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I love cooking. But sometimes my attempts to revise a recipe gets me into trouble. The most recent case in point: an attempt to revise the ingredient list for homemade mayonnaise. Today I’ll show you what happens when a revision goes hideously wrong–and how this adventure was a perfect example of how I want to live my entire life.

This isn’t my picture, but it’s close to what I got as a result. (Neil Holmes, CC-SA.)

It Sounded Like a Good Idea At the Time: The Unauthorized Biography of Captain Cassidy.

I want to start by stating for the record that I am well aware that messing with recipes can be a really bad idea. When the recipe involves tightly-controlled chemical reactions, I tread lightly.

See, some years ago while making fudge (I can’t remember what recipe it was anymore), I discovered that I was out of the exact type of chocolate I needed. I had unsweetened chocolate, but no bittersweet. So I figured Okay, self, you can use the unsweetened and maybe just up the sugar content.

Except I had also run out of the brown sugar it wanted. Okay, self, so white sugar and molasses. That’s basically brown sugar anyway, right?

The fact that I was totally correct doesn’t matter here. The reason that these sorts of recipes specify brown sugar involves how it behaves chemically with the other stuff in the recipe. Yes, you can totally mix molasses and sugar to get a sort of brown sugar, but it won’t behave chemically the same way as real brown sugar does. The chocolate suffers from the same problem; you can fake it to an extent, but it just won’t behave the same.

You’re already cringing. I see that from here. You can smell the disaster in the air. And you know already how this will end.

YOU FOOL! you cry to your uncaring monitor. One substitution is bad enough. Two? Why even bother making it? Why couldn’t you check that you had everything before you started?

I ask myself those same questions, every time I see the pan I used that fateful day.

The results were an impressive mess even by my exacting parameters. The fudge crystallized in the pan and turned into six solid inches of maple sugar candy. I don’t even like maple sugar candy. Mr. Captain likes maple sugar candy just fine, but he did not like spending hours with a chisel and hammer to get all that stuff out of a pan.

So I’ve been leery ever since of substituting ingredients.

Until this week, apparently.

A Grand History For a Grand Sauce.

Mayonnaise has been around for centuries–possibly since the 17th century, when the French appear to have come up with it. (A 1651 cookbook mentions a sauce blanche, which was essentially hollandaise, which itself is basically mayonnaise made with butter.) Food historian Susan Pinkard thinks that mayonnaise is a happy byproduct of the Enlightenment, which we like around here in the skept-o-sphere for other assorted reasons. Forks had started showing up in European households a bit earlier, though the wire whisk was a ways off, but either one can make mayonnaise and other similar emulsions happen. A stage got set.

After making what must have been a truly illustrious entrance into French society, mayonnaise went global. I found mayonnaise squirted decoratively on pizza in Japan. Russians use it everywhere, I hear, eating some 2.5kg per person per year. In the States, I can’t even order a sandwich without asking for it to be given to me without sauces at all–not because I dislike mayonnaise (far from it, as you’ll see), but because otherwise, it will come to me absolutely drenched and swimming in viscous white goo of uncertain provenance and dubious virtue.

Any very popular and widespread foodstuff will have both avid fans and vehement detractors, and mayonnaise is no exception. People hate mayonnaise for a variety of reasons. Some folks dislike its close association with, shall we gently say, a certain demographic and ideology. Others despise it because they think it tastes horrible. A few avoid it because it physically made them sick once (however, see this).

Mr. Captain dislikes it for all of these reasons. He doesn’t even like being around me if I’m eating anything containing the stuff. My best friend growing up, Steve, had it even worse; he physically gagged at the mere smell of it.

I am surrounded by mayonnaise hatred, and yet I love it.

I’ve always been ornery mildly seditious.


I don’t think any developed country has to deal with the food recalls America does. This one involved eggs tainted with salmonella. It was a huge recall even by our standards, too–206 million eggs have been recalled so far.

But I wanted to make mayonnaise, which needs a raw egg. This requirement is non-negotiable to me. Vegan recipes exist, though I can’t vouch for them. They all seem vaguely heretical.

A quick food-chemistry lesson might be in order here.

The egg yolk that goes into mayonnaise is there to help emulsify the oil.

Mayonnaise making starts with the mixing-together of water-based ingredients, typically vinegar or lemon juice, plus salt, pepper, spices, etc, along with the egg yolk. Then an oil is drizzled into this mix–very very slowly at first, just a drop at a time, but the flow increases as the whisking goes along.

Normally, oil and water-based stuff don’t get along at all. They might be briefly shaken together, but they’ll separate out into globules the moment their suspension sits still long enough. But the egg yolk pulls these two ancient enemies together and makes them friends. Egg yolks are magical that way–they perform much the same function and many others besides in a bunch of other foods. The vegan recipes use soy milk or tofu for their protein-based emulsifiers, but mayonnaise absolutely must have something in that role. To me, that means egg yolks.

But I couldn’t just put raw egg into anything, not right now. The egg recall meant that I had to think outside the box to get my mayonnaise. And I did need to get my mayonnaise. I’m out of my beloved Duke’s, and I’d been thinking of trying to make my own again for a while anyway. So at crunch time, I had to move.

Different Doesn’t Always Mean Better.

Then I saw this thing about pasteurized eggs. It’s a simple idea: the eggs are simmered in their shell at a low temperature. This treatment isn’t warm enough to actually cook the eggs, but it is enough to kill the harmful microbes in the raw eggs.

