You may love it. You may hate it. But a smear of mayonnaise before cooking makes beef, pork, chicken and fish better as if by magic. J. Kenji López-Alt explains.
Credit…David Malosh for The New York Times. Food Stylist: Barrett Washburne.
For the past couple of years, I’ve been seeing a trend among the online community of sous-vide cooking enthusiasts: rubbing meat with mayonnaise before searing it. A parallel trend has also been hitting the grilled cheese forums (there’s a message board for everything), where folks are slathering their bread with mayonnaise before griddling, insisting that mayonnaise produces a golden-brown crust that’s superior to the one you get with butter.
At this point, I suspect that half of you are salivating subconsciously while the other half are quite consciously suppressing a gag reflex.
Even for mayo lovers like me, the image of smearing mayonnaise all over a piece of raw or semi-cooked meat is not the easiest sell. Not everyone likes mayo. It jiggles uncomfortably. It’s nearly pure fat. I get it.
But you should try it! I first let mayo get intimate with some sous-vide steaks a couple years ago. The steaks browned like a dream. Next I rubbed some mayo on my grilled cheese. It’s true: Mayo really does brown better than butter (though these days I use both).
More recently, I’ve been testing the limits of cooking with mayonnaise and discovering it may just be the most magical marinade ingredient I’ve ever encountered. I mean it.
There are a few reasons mayo is so effective. For starters, mayonnaise — a seasoned emulsion of oil in water — is mostly fat, making it a great delivery mechanism for the fat-soluble flavor compounds found in many aromatics, while leaving behind no distinct flavor of its own. (This means that mayo-marinated meats don’t taste like mayo once they are cooked.)
Moreover, