Making mayo involves dip into science

April 18, 2001|By Rob Kasper

LIKE A LOT of folks, I have heard that earth, wind, fire and water are the four substances that constitute the universe. I believe that homemade mayonnaise should be added to that list. I cannot imagine existence without its pleasing presence, especially in April and May when fresh artichokes arrive in the markets.

Steaming an artichoke, then dipping its leaves in homemade mayonnaise, has become a rite of spring for me. The mayo-dipped leaves taste better when I am eating them while sitting outside, enjoying a burst of beautiful, warm weather. This year, it has been tricky finding that burst. Mostly we have had salvos of rain. But I believe that someday we will see the sun for a long stretch of time. When that happens, I want to be ready to eat artichokes.

So, recently I began reading up on mayo-making procedures.

Mayonnaise, I learned, is a classic example of an emulsion. I read this in "CookWise" a 1997 book written by Shirley O. Corriher that delves into the hows and whys of what happens in the kitchen. Unlike most of my encounters with science books, reading this one did not make me break out in the kind of cold sweat I used to get during a high school chemistry quiz.

This book gave easy-to-follow explanations of the chemistry behind cooking. After reading the explanation of what happens when you make the emulsion called mayonnaise, I felt that I had such a firm grasp of the proceedings that I began to embellish the author's account with my own touches.

Corriher explains, for example, that an emulsion is a combination of two liquids, such as oil and water, which ordinarily do not get together. To get these two liquids to mingle, you need a third ingredient, an emulsifier.

This made me think that making mayonnaise is like throwing a successful party. You have got two components that don't ordinarily mingle. In mayonnaise these two components are oil and water. In my mayo-is-like-a-party explanation, I call them boys and girls.

Without an emulsifier on the scene, members of each group tend to stick to their own kind. When this happens to a party or to a mayo recipe, it is disaster.

So the emulsifier acts like a skilled hostess whose good graces bring the boys and girls together in a joyful mix. In mayo, the emulsifier is the egg. The molecules in the egg have a water-loving end and an oil-loving end. Like a hostess who can entertain both the boy on her left and the girl on her right, the emulsifier keeps things flowing.

Moreover, once the process starts going well, the boys may occasionally bump into other boys, or girls into other girls, but now they don't latch onto each other. Instead they keep mingling and a good time is enjoyed by all.

Armed with this boy-girl overview of the process, I tried Corriher's recipe for homemade mayonnaise. I had a little trouble adjusting to the egg step. Ordinarily I use raw eggs, but her recipe called for heating egg yolks with lemon juice, water and sugar in a pan, then dipping the bottom of the pan in cold water. This technique eliminates the slight chance that salmonella might be in the raw eggs, while preventing the eggs from curdling.

It has taken me a while to get the hang of this technique. But then again, it once took me a long time to get comfortable with the boy-girl mingle thing.

Homemade Mayonnaise

Yield about 1 1/2 cups

2 large egg yolks

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

2 tablespoons water

1/2 teaspoon sugar

1 teaspoon dry mustard

1 scant teaspoon salt

1 cup oil: canola, vegetable or pure olive oil (not extra-virgin)

Heat the egg yolks, lemon juice, water and sugar in a small skillet over a very low heat, constantly stirring and scraping the bottom of the pan with a spatula. At first sign of thickening, remove pan from the heat, but continue stirring. Dip pan bottom into a large pan of cold water to stop the cooking. Scrape mixture into a blender or food processor. Blend for a second or two, then let stand, uncovered for at least 5 minutes to cool. Add mustard and salt. Cover and with the blade running, drizzle oil, very slowly at first, down the lid hole, near the center of the whirling blade. When mixture starts to thicken, add oil faster, until oil is gone and mixture is smooth. Transfer mayonnaise to clean container and chill.- From "CookWise" by Shirley O. Corriher (William Morrow and Co., 1997, $28.50)

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