Two faces or a vase? Young woman or old woman? Blue-black or white-gold? The world is full of these optical illusions, and usually the way such things go is you stare and stare and can only see one of the two possible forms until, one day perhaps, some neuron in your brain finally fires and blam! The illusion switches. The young woman's gone. The dress turns blue and won't go back. You've been reprogrammed.
Food is full of these dichotomies. Sea urchin. Liver. Oysters. Jello salad. But none moreso than mayo. I can't count the times I've caught up with old mayo-hating friends, who, years later, I see dunking their fries into pools of the stuff. Mayo—tangy, gloppy, unapologetically oleaginous—takes time to work its charms. But those who see the light find themselves reprogrammed, just like in those optical illusions. They love mayo, and its many, many uses. Mayo people, this post is for you.
Sure, you don't need me to tell you that mayo is a dipping sauce, egg salad binder, and sandwich all-star. But there's a lot more to do with a jar of the white stuff beyond those basic applications. If you haven't tried mayo as a cooking fat or sauce-thickener, for instance, it's not working hard enough for you. Here, then, are some uses for mayo beyond the mundane so you can get the most of your jar.
First, Consider Making Your Own
There are Duke's diehards and Hellman's loyalists and vegan mayo-lovers (Hampton Creek's Just Mayo is remarkably good), but then there's the homemade stuff, which will always be more soft, fresh, creamy, and voluptuous than anything you can buy in a store.
We have a foolproof homemade mayo that takes all of two minutes, and it's worth always keeping a pint in your fridge. Then there's this sweeter Japanese-style ersatz Kewpie, or proper garlicky Spanish alli-olli, or spicy mayo, sushi bar-style. Go ahead, collect them all.
The Best Grilled Cheese Ingredient (Besides Cheese)
Butter makes a great grilled cheese. But mayo makes an even better one.
Yes, butter tastes like butter. But the slight tang you get from frying (none of this "toasting" nonsense, please) white bread in mayo is a perfect complement to sharp Cheddar or twangy American cheese, the only two acceptable choices for a classic grilled cheese sandwich. But the more important reason to consider mayo is mechanical. Melt a bunch of butter in a pan and the butter not in contact with the frying-away sandwich will heat at a faster rate and, eventually, burn. Smoke follows, and an unpleasant acrid aroma that, even if it doesn't make its way into your sandwich, haunts your kitchen, ruining your moment of grilled cheese nostalgia.
Mayo, on the other hand, is easily spread directly onto bread. You can then cook your grilled cheese sandwiches "dry," with no fat in the pan beyond what's directly touching the sandwich. No smoke, less fuss, less wasted fat, PLUS little nuggets of mayo that seek into the bread's nooks and crannies. And once you've figured this out for grilled cheese, you'll realize that all toasted-bread sandwiches benefit from a little mayo.
More Salad Dressings Than Meet the Eye
Yes, yes, of course Thousand Island dressing. But I've yet to meet any creamy salad dressing that isn't improved by mayo. Whether we're talking buttermilk dressing (i.e. REAL ranch), green goddess, mayo adds stability, unparalleled emulsification, and gentle fatty tang. The one exception? Caesar salad dressing, but look at those ingredients—egg yolks + oil = basically mayo anyhow. Oh, and on the subject of dressing-style condiments, don't forget about barbecue sauce, particularly Alabama's curiously delicious mayo-based white sauce that adorns the state's smoked chicken.
Slather on Grilled Vegetables and Fish
Great vegetables cooked on the grill don't need anything, but they get mighty boring after a few corn cobs hit with nothing more than butter. Enter elotes, the Mexican street food classic of grilled corn dipped in sour cream and—you guessed it, mayo—so salty Cotija cheese and chili powder can adhere to the surface. Creamy, tangy, and loaded with salty cheese and spice, this is a condiment combination that's perfect for corn but also welcome on any hearty vegetable. (I've done it with broccoli and loved it.) See also: mayo as stuffing for grilled mushrooms.
Fish works well from the same treatment, especially if you're talking something bold like fatty bluefish slathered in mayo as both a flavoring and heat-protector against a broiler (essentially an overturned grill). The mayo chars and blackens in spots, and its fat both cooks the fish more evenly and prevents its surface from over-cooking. The flavor boost speaks for itself.
Butter is a common thickener for pan sauces, but mayo has its moments, too. Take this classic moules mariniere. You could use butter to thicken a sauce of mussel drippings, white wine, garlic, and olive oil, but it'd dull their intensity and add a distinct distracting butteriness. Not so with mayo. Its mild acidity reinforces the wine's, and it seamlessly integrates into the sauce, bringing creaminess and body without too much extra weight. While I wouldn't use mayo for my steak au poivre, it's a beautiful thing as a sauce for briny seafood.
Bake a Killer Cake
You may have noticed a trend here of mayo standing in for butter. Historically this has been the case in lean times, when butter was too expensive or rationed for military uses. Resourceful home cooks looked to mayo as a fatty alternative, including in baked goods such as chocolate cake.
As a baking move, it's brilliant: mayo is full of eggs and oil, ingredients already found in cake. It mixes easily without the need to cream butter and sugar. Its slight acidity makes for a finer crumb. And it produces exceptionally moist cakes thanks to its oil content.
It's the kind of ingredient that no one would guess if you didn't tell them to look for it, but once you know it's there, you'll start looking for more reasons to use it. That's mayo for you, useful to the very last course. Now go ahead and tell me you can't figure out how to finish that jar.