mayonnaise, but later chefs revised the list and added mayonnaise and its sister sauce hollandaise.

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Spicy mayo with sushi [Photograph: Josh Bousel]

Mayonnaise is both a sauce in its own right—perfect with meat or fish, or as the binding agent in potato salad, pasta salad, tuna salad, or chicken salad—and a base for other sauces, including tartar sauce, remoulade, ranch, and Thousand Island dressing. It can be mixed with fresh herbs, ground spices, hot sauce, mustard, grated cheese, chipotle, curry powder, soy sauce, or with ketchup to make a basic fry or burger sauce. It's ideal as a dip and, of course, as a sandwich booster.

Spreading mayonnaise over the outside of a grilled cheese instead of butter creates a golden, tangy crust. Some bakers use mayonnaise as a substitute for fat and eggs in a recipe, which makes sense given that mayonnaise is fat and eggs.

In much of Europe, mayo is the preferred fry dip over ketchup (remember what you learned in Pulp Fiction?). In Chile, Brazil, and other parts of Latin America it's generously used to top giant-sized "completo" hot dogs. Some places in the American South make a white barbecue sauce with a mayonnaise base rather than ketchup, and in both Japan and parts of the U.S. it's used as a pizza topping, either as it is or as part of ranch dressing.

Japanese Kewpie-brand mayonnaise is the preferred sauce for okonomiyaki and takoyaki, alongside tonkatsu barbecue sauce. Kewpie mixed with sriracha creates the "dynamite sauce" served on some types of sushi, especially fried sushi. Kewpie is sweeter than most mayos, and one of the few brands to use egg yolks rather than whole eggs. It also contains MSG.

Despite the varieties available, the worldwide popularity, and mayo's versatility, there are some people who still can't stomach the stuff. For those people we suggest a simple and lower fat alternative —mashed avocado with a little lemon juice. For the rest of us, there's two billion dollars' worth of mayonnaise to work our way through.

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