Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash

Minorca is a small island well-placed in the western Mediterranean that has one of the world’s most impressive natural harbours. Together, these features gave it a strategic importance that saw it fought over for control by many peoples in its history. In 1708, it was the British who were in charge.

They established a capital on the harbour’s port, known as Port Maó-Mahón (it was named after the Carthaginian general, and brother of Hannibal, who fled to establish a settlement there, circa 200 BCE).

All went well for Britain until 1756, when, in the lead up to the Seven Years War with France, the Duc de Richelieu overtook the island and besieged the British garrison at the port. The British responded by hastily sending an ill-equipped and undermanned fleet, under the command of Admiral John Byng (expediently made an Admiral for the purpose), to reinforce the garrison and retake the island.

However, burdened with inadequate ships and manpower, he was unable to prevail against the French and withdrew to Gibraltar. For this he was court-martialled — the charge was ‘failing to do the utmost to keep Minorca British’. He was sentenced to death and executed on his own ship by firing squad. His appeal to King George II for clemency failed because the prime minister, William Pitt, supported clemency but the king didn’t get on with Pitt, and because the Admiralty needed a scapegoat to distract public attention from their failure.

The French were delighted with their new territory and celebrated as only the French do, by inventing a sauce. Duc de Richelieu had ordered a feast, and his cook included some cold food dressed with a new sauce that he named after Port Maó-Mahón — mahonnaise (meaning ‘of Mahón’) to commemorate the victory. Richelieu liked it so much he took credit for the idea. Given his fame it spread rapidly throughout France and then beyond. The spelling went through various permutations according to geography, finally becoming mayonnaise in English.

There are other anecdotes for the origins of mayonnaise, however this seems to be the accepted one, at least according to the encyclopaedic Oxford Companion to Food (Alan Davidson).

As an aside, one of Byng’s crew, ordinary seaman Arthur Phillip (18 years of age at the time), later Admiral Phillip, went on to establish, and become the founding Governor of, the first British colony in Australia — New South Wales. He was given the commission by his friend, Lord Sydney, after whom he named his settlement.

The method

Mayonnaise is a tricky sauce to make, there is a lot working against emulsion sauces. The usual components are egg, lemon juice or vinegar, water (usually), mustard (usually) and oil. The oil needs to be broken into many thousands of droplets and dispersed evenly throughout the rather small amount of water (from the egg, lemon juice/vinegar and water). The droplets cannot be allowed to coalesce and form larger and larger droplets (referred to as ‘splitting’ in cook books). There is just a tablespoon or two of water, but there is about a cup of oil, making the task seemingly impossible.

It is made possible because of the presence of emulsifying molecules in the yolk (mostly the lecithins) and in the mustard (from a variety of molecules in the mucilage protecting the seeds). Emulsifiers have a water-soluble end and an oil-soluble end. As the oil droplets form, these emulsifiers gather on the droplet surface with their oil soluble tails buried in the droplets and their water-soluble heads pointing outwards into the surrounding water. This serves to stabilise the droplet surface, keep the droplets apart and make them dispersible in water.

The methods for making mayonnaise only vary in their detail. The common principle is to slowly add a small amount of oil to the water/egg mixture while whisking furiously to break the oil into tiny droplets that are dispersed throughout the water. The slow initial incorporation of the oil is to allow time for the emulsifiers to be released and to attach to the droplets. If the oil is added too quickly, the emulsifiers are overwhelmed and cannot stabilise the droplets quickly enough — the result is an unstable oil-and-water mixture rather than a stable oil-in-water emulsion. Oil is added slowly, but can be added at an increasing rate as the emulsion firms.

The emulsion will work better if everything is at room temperature — this helps oil dispersion. Some salt helps — by breaking down the yolk and altering its viscosity (for the better). Fresh eggs are best — lecithin can break down and be less effective over time. It is necessary to use a refined oil for mayonnaise — extra virgin (cold pressed) oils are overpowering and contain molecules that break the emulsion. I use ‘pure’ or ‘light’ olive oil, despite my usual avoidance of refined oils. All I can say is that it is an imperfect world. Compromise happens. The oil is not heated, so at least breakdown products are less likely.

Mayonnaise with a stick blender

Ingredients: 1 egg; 1 tbsp lemon juice/vinegar; 1 tbsp water; 1 tsp dijon mustard; salt; 1 cup oil.

Place all the ingredients, including the oil, in the container that came with the stick blender (or anything else that is about the same diameter, at its base, as the blade housing).

Let rest for a little while (20–30s) to allow the watery components to sink to the bottom, with the oil floating on the top.

Lower the blender gently to the bottom of the container — the blade housing should be flat on the base. Start the blender, but do not move it off the base for a full 20s.

Do not hurry the previous step, but it is possible to know when it is done by listening. Once the mayo is thick enough, the blades will fling it out of their housing and the blades will be spinning in air. The thickened mayo will not allow any more oil to get to the blades. The blades, spinning in air, will create a detectable change in pitch.

Now angle and/or raise the blades to incorporate the last of the surface oil. The whole process, including resting, is over in less than 2 min.

The reason this works is that, at the start, the blades blend the egg/water mix, and soon the vortex slowly pulls oil from above into the mix. This happens in a controlled way because the blender housing restricts oil flow. After about 20s the emulsion is stable enough to lift the blender and incorporate the remaining oil.



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Science of cooking, eating and health. Retired neuroscientist.