I was at a party a while back with a bunch of foodie folks who were playing the desert island foods game. They were naming popular, flavorful, healthy, and versatile ingredients like olive oil, garlic, eggs, and lemon.
When asked, I started my list with mayonnaise. After a few eye rolls, the turn rotated to someone else. But what is mayo except olive oil, eggs, lemon, and sometimes garlic? Seems to me it touches all the bases and deserves culinary respect beyond tuna salad, turkey sandwiches, and deviled eggs.
Mayonnaise is particularly magical in grilling season. It sticks to the food: steaks, chicken, fish, veggies, just about anything you want to put over the heat. Unlike oil, it won’t drip off and feed flames flaring up from below. It is, after all, mostly oil, but the secret ingredient is the eggs. Mayo is an emulsion where the oil is surrounded by droplets of egg protein which keeps everything sticking together. This encourages the maillard reaction – the chemical process where food browns while cooking, giving it both great color and yummy flavor.
With an affinity for almost any flavor, mayo does double duty as a marinade or sauce. Added flavors like garlic, herbs, spices, and chilies stick to the food. A thin coating will do – no need to get heavy handed.
Back in my fishing days, we used to slather a fillet of fresh-caught bluefish with mayo, shingle it with tomato slices, and throw it on the grill. The mayo added a richness while the tomatoes contributed their natural sweetness and inherent acidity. It was a match made in heaven and has the same effect on just about any grilled food.
Mayonnaise will also help to keep delicate foods from sticking to the grill. Fish, vegetables, and fruits all get a helping hand and a non-stick lift.
Grilled Mexican corn, a popular street food, is another mayonnaise-centric recipe for backyard cooking. After corn on the cob is charred on the grill, it’s coated with a seasoned mayo and sour cream mix and then dusted with cheese. You can’t go wrong with this combo. Mix mayo and sour cream in equal amounts, flavor with lime, cilantro, and ancho chili powder. Coat the corn when it comes off the grill and then liberally sprinkle it with cotija or feta cheese.
Store bought mayo is fine. Use your preferred brand. Hellmann’s in the east and Best Foods in the west are both made from the same recipe. Duke’s, with a little more vinegar tang, has fanatic loyalists across the south. Any brand will work fine for grilling. This is not the place to put in the time and effort on homemade mayo.
It’s easy to make variations with store-bought mayo. Add some minced garlic for cheater aioli or consider adding sriracha for zing, anchovy paste for umami, lemon or lime when cooking fish, malt vinegar for mystery, sesame oil for pork, or fresh herbs. I try to keep some chipotle mayo in the frig (chipotles in adobo and lime juice) as well as a lively mayo-mustard mix good with so many foods. I just saw a recipe that added maple syrup to a chipotle mayo for a sweet-hot combo. Sounds great!
If you want to make scratch mayo, fresh summer foods are the perfect incentive. It’s not as hard as you might think, thanks to the food processor. Beat the eggs, add the lemon juice, and slowly dribble in the oil. Voila! There are some choices to make: neutral oil or flavored (like olive oil), lemon juice or vinegar, and the egg to oil ratio which determines how stiff the mayo will be. Mark Bittman in his encyclopedic How To Cook Everything has an excellent explanation of how to make mayonnaise and lots of variations on the theme. I prefer his recipe published in the New York Times for a starter mayo method.
Homemade mayo compliments summer vegetables as a dip. I love it on vine-ripened tomatoes or grilled fish. But the holy grail for summer mayonnaise is the BLT: ripe juicy tomatoes, salty-smoky bacon, sweet lettuce and a tangy mayo that frames the flavor picture. Perhaps it should be called the BLTM sandwich!
Mayonnaise, like Rodney Dangerfield, doesn’t get much respect, but I can’t imagine a refrigerator in America without an open jar. It seems, though, that we’re all stuck in a mayo rut, using it regularly, but in the same old ways.
It’s time to break out! Try it when grilling. Add some flavors. Make a batch from scratch. You’ll find a whole new world opening up.