The Science of the Mayonnaise…in theory…

Sometimes having a passion for cooking is terrifying…

I know I may sound strange but listen to me a second! A few days ago I posted some tips on how to make a mayonnaise with less probability to incur in mistakes that would ruin it. Naturally, since I’m not a chef, I gathered all this suggestions from wiser people around internet, my role consisted only in putting everything in the same place, to give people a chance to see them altogether.

Between all my readers I also have a dear friend that works as a chef, she red the posts and called me, with a voice of a person that knew something sensational:”Do you want to know hot to make a great mayonnaise without making mistakes?” I cannot say exactly what exactly she made me prepare (since she obliged me to do it istantly!) because I promised her not to, but I can say I prepared a spectacular mayonnaise with disturbing easiness!

Here it comes the passion for cooking: I could not stand the idea of making easily a sauce that has a difficult and delicate preparation, so I started to ask myself the reasons of all this! I spent hours searching in internet the processes behind the preparation of the mayonnaise and, once found what I needed, I felt like receiving a huge present for Christmas! I started to speak about it at work, to my wife and people I know! It is like a genuine obsession!

My wife is still laughing, and I am either! I just got too much enthusiasm to keep this for myself, so I feel gladly obliged to share all this knowledge with all of you! I just ask for some patience and understanding. Even if I’m quite fond of my english there are scientific terms and ways to speak about them that I do not know. I will try to be simple enough to make everything understandable. It will be a pretty long explanation but I’m sure some of you will appreciate it!  I have to give huge thanks to the blog Innovidea, an italian blog filled with chemical cooking knowledge! Just great stuff!

I thanks for the picture the website Giallo Zafferano. I hope they will not get angry for the theft!

Let’s start out SCIENCE OF MAYONNAISE lesson!

Before beginning our trip I would like to be precise about a thing: the mayonnaise is not the tecnique to make this sauce, it is not even the chemical process that make it what it is. In my opinion it is the mixture of ingredients that have such a wonderful taste known all over the world. So, from now on, I will use also the word EMULSION to define some of the processes.

For whoever does not remember or never attended to chemistry lessons, the emulsion is a composition of two or more liquids that to not naturally merge one into the other. The only way to merge them is to shake them, but, given the proper time, they will separate. This is of fundamental importance to understand this sauce!

Indeed the mayonnaise is an emulsion of:

  • water
  • liquid fat
  • flavours

Imagine to combine water and oil, we all know they do not mix. If we shake them violently, both the elements will break in smaller pieces, merge one into the other for some time. Naturally the mayonnaise does not have that look and does not goes back to its original ingredients…but why?

There are some elements in nature that contain a substance called LECITHIN. This substance is formed from a special type of molecule called SURFACTANT. The special feature of this molecules is that they can tied themselves with water and fats AT THE SAME TIME! They are therefore the main tool to tie this two elements that, in any other situation, would never stay together. And guess where you can find lecithin? In the eggs! It is found in noticeable amounts also in soy and mustard seeds. It is widely known the Soy Lecithin because extracting it from the soy beans is the easier process.

So we can now consider our classic mayonnaise. What does it happen when we prepare it?

The original recipe consists in using the egg yolk, add vinegar and lemon juice, mixing constantly in the same direction till it starts to raise. Then we need to add slowly but continuously the oil till, still mixing constantly, it arrives to the desired consistence.

But what does happen inside it? The egg yolk is made of water, fat and the surfactsnt molecules of the lecithin. It already contains all the main ingredients of the mayonnaise! When we beat it we break the fat and water in small drops that are tied together by the surfactant molecules. The more of this molecules will form, the less we will have water and fat roaming free in the sauce. When all the water and fat are tied to surfactant molecules, their movement becomes impossible and the emulsion will be firm just as we know it!

So what are the reasons why the mayonnaise sometimes degenerates to a liquid after becoming stiff? What does it happen inside the sauce? Basicly there is one reason: there are too many liquid fats. The only structure that makes the sauce form are the surfactant molecules, they keep their shape till there is water and fat in the mixture. If there is too much water the sauce is too fluid, if there is too much fat, the surfactant molecules cannot hold the oil that starts to “regroup” and goes back to fluid.

This is the reason why the oil is added slowly and constantly: it permits us to stop adding when the consistence is correct, before it is too much.

Now that we know what does it happen we can take a next step. How much water and fat is necessary to make a perfect mayonnaise? There is no precise calculation, however there are fair esteems: every gram of water can tie to 23 grams of fat. In the mayonnaise, for example, we got the yolk, a little amount of lemon juice and vinegar. All of them contain water, if we are able to weight the water we can multiply it by 23 and obtain a fairly accurate amount of oil that can be added. I will make a small chart for it.

There are also a few more things to know about lecithin: the first is that also the egg albumen contains it, the second is that there is a huge number of surfactant! This means that if we add a fair amount of water and fat, we can make more than a litre of mayonnaise just from one egg yolk!

Let’s sum up the things till now:

  • the mayonnaise is an emulsion of water and liquid fat into surfactant molecules that we aromatize..
  • the surfactants tied at the same time to water and fat, when both the elements are all tied we obtain the perfect mayonnaise.
  • if there is too much water the sauce will not be firm, if there are to many fats the bond with surfactants will brake, freeing the fats and becoming liquid again.

When we make mistakes with mayonnaise is there a chance to repair them? In theory there is only the need to add a bit of water, mix everything violently to chop finely again fats and water.

We can also make some final conclusions that are useful in everryday preparation:

  • the best tool to make mayonnaise is the hand blender: the blades speed, without including air in the mixture, helps shattering water and fats, favouring the bonds with the lecithin.
  • preparing a lot of mayonnaise reduces the chance to make mistakes: the time necessary to surpass the limit of fats in the sauce will arrive slower, giving usa the chance to stop in time.

For today is more than enough, but tomorrow I plan to experiment all we elaborated in theory!

How? If we got a mixture of lecithin, water and fat, we can use any ingredient to give taste and flavour to our emulsion! Why not try out some combinations then? See you tomorrow then and good luck to me!

11 thoughts on “The Science of the Mayonnaise…in theory…

  1. No, basta, sono troppo schizzinosa e perfezionista con l’inglese e con il francese, prima o poi ti scriverò un commento lunghissimo con le correzioni, aspettatelo!
    Buona serata


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