They say you should never discuss religion or politics at family reunions. Might I suggest a third topic of conversation to avoid? If there's one thing that may finally divide this country along loyalty lines for good, it could well be America's number one-selling condiment: mayonnaise.
When I announced to the Serious Eats team that we'd be holding a mayonnaise taste test, the reactions ranged from, "Oh, fun!" to, "I-will-gag-and-probably-vomit-on-all-of-you-when-is-it-because-I'm-calling-in-sick."* Then, when I asked you guys on Twitter, I got a similarly varied and zealous replies, ranging from "KEWPIE 4 LYPHE" to "Dukes, dukes and only dukes," to "It's got to be Hellman's." Judging from the reactions, it seems positively un-American to condimentize your ham sandwich or bind your potato salad with a brand that's different from the one you grew up with .
*No, we didn't force Jamie to eat mayo against her will.
Of course, nothing compares to the homemade stuff (especially when you use our two minute foolproof recipe!), but when you've got a few dozen burgers to make, a pasta salad in the works, and a yard full of relatives to deal with, the convenience of bottled goods can't be beat. So in what could be construed as a cruel and unusual form of kitchen torture, we had Food Lab intern Luke Davin track down nine different brands of mayonnaise and serve them up in a variety of ways to our tasting panel to determine which mayo would rule the land.
Since there are so many regional loyalties to various brands, we decided to open up this taste test to not only nationally available brands, but a few of the largest regional brands as well, making sure that all of them were available for mail order online. We also included a jar of Miracle Whip in the taste test. It's not exactly mayonnaise, but plenty of folks do prefer the tangy zip of miracle whip to that of traditional mayo in salads and sandwiches, so we decided to include it in our lineup.
- Brand 1: Miracle Whip
- Brand 2: Duke's
- Brand 3: Kraft
- Brand 4: Whole Foods 365
- Brand 5: Trader Joe's
- Brand 6: Hellman's
- Brand 7: Best Foods
- Brand 8: Kewpie
- Brand 9: Blue Plate
While Best Foods does make a standard mayonnaise, it was unavailable for order at the time of our tasting and we tasted its canola version instead. Please take its ranking with a grain of salt.
We tasted all of the mayonnaises first plain, then with some simply blanched asparagus, and finally cooked into our Classic Potato Salad to get a feel for how it would operate under a wide range of settings. Tasters were asked to rank the relative sweetness and tanginess of each mayonnaise, as well as their overall preference. They were also asked to provide written feedback on the texture, flavor, and general impressions of each sample.
There's a fundamental difference in how fresh mayonnaise made at home with eggs, oil, and perhaps a dab of mustard and lemon juice tastes from the packaged kind. It largely comes down to cost. The priciest ingredient in mayonnaise is the eggs; while you may use an egg or two to produce a cup of mayonnaise at home, store-bought mayonnaise will produce an order of magnitude more mayonnaise out of the same number of eggs, with the help of ultra-powerful emulsifying machines. We tended to prefer brands that had a creamier, more home-made texture than the ones that veered more strongly toward greasy or heavy.
Lemon juice also goes out the window—most commercial mayonnaises get their tanginess from vinegar, so you can expect the flavor to be slightly different. For our tasters, pure tanginess alone didn't cut it—there was no correlation between our perceived tanginess and overall ranking. Instead, we wanted our mayonnaise to taste bright and fresh.
Similarly, there wasn't much correlation between the perceived sweetness of mayonnaise and its overall ranking—our winning brand landed smack in the middle of both sweetness and tanginess rankings. Balance is what we were after.
#1: Kraft (6.2/10)
Our winning brand was prized for having the brightest, freshest, and most interesting flavor of the lot, and a mild sweetness. It's unique among our samples for containing onion and garlic in its flavor base, along with a touch of paprika. Not enough to come to the forefront, but just enough to add a layer of depth that other brands were lacking. We'd be happy spreading this one on our sandwiches any day.
#2 (tie): Duke's (5.8/10)
Duke's is the mayonnaise of choice in much of the South, and it won us over with its ultra-creamy, smooth texture that seemed the closest to homemade. "Thick and creamy," and "very tangy at first, then reveals sweetness," were a couple of the comments. Though on its own some tasters felt the flavor was too strong, it won people over in the potato salad taste test with its vinegary kick.
