Mayonnaise: A Science Project. You know, for kids

Recently my family had the kind of day (and the kind of evening) where the only sane thing to do come dinnertime was have us all assemble sandwiches. The schedule had been bonkers all day long and there was no chance of my being able to cook something decent; it made loads of sense to just buy some cold cuts and rolls and a couple bags of potato chips and pretend that it was the kind of hot summer night when no one even pretends that a hot meal is a good idea. Never mind that in fact it was a cool 40 degree evening and that none of us were feeling at all summery. Some nights, you just say “uncle.”

The three of us built our sandwiches, and as we sat down at the table a large-scale discussion commenced on the virtues of mayonnaise. Now, many people fear mayonnaise. Some fear it for health-related reasons and some have what I guess we’d call “sensory issues” about it — they don’t like any food that’s white, or they find it slimy, or something — I don’t know what the problem is, I just know that there are a lot of people out there who won’t eat mayonnaise. And then on the other side of things, there’s a whole other crowd that regards mayonnaise as an essential food group unto itself. In other words, people have strong feelings about mayonnaise. My husband and I are vehemently pro-mayonnaise and I have been known to make it from scratch once in a blue moon. Our daughter, when smaller, accepted mayonnaise happily as the thing that bound her tuna salad together, but if you asked her if she wanted mayonnaise on, say, her turkey sandwich, she would protest loudly and declaim that mayonnaise was bad. In other words, she wasn’t quite grasping the situation, when it came to mayonnaise. Fortunately, in the last couple of years, she’s come around, and making good sandwiches for her is a lot easier now.

I voiced my relief that my daughter is no longer mayonnaise-phobic, and mused, “It’s so depressing when people make sandwiches and skimp on the mayonnaise. It makes for a very sad and uninspiring sandwich.” My husband agreed. Our daughter asked, “Can you make mayonnaise? I mean, can you make it at home?” My husband looked at me, and I looked at him and then at my daughter, and I said, “Kid, you were born into the right household.” I realized it had been quite a long time since I’d last made mayonnaise, if she was asking me this question, and said that over the weekend, I’d show her how to make mayonnaise.
So the weekend came, and I called the girl to the kitchen and showed her what we were going to do. “It is not hard to make mayonnaise,” I said, “but there are a few things you have to get absolutely right before you start, or it will not work at all.”

“Ok,” she said. I showed her what we needed. “We’ve got some olive oil, some vegetable oil, two eggs at room temperature, vinegar, a little bit of salt, and some mustard.”

“That isn’t a lot of food,” she said.

“No, it isn’t,” I said, “but you’ll see what happens.”

First I separated the eggs, explaining that if the eggs were cold, the mayonnaise would not happen. They have to be at room temperature. If you’ve not planned ahead and taken the eggs from the fridge an hour in advance, you can run them under hot tap water to get them ready. But it’s obviously easier to just let them sit on the counter a while. The whites were set aside in a little plastic tub; we wouldn’t need them. The yolks went into a large steel mixing bowl. I got out a big whisk and said, “Ok, I want you to whisk these together.” She held the bowl steady with one hand and began to awkwardly whisk the yolks. I said, “Now I’m going to add some stuff. You keep whisking.” I measured a couple of teaspoons of white vinegar into the bowl, and added a pinch of salt and a small dab of Colman’s prepared mustard (because I’m out of dry mustard). “Keep whisking,” I said. She kept whisking. “My hand’s getting tired,” she complained. I said, “Ok, let me take over,” and I finished the first round of whisking. “See how it’s all one nice thick yellow thing?” I said. She nodded. “Ok, so now we take some oil and we pour a tiny, thin stream of it in. I want you to whisk while I do this.” I took the bottle of olive oil and began to pour in a very, very thin trickle of oil while my daughter whisked like crazy. My husband ambled into the kitchen. “You’re not doing this in the blender or something?” he asked. “No,” I said, “because I want her to really be able to see what’s happening. This is Science!” “True,” he said, and ambled out of the room.

“What’s science about this?” asked our daughter.

“Well, what we’re doing is called making an emulsion,” I said. “That’s when you take two things that wouldn’t normally combine together, and you get them to become one new thing. We’re taking oil and eggs — the eggs are mostly water — and we’re making it so that they will combine into one new thing.”

As I said this, I was pouring in more oil (having switched to vegetable oil after a while), and I’d taken over the whisking. About three minutes later, we had a big bowl of mayonnaise. How did this happen? Naturally. The action of whisking the oil and the yolks forced the two to form an emulsion, i.e., mayonnaise. Homemade mayonnaise in my experience is not the creamy white color that Hellman’s is — it’s yellower, and definitely has a more pronounced taste — so I don’t regard it as interchangeable with Hellman’s. But it is good stuff, no question. My daughter was impressed. “Now what do we do with it?” she asked. “Well, you can taste it with a spoon,” I said. She did, and was even more impressed. “But what are we going to do with all of this?”

“I don’t know,” I said. The thing about homemade mayonnaise is, it doesn’t keep very well: you have to use it up fast. Fortunately, my husband had a plan: we would be making steak frites for dinner. More accurately, I would cook steak and he would cook the frites. Dinner at home was luxurious. It turns out, the road from a turkey and cheese sandwich and potato chips to steak frites is very short indeed.

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