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Basic Mayonnaise: An Exceptionally Versatile Sauce

Mayonnaise is one of the great pleasures for the cook because of the transformation brought to bear on ordinary vegetable oil. It's a metamorphosis, and you, the cook, are a sorcerer. You begin with a clear viscous, flavorless liquid and, with a little acid and salt, a whisk and a yolk, create a heavenly sauce of creamy consistency and satisfying flavor. It's remarkable. You'd never want to dip that tender green bean in vegetable oil — but transform that oil into a lemony mayonnaise and suddenly you do.

The following is a basic mayonnaise, seasoned with lemon juice and salt. But even this is more ornate that is necessary. If you truly wanted a blank canvas on which to paint, you could make a mayonnaise with 1 teaspoon of yolk, a tablespoon of water and 10 ounces of oil. So remember that the following mayonnaise, even before you add additional spices or aromatics is variable. Perhaps you would like to use a white wine vinegar as the acidic/liquid component, or red wine vinegar, or lime juice, or meyer lemon juice or verjus. A mayonnaise base will keep for a week to 10 days if well wrapped (the fat can absorb fridge odors).

The following, though, is a perfect all-purpose mayonnaise, excellent on its own and easy to elevate toward virtually any dish that benefits from fat and flavor.


Combine yolk, salt, water and 1 teaspoon of lemon juice in a large bowl (the bigger the better, even for a small quantity of oil). Twist a dish towel into a ring around the base of the bowl to keep it from moving as you whisk in the oil. Measure out your oil in a cup from which you can pour it in a steady stream, such as a one-cup Pyrex measuring cup. Begin whisking the yolk, then drizzle in a few drops of oil while whisking, followed by a few more drops of oil to establish the emulsion. Whisking continuously, add the remaining oil in a thin stream. The mixture should be thick enough to cling to your whisk. If you can pour it, the mixture has broken. If this happens, pour the broken mayonnaise back into the oil cup, wipe out your bowl and add a teaspoon of water to the bowl. Drip a little of the broken mayonnaise into the teaspoon of water while whisking rapidly to establish the emulsion, then continue to add the broken mayonnaise in a thin stream.

This recipe has not been tested by NPR.

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Michael Ruhlman