I don’t live in a glorious utopia where pasteurized eggs are easy to find in every grocery store’s dairy section, however. What I could find: a pint cardboard carton of pasteurized whole eggs. It contained a worrisome amount of other ingredients–including some of the ones I was putting into my mayonnaise–but overall those other ingredients constituted less than 2% of the entire package. So I tried it.

Late one night, I stood and whisked my little heart out. And I ended up with, well, something that wasn’t mayonnaise. At all. I got a wimpy, translucent, soupy mess.

Was the dealbreaker the fact that egg whites came with the yolks? Or was it those other ingredients in the carton? Or was it just whatever its pasteurization had involved? I didn’t know. At least it was edible. It made a decent salad dressing with garlic and fresh herbs minced into it. It just wasn’t mayonnaise.

I needed actual eggs, pasteurized in the shell. I need safe-to-use egg yolks, more to the point.

In A-Gadda A-Sous-Vide.

A kind reader suggested sous vide cooking to pasteurize the eggs. I’d already heard of the process itself–it’s pretty next-level. Basically, food cooks at low, slow temperatures for extended periods of time. Modernist cooks came up with it (along with lobster foam and other such bizarrely hedonistic delights) and now it’s hit the mainstream. Some guy went on Ellen with sous vide chicken and she seemed very impressed. But I’d always thought of sous vide as something you get in fancy restaurants. I didn’t realize it could be used to make so many different things!

So I hopped on the sous-vide bandwagon. The night I got my setup, I pasteurized a few eggs. The recipes all agree on the steps involved: 135F for 75 minutes. I put the eggs into my biggest pot, latched the circulator on its side (it looks like an immersion blender, except it has a side-clamp like a candy thermometer), filled the pot with water, set the timer and temperature things, and when it was heated enough, I put the eggs into it very gently.

The temperature seems a little scary–typically eggs must be cooked to 160F. The sous vide, though, does the job. Here’s why: the eggs must be cooked either to that temperature very briefly, which kills the harmful stuff lurking within those pristine shells, or else at the 135F temperature for long enough to kill them all anyway.

As sous vide recipe sites predicted, the whites came out milky–but I didn’t need egg whites. I only needed those precious golden yolks.

I also found out you can make yogurt with this thing. Amazing!

I did this too. (Jason Terk, CC.) Mise en place makes cooking so much easier for me.

Retrying the Classic Recipe.

Glandu, our resident Mayonnaise Whisperer, gave us his father’s recipe a little while ago:

A tea spoon of mustard, salt, pepper, one yellow of egg(keep the white for something else, like meringue). Mix strongly(a hardcore cook as my father can mix with a simple spoon, I need a whip, my wife needs an electric mixer), and add just very few oil. As it begins to be less liquid, add some more oil, and mix. The more oil you add, the quicker you can add oil, be very slow in the beginning. According to your taste, you can add lemon of herbs. I’m using sunflower oil, as I like it to have a soft taste. Purists do it with olive oil, but it’s much stronger, and definitively not [for] unwarned people.

Sounded very straightforward. (The mustard is smooth Dijon mustard, not powder or stone-ground stuff.)

Immediately, I noticed a huge difference in the recipe’s behavior. The drop of oil, then the two drops, then the few drops, became much easier to incorporate. The slowly-rising mayonnaise seemed thicker and more deliciously luxurious.

It took a while to get all the oil in there–it always does–but I knew from the beginning that I had a much better handle on the recipe. It tasted better, even.

My finished product still wasn’t quite as fluffy as the pictures look like, but it was still a wild success: fluffy, soft, tangy, thick. And safe to eat!

A Life Lesson.

Having good ingredients makes a huge difference to a finished product. Having poor ingredients all but guarantees a poor outcome. And in these tightly-controlled chemical-reaction recipes, we substitute at our great peril.

Most of us already know all that.

But I saw something else going on here.

I saw the triumph of a homegrown demonstration of the scientific method.

At its heart, the scientific method is, as one of our commenters once observed, how our grandmothers learned to bake bread. We try something out, observe how it works, figure out where we went wrong, and refine our future attempts based on these observations.

We don’t just keep blindly using an ineffective process.

Play stupid games, win stupid prizes, you might summarize this whole enterprise. Or you might say the definition of “insanity” is doing the same things over and over again, expecting different results. If you’re of a certain religious persuasion you might even say come and see.

This Is What Life Looks Like, Outside of Christianity.

Even Christians know the truth of what it means to come and see, to rightly divide the word, to discern what is good. They simply use those skills selectively. Always, they have one part of their lives that they cannot test, divide, or discern. They cordon it off; they construct bubbles around it. It is a truly undignified display.

By contrast, I try very hard not to have parts of my life and my human experience be exempt from examination. Just as the scientific method helps us to learn more every day about stuff like the evolution of birds’ skulls, ideally our lives reflect the time we’ve spent winnowing through competing ideas to find the best and most accurate ones. If something turns out to be inaccurate, if I find a competing idea that better explains things or instructs me, then I want to have the moral courage to go that route.

And you know what? It’s a hell of a lot easier to find that courage that if you haven’t tied your identity as a person to erroneous ideas. That’s why it’s supremely important that we base our ideology on stuff that is factually true–and that we create our opinions after observing the facts, not beforehand.

Ultimately, that’s why we challenge ideas–right ones, wrong ones, all of them. This testing process is part of the human situation. Beware of any ideology that wants you to bypass one of the best and noblest parts of being human.

NEXT UP: The fallout hasn’t ended for Paige Patterson. We’ll look at some Christians who get the problem half-correct–before their antiprocess shields come crashing down. We’ll see you next time!

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...

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