Aioli is a thick creamy garlic sauce used in the cooking of Provence, France, and of Catalonia in Spain. It is usually served on the side at room temperature. It is often compared to mayonnaise in its texture, but it is not actual mayonnaise.
It is mainly served with cold or hot boiled fish. It can also be used as a condiment for cold meats, or as a dressing for salads or cooked vegetables.
Pure, authentic, “véritable” Aioli
Pure, authentic, “véritable” Aioli is made from just three ingredients only: garlic, salt, and olive oil. The garlic acts as an emulsifier and thickens the sauce.
That being said, the truly authentic version of Aioli is time-consuming to make — and tricky. If the addition of the olive oil is done incorrectly, the sauce will not thicken as it needs to, and it really can only be done correctly in a mortar and pestle — a blender or food processor won’t handle the olive oil correctly for the emulsification to occur. Garlic, after all, has a small amount of emulsifying properties, but not a great deal. Many people who want to make the authentic admit that it fails on them up to 50% of the time, and they have to resort to one of the rescue tricks.
Rescuing a failed Aioli
There are three tricks widely used by Provençal or Catalonian cooks to rescue an Aioli that didn’t emulsify:
- adding cold, peeled, boiled mashed potato;
- adding a slice of fresh bread, crusts removed;
- adding a small amount of heated milk (this is a trick used in Catalonia.)
Aioli with Egg
Because the authentic Aioli often fails on people, even Provençal or Catalonian cooks, most Aioli recipes call for one or two raw egg yolks which shoulder the brunt of the emulsification work. Technically speaking, using egg erases the essential distinction between Mayonnaise, which has egg in it, and Aioli, which does not. The saying is, “le jaune d’oeuf ne devrait pas y avoir sa place dans l’Aioli” (there is no place for egg in an Aioli.) Be that as it may, and even though it’s not “Aioli véritable”, Aioli with egg in it has become the standard as far as recipe writers are concerned, because it’s a lot less work, and almost fool-proof as far as emulsification goes. Even Larousse Gastronomique gives directions for Aioli with egg, and doesn’t even mention the authentic version.
Places which must avoid raw egg (such as restaurants, for fear of salmonella) will instead use a boiled potato, or stale piece of bread as the thickener right from the start in place of the egg. These will give a less silken texture than an egg yolk, but do help to cut the sharp flavour of the garlic a bit.
In all recipes, if there is any green middle to the garlic cloves, remove it and discard.
Authentic Véritable Aioli
2 cloves of garlic
pinch of fine salt
10 oz (300 ml) good olive oil
mortar and pestle
Peel the garlic. Discard the peel, and chop the cloves finely. Add to mortar and pestle with the salt, and grind into a paste. At first, add the olive oil drop by drop — literally. As you grind it in with the pestle, be slowly turning the mortar in the same direction always. After a bit of adding the olive oil drop by drop, you can progress to adding it in larger — but still very small — quantities at a time. The moment when the mixture is thickened, and has detached from the sides of the bowl, stop adding oil. Any oil added after that will ruin it.
If you’d added too much oil and lost the emulsion, then you can rescue it by adding a small amount (no more than one slice) of fresh bread, without the crust, or, a small, peeled, and cooled boiled potato, or, a small amount of heated milk.
Aioli with Potato Thickener
This version aims to ease the work and dodge most chances of a failed emulsification.
6 cloves garlic
Pinch of fine salt
1 medium-sized boiled potato, cooled and peeled.
16 oz (500 ml) good olive oil
½ teaspoon water
lemon juice (optional)
Peel the garlic cloves. Discard the peel, and chop the cloves finely. Put the chopped garlic in a mortar, then add a pinch of salt, and use the pestle to make a fine paste. Break up the potato a bit, add to the mortar, and use the pestle to make a purée. Now, while slowly turning the mortar without stopping, slowly drizzle in the olive oil in a very thin, slow stream. When ⅓ of the oil is in, add about ½ teaspoon water and (optional) a small squirt of lemon juice. Continue adding the olive oil in a slow stream, turning the mortar, until the olive oil is used up or the emulsification comes away from the sides of the mortar.
Aioli with Bread Thickener
As per above, but with a slice of fresh white bread, crust removed.
Aioli with Egg Thickener
This recipe is from Larousse Gastronomique (1977 English edition.)
4 large cloves of garlic
pinch of fine salt
1 egg yolk
8 ½ oz (250 ml) of good olive oil
Peel the garlic cloves. Discard the peel, and chop the cloves finely. Put the chopped garlic in a mortar, then add a pinch of salt, and use the pestle to make a fine paste. Add the egg yolk, and mix in with the pestle. Slowly drizzle in the olive oil in a very thin, slow stream, stirring vigorously.
Some people feel that Aioli is the hallmark and symbol of Provence, France, and even try to give it an exact date and place of invention: Marseille, 1774.
The truth is, however, that the sauce is made throughout Spain, southern France and northern Italy, and the best guess seems to be that, in fact, the sauce we now call Aioli is a Roman sauce, the one the Romans called “aleatum”, made of garlic and oil.
Literature & Lore
“Aioli epitomizes the heat, the power, and the joy of the Provencal sun, but it has another virtue — it drives away flies.” Frederic Mistral (1830-1914)
Aioli comes from the Provençal aiet (garlic) and oli (oil). It is pronounced “ie-o-lee”.
Davidson, Alan. The Penguin Companion to Food. London: The Penguin Group, 2002. Page 8.
New Larousse Gastronomique. Paris: Librairie Larousse. English edition 1977. Page 6.