It wasn’t until I was rehired to help open my restaurant that had shut its doors during Covid that I finally learned that mayonnaise, or as it is most commonly referred to in a professional kitchen, aïoli, was more of a technique than a recipe. In fact, you could even go so far as to make the argument that it’s a mother sauce of the modern restaurant kitchen.
There weren’t many of us hired initially when the restaurant reopened. Only a skeleton crew was brought on to run a bare bones menu and get the doors open. I was the garde manger, or appetizers cook. I was also handling bread and butter service and plating deserts. Today the restaurant employs 5 people at night to do that work. Needless to say, we were all stretched super thin, and getting ready for service took some serious athleticism.
One of the appetizers on the opening menu was fried calamari with a Calabrian chili aioli. I flipped through our recipe binder and didn’t see anything for the aïoli. Thinking it was a mistake, I brought the question to my chef who was already too busy moving from fire to fire preparing for that evening’s service.
“It’s an aïoli with some lemon and Calabrian chili to make it spicy. That’s it” she said, studying my reaction only to be disappointed that I needed more info than that.
“You don’t know how to make a mayonnaise, chef?” She said taking her pen from her chefs coat while pressing the “feed” button on the ticket printer to gain some scrap paper to write on.
“I mean, I’ve made aiolis before, like, in school, but there was always a recipe. I know to stream the oil to the vitamix unless…”
“Okay. She said stopping me. This what I want you to do.”
She handed me the piece of paper. It simply said. "4 egg yolks, 1 quart canola".
There’s no way I thought. I had indeed worked with mayonnaise recipes in in the past, and they had been numerous. However, they usually featured things like lemon juice, water, and salt all measured out to the gram.
“I want you to use the Robot Coupe. Add the egg and you’ll also need a LITTLE water to get the emulsion going. Then stream in the oil slowly. When it comes together add some lemon, salt, and Calabrian. Taste, taste, taste until it’s all in balance. And we’re going to need a 4x batch of that. 4 quarts, chef. So get going. It shouldn’t take more than 10 minutes start to finish once you’re good at it.
I didn’t want to seem anything less than capable. So I gave her a “yes chef” and set out to work.
I streamed in the oil and successfully made my first 4 quarts of mayo. I added lemon until I could taste lemon and salt until it was no longer bland and tasted seasoned.
From that lesson I intuited that any aïoli was just a matter of garnishes after first making the base. Wasabi Mayo? Add wasabi. Remoulade? Add pickles and Worcestershire. Lemonnaise? Add some zest as well as some more of that lemon. I even heard someone recently describe caesar dressing as anchovy and cheese aïoli. It made sense immediately.
As with pretty much every component I’ve learned to make in a kitchen, I had to taste, had to use my palate. The whole exercise of cooking becomes so much more simple and straight forward once you learn to do that. My palate is not different than yours. It irks me to no end to hear people say “you have such a good palate.” I don’t. It’s just a matter of tasting your food, evaluating what you taste, and assigning words to it; acid, salt, heat, and so forth.
My road to pillowy mayonnaise enlightenment wasn’t without its hiccups. I can remember making my Calabrian aïoli in the final moments before what was sure to be a bone crushing Friday night service, and I finally I had one break on me having no idea why. I followed the ratio and already had 2 quarts properly made in the mixing bowl waiting for me to make a final 2 quart batch. I tried adding a touch of water and another egg yolk but looking into the water bespectacled, egg strewn liquid in the Robot Coupe, it was clear something was amiss. I took the base from the food processing device over to where chef was standing at the pass.
“Chef, I broke one and I can’t figure out why”
She stopped what she was doing, pulling the early tickets and calling out orders for the first seating as they came in off the printer. She grabbed the Robot Coupe from me and put a hand to the base. “Feel that.” She said. “It’s burning up. Put this into a lowboy to cool it down and then try again in a bit. Start with a couple of new egg yolks and then stream this broken mayo into it. It should come together really easy”.
