Mayonnaise is a very thick, creamy sauce served at room temperature or chilled. It can be used as a sauce, a dressing, and or a condiment.
It is made from oil and raw egg with something acidic added such as vinegar or lemon. The oil and the vinegar would normally separate. However, lecithin in the egg yolk coats the drops of oil, and the egg yolks emulsify, binding the oil and the vinegar together. The mixture is seasoned with spices, salt and sugar.
Mayonnaise is now usually bought instead of made. While purists sniff at the idea of bottled mayonnaise, which was introduced around the start of the 1900s, had they been housewives back then in a kitchen with no conveniences including no running water or stoves that flicked off and on, they’d have welcomed ready-made mayonnaise with open arms, too. While some cooks continue decade after decade to wax lyrical about proper homemade mayonnaise, the fact is that people are so accustomed now to commercial mayonnaise that the homemade doesn’t taste right to them.
In the Southern US, people are passionate about the brand called “Blue Plate Mayonnaise.”
Mayonnaise was introduced into Japan in the 1920s and has now become ubiquitous there, appearing even in sushi bars.
If you are concerned about making homemade mayonnaise with raw eggs, you can use a pasteurized egg substitute. Or combine the egg yolks with some water and lemon juice, and heat gently to 150 (65 C) degrees, then cool a bit and proceed with the recipe.
Using verjuice instead of lemon juice or vinegar in your mayonnaise recipes can give a subtler taste.
If you are thinking of making some kind of salad that is going to sit out for a while, say at a church picnic or a buffet, or that you can keep in the fridge for a few days, commercial bottled mayonnaise (or a boiled dressing, or modern equivalents such as Salad Cream or Miracle Whip) is what you want to use, not homemade Mayonnaise.
Commercial mayonnaise is made from pasteurized eggs, and contains enough acids (and salt) to make an inhospitable environment for bacterial growth (and even kill bacteria.)
It is homemade mayonnaise that is the danger when let stand.
There might be times when purism in food standards makes you feel good about yourself: having dispatched your nearest and dearest to hospital beds with salmonella because of your standards might not be one of those times.
To be clear, commercial mayonnaise actually retards spoilage of foods and development of harmful micro-organisms.
Commercially bottled Mayonnaise doesn’t require refrigeration for food safety reasons, even after opening. However, you are advised to refrigerate it after opening in order to preserve the flavour quality for far longer.
The origins of Mayonnaise are obscure and debated – on a good day, they go back to Rome.
- Invented in France in 1756 to commemorate the capture from the English of St Philip’s in Mahón, the capital of the island of Minorca off Spain.
- One of the two commanders on the French side was Louis François Armand de Vignerot du Plessis, duc de Richelieu (who, though this may be just spurious gossip, was known to throw nude dinner parties). His chef invented the sauce there, calling it “sauce mahonnaise.”
- Same as above, but the chef invented the sauce out of what was to hand at a place where there had just been a siege, rather than necessarily trying to create a special dish to commemorate a victory.
- The Duke of Richelieu landed. They were foraging for food. A local farmer on the island who wanted to impress him, but who had only bread, a few eggs, and oil, made up for the Duke a sauce that had been made on the island for many generations: olive egg with egg yolk and a squirt of lemon juice from the trees that grew there. The Duke liked the sauce, and had his chef improve on it; it was further improved by cooks back in Paris.
- More likely the sauce had been made for some time in Spain, and was picked up by the chef.
There are at least 10 other versions and variations trying to explain its origin.
Literature & Lore
The besieged British at Mahón in 1756 were holding on valiantly, but they needed reinforcements and supplies. It was the job of Vice Admiral John Byng (1704 – 57). Byng tried, didn’t succeed, and pulled his fleet away to Gibraltar. The French then overtook Mahón. Though the British Admiralty had earlier neglected Mahón (and thus the desperate need of reinforcements), public opinion in Britain then forced them to take it quite seriously, and Byng was found guilty of neglect of duty. Notwithstanding that even the Duc du Richelieu and Voltaire wrote letters in defence of Byng, Byng was executed by a firing squad at Portsmouth Harbour. It’s owing to this that in Chapter 23 of Candide, set in Portsmouth, that Voltaire comes up with this famous line “pour encourager les autres”.
“Dans ce pay-ci, il est bon de tuer de temps en temps un amiral pour encourager les autres.” (In this country it is good to kill an admiral from time to time, to encourage the others.) — Candide, Chapter 23, Voltaire.
There are almost as many versions of where the word “Mayonnaise” comes from as there are possible histories. One version holds that the word comes from the French word to handle, which is “manier”. Another plumps in favour of it coming from an old French word for egg yolk, which was “moyeu” or “moyen”. Another version says that it was named after the Duc de Mayenne (a place in France). Originally, though, it does appear to have been called “sauce mahonnaise”. There are two versions of how the “h” became a “y”. One accredits it to a printing error in a cookbook (unnamed, of course). The other says that the French, who have never been able to say the letter “h”, simply changed it to a “y”.
Mayonnaise: The Misunderstood Dressing. The Association for Dressings and Sauces. Atlanta, Georgia. 2002.
Picnic and Food Safety Reminders: Don’t Hold the Mayo. The Association for Dressings and Sauces. Atlanta, Georgia. Retrieved October 2010 from http://www.dressings-sauces.org/foodsafety_picnic.html