The Secret Power of Mayonnaise

Startup food company Hampton Creek was recently sued over the branding and labeling of its egg-free sandwich spread, Just Mayo.


It’s not mayonnaise, complained the plaintiff, food giant Unilever, maker of Hellmann’s Real Mayonnaise. Unilever ended up backing down and the suit was dropped, thanks to a perfect storm of public-relations blowback. But the question remains, was Hampton Creek wrong for saying, “It’s just mayo,” Or was Unilever out of line for crying, “No, it’s not!”?

The debate comes down to the meaning of mayonnaise. How it’s defined depends greatly on the context. There is a legal meaning, under which a relative few materials would qualify, and there is a functional meaning, a street definition of mayo, that is relevant at the table, where it counts the most. Egg-free products like Just Mayo easily qualify for the latter category, as does the carrot mayonnaise I once encountered in the dining hall of a Brazilian commune.

Before I reveal the details of this carrot mayo, I should dole out enough mayonnaise theory to convince you that carrot mayo is real mayo. At least at my table.

According to the FDA, mayonnaise must contain at least 65 percent oil to qualify. The reason Miracle Whip isn’t mayo is because it doesn’t have enough oil. (It has added starch as a thickener.) One can be sure that if Miracle Whip were to call itself Miracle Mayo, Unilever would have its lawyers all over that infraction with squirt bottles blazing. The same definition also says real mayonnaise must contain eggs. I’m no legal scholar, but based on that requirement, it’s hard to deny that Unilever had a good little point, at least in a legal sense.

In the context of a food lab, mayonnaise is recognized as an emulsion of oil and water, two substances that don’t normally mix. They are coaxed into forming a stable partnership with the help of an emulsifier, which in the case of mayo, comes in the form of various molecules in egg yolk. The resulting emulsion has a thick texture and a fleshy body that’s sturdy enough to stand in a glorious, three-dimensional dollop.

As has been demonstrated by the toned bodies of Just Mayo and others like it—including my favorite fake mayo, Vegenaise—it is possible to make a fantastic oil-in-water emulsion with pea and soy-based emulsifiers rather than yolk-based. These vegan emulsions are nearly as impressive as those formed with eggs. The one discernable shortcoming being the vegan emulsions need to be refrigerated in order to retain their form, while mayo, amazingly, can hold its form at room temperature.

In practice, mayonnaise is less about the specifications of the product, and more about a niche that needs to be filled. More than almost any other edible item, mayonnaise embodies lubricity, a quality that facilitates the chewing of food. Can you imagine trying to eat tuna salad without some mayo to lube it up and send it down smoothly? Plus, you need creamy stuff on your food, because…creamy stuff on food.

Yet despite its all-around awesomeness, mayo is humble, mild-mannered and doesn’t try to steal the show. It is literally the glue behind the glitter of whatever dish it's in, quietly getting the job done, dollop by dollop, on the noodles, on the meat, and even in the soup.

There are some rare cases where there’s actually no need for mayo. With Middle Eastern food, hummus fills the niche. Hummus isn’t an emulsion, doesn’t contain eggs, and isn’t usually very thick. But it’s got the creamy lubricity we need from mayo, and everything it touches—or better yet, everything smothered in its silky embrace— becomes more delicious.

Along these lines, in the mountains of Bahia, Brazil, a chef named Jeu made a vegan potato salad that was held together by a substance she called carrot mayonnaise. Even the Hellmann’s lovers at the table couldn’t protest, we were all so busy wolfing down this dish.

Jeu agreed to show me how it's made. It’s much easier than samba dancing, that’s for sure.

Ingredients

  • 5 medium-sized carrots, chopped into rounds.
  • 1 clove garlic
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup olive oil
  • Optional: tablespoon or so of herbs, like oregano or thyme (omit if using herbs on the potato salad, as discussed below)

Steam carrots until soft. Let them cool to room temperature. Add garlic to a blender or food processor, along with salt, oil and herbs (if using). Blend, adding the carrot rounds, one by one, letting each round liquefy before adding the next. If it’s not making a smooth, moving vortex, add more olive oil.

The resulting sauce, especially if left overnight in the fridge, has the core strength to stand tall, rather than puddle. There are emulsifiers in the garlic and carrots, and they are at work in carrot mayo, binding oil and water as best as they can.

This flavorful binding lubricity, added to potato salad, is a winning combination. If you’re looking to impress or one-up a dinner guest, I suggest serving this potato salad deconstructed, as an artful pile of roasted potatoes alongside a dollop of carrot mayo.

Alas, bathing a bunch of potato chunks in a yellow aura that makes everything look a bit out of focus isn’t necessarily the most aesthetic way to serve it. But by dipping the potatoes in it as you eat, like you would catsup with French fries, you can get the same flavor in prettier fashion.

Roasted potatoes, bronzed and seasoned, can stand alone on the plate or in your mouth, and can hold their own next to a bright dollop of carrot mayo. Toss in olive oil, salt, pepper, and herbs. Roast them at 350 until chewy on the outside and soft on the inside. Plate the potatoes next to a sexy dollop of carrot mayo, and serve. 

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