Archived in 2022

Originally posted on 20 Apr 2010

They say it happens to everyone eventually. I mean, you just can’t keep going and going without a failure from time to time, that’s what they say.

They’re usually correct, damn them.

On Saturday friends and I fired up the grill and slapped some marinated skirt steak on for tasty meaty goodness. Since it’s a shame to waste fire we also grilled corn on the cob[1], leeks and artichokes. Naturally, where there are artichokes there is aioli. It’s some sort of fundamental law of the universe or something. Look it up.

I cannot count the number of times I’ve made aioli. People are intimidated by it but really few sauces could be easier. Eggs, acid, garlic, oil, you’re done. It’s always delicious and it’s always perfect.

Until Saturday. On Saturday my aioli didn’t just break it shattered.

For those not quite as familiar with the this substance, aioli is essentially garlic mayonnaise. Mayonnaise, in its true form, is an emulsion of oil and an acid. A typical emulsifier is egg yolk[2], though mustard and garlic also have (weaker) emulsifying properties. My aioli contains all three, along with lemon juice, salt, extra virgin olive oil and a neutral oil (grape seed, canola, etc.).

All emulsions are a suspension of one substance in another. It’s a delicate balance, perched upon a collection of variables. If one or more of these variables are out of whack then the emulsion either won’t thicken or, worse yet, it’ll break. When it breaks the more liquid substance (oils, in this case) will seep out of the solid (egg yolk). The result is an aioli which looks like light yellow curdled milk marooned in a pool of oil. Not appetizing.

As I’ve already said, my aiolis have always worked in the past yet this time it did not. I even accepted my guests’ offer to run to the store for more eggs. More eggs = more emulsifier = aioli saved! However even after the addition of more emulsifying power (read: egg yolks) the end result was still fairly nasty. What went wrong?

Eager to prevent my fubar from becoming a snafu I naturally ran for my McGee. As far as I can tell, the most likely culprits for the failure may (or may not) include:

  • The eggs were not at room temperature. Instead, in my haste, they were grabbed directly from the fridge and tossed into the bowl.
  • The lemon juice was not added with the eggs. Full disclosure: I just forgot until later in the process. Whoops. This meant there likely wasn’t enough liquid to aid the salt in breaking down the yolk into an emulsive powerhouse.

But, really, I think that the temperature was the prime mover here.

So, OK, lesson learned. It’s worth a couple extra minutes to pop your raw eggs into a bowl of hot water to bring them up to temp quickly. I get it, I understand. Now hopefully I can move beyond this fiasco to bigger and better culinary challenges.

[1] C’mon. It’s California. Of course we have fresh corn already. Sheesh.
[2] Yes, raw. No, you’re not going to get salmonella (according to the odds). Just chill.