Sure enough, she was right. Because I had gone so slowly with my two batches of aïoli, the machine had heated up considerably. I now always take care to check the temperature of any mixer or food processor I use before starting to work with them. If you grab one that just came from the dish pit, you can guess that it’s probably pretty hot. Maybe run it under cold water or blend some ice to cool it down before starting any sort of emulsion.
Another tip to avoid this sort of breakage is speed. You only need to stream oil slowly until the emulsion is established which is roughly the first third of your mixture. You can add oil pretty quickly after that. Once you get comfortable with reading what your aïoli is telling you - happy as a clam and ready for more oil or glossy and wobbly and ready to fall apart, you can accomplish bringing it together in about a minute.
Here’s the answers to some frequently asked questions about mayo:
Are mayonnaise and aïoli the same thing?
For restaurant purposes, the words are interchangeable. We generally say aïoli to each other and to our guests as it implies a garnished mayonnaise.
Is the American restaurant use of the word “aïoli” different from the olive oil and garlic dip they make in Southern France with a mortar and pestle?
Yes, it’s true. We co-opted that word. Stole it really, and stripped the meaning from it. Aïoli can mean mayonnaise plus garlic. But even that definition isn’t enough to to do justice to the component they make in the south of France. If a chef or menu says “aïoli, you can assume it’s a garnished mayonnaise.
Do I need a Robot Coupe to make aïoli?
Certainly not. You can use a Vitamix or other blender for for smaller quantities. I’ve even been known to use a stick blender held into a quart container to make on the fly emulsions for ranch or caesar dressings for family meal. You can use a whisk balancing the mixing bowl on a pot with a towel over it to keep it stable. I’ve even seen prep cooks using Hobart mixers to make gallons of mayo at a time. As long as you adhere to the principles of establishing the aïoli - streaming fat into egg yolk and a little water, it will come together.
Are there other goodies that can keep the emulsion from breaking?
Mustard like egg yolk is an emulsifier. Roasted garlic and even cooked down onion or shallot also help to stabilize emulsions. More egg yolk won’t hurt you either. The minimum is one egg yolk per cup of oil. Too many egg yolks and eventually it will be too “eggy” but adding an additional yolk is a useful hack I’m sometimes guilty of.
What kind of oil should I use for my mayonnaise?
Canola oil is favored by chefs because it is neutral tasting. You can certainly use olive oil but a 100% olive oil aïoli tends to be bitter. Lemon will help balance the bitter but maybe go 50 / 50 olive oil and canola.
What do I absolutely need to make a mayonnaise?
You need to know the ratio. 1 egg yolk to 1 cup of oil. Beyond that you need a little water. If I were making a quart of mayo, I would start with one or two teaspoons of water. As you stream in the oil it is going to get thicker. If you can see that it’s no longer accepting oil, add more water to thin it out. If you start with too much water, it’s not going to come together. Once you have the emulsion established, you can add water or lemon juice pretty generously and have it not break on you.
When you have streamed in all of your oil, the amount of water you added will determine its viscosity. I like to emerge from the mixer with a pretty tight mayo. Like if you tilt the machine to the side, the mayonnaise shouldn’t move or slump over. If it does, just add more oil.
Once you have the egg and oil part of it together, the rest is academic. Add a hearty pinch of salt and taste. It shouldn’t taste bland or salty but balanced. Then add lemon. You should be able to taste some acid coming through. Beyond that everything is garnish. Black pepper, roasted garlic, herbs, anchovy, hot sauce, pickles - the world is your oyster once you have your base aïoli in place.
Is mayonnaise a mother sauce?
Is it one of the 5 French Mother sauces defined by Escoffier? No. Those are bechamel, Espagnole, tomato, hollandaise, and velouté. The thing is, of those sauces only three are still widely used today. Nobody is going to the French for advice on tomato sauce these days. Italy won that battle a long time ago. I would argue that base aïoli should be considered a mother sauce of a modern kitchen and as I hope this article has made clear, it is to a young cook’s detriment not to be able to produce quarts of mayo on the fly.