#2 (tie): Trader Joe's (5.8/10)
Trader Joe's mayonnaise is clearly meant to be a stand-in for Hellman's—they even have nearly identical packaging. The ingredients lists are also quite similar, though Trader Joe's using a combination of distilled vinegar, lemon juice, and cider vinegar for its zip. Not everyone was into it, and the scores proved divisive. Several tasters ranked it towards the bottom (with one asking, "why does this taste like brown sugar?), but it had enough strong supporters to tie for second place on average.
#3: Hellman's (5.7/10)
The most well-known brand on the East Coast had a very strong showing. For some tasters, its richness of flavor reminded them the most of homemade: "You can really taste the eggs," and "very rich, nicely balanced, good salt level." It was noticeably thicker and than other brands, but it had enough acid in it that it didn't come across as heavy to any of our tasters.
#4: Kewpie (5.3/10)
A wild card contender, Kewpie mayonnaise is tough to compare to the other brands, given its very distinct rice wine vinegar flavor combined with spices and a hefty pinch of MSG. It's the brand my mom used to serve at our house growing up, but my strong childhood fondness for it didn't bear out in our blind taste test—the MSG flavor was a bit strong for my taste.
Other tasters liked its strong egginess—it's the only brand made solely with egg yolks rather than whole eggs—while some claimed it had a "fishy" flavor, most likely due to the monosodium glutamate and vegetable oil in the recipe. You know if you're the kind of person who likes Kewpie. This taste test ain't gonna change that.
#5: Best Food's Canola (5.3/10)
Both Best Food's and Hellman's are owned by Unilever and come in nearly identical packaging, with very similar marketing. Best Foods is available west of the Rockies, while Hellman's is available to the east. Some folks have claimed the two are identical, while others have claimed distinct differences. Unfortunately, we were only able to acquire the canola-based version of Best Foods, so we can't substantiate either claim.
What we can say is that Best Foods Canola is a very respectable mayonnaise with a flavor profile similar to that of Hellman's in terms of saltiness and tanginess, though the texture is subtly different due to the inclusion of starch-based thickeners in the Best Foods version that was variously described as "creamy" and "gloppy." Some folks mentioned a slight fishiness, which is understandable considering the reputation canola oil has for easily acquiring fishy flavors.
#6: Blue Plate (4.8/10)
Another contender from the South, Blue Plate's average scores took a pretty big jump down. Ranking lowest in tanginess and second lowest in sweetness, the flavor was just too plain dull for most tasters, coming off as more greasy than bright. "This has a greasy, oily flavor. Is it broken?" asked one taster.
#7: Whole Foods 365 Organic (3.9/10)
Another significant decline from the disappointing organic mayo from the Whole Foods 365 brand. The main problem? An overtly fishy aroma (this one was also made with canola oil) and a complete lack of balance between sweetness and tanginess (not sweet enough, too tangy). "Tastes like anchovies. So fishy!" exclaimed on taster. We'll take our mayonnaise without the ichthyoids next time, thank you very much.
#8: Miracle Whip (3.7/10)
You know you're in for something sweet and tangy when vinegar and high fructose corn syrup are the next two ingredients after soybean oil. While I've got to admit I've enjoyed Miracle Whip on the occasional family reunion cole slaw or ski trip sandwich, when stacked in among the mayonnaises, it stands out as excessively cloying and unnatural tasting. Despite its low ranking, many tasters actually praised its flavor in their comments ("Tastes like a dill pickle!" "I like it, the vinegar-sweet flavor cuts the fat"), indicating that while perhaps not the ideal asparagus dip or on-its-own snack, in other applications it might have a good home.
Our Tasting Methodology: All taste tests are conducted completely blind and without discussion. Tasters taste samples in random order. For example, taster A may taste sample 1 first, while taster B will taste sample 6 first. This is to prevent palate fatigue from unfairly giving any one sample an advantage. Tasters are asked to fill out tasting sheets ranking the samples for various criteria that vary from sample to sample. All data is tabulated and results are calculated with no editorial input in order to give us the most impartial representation of actual results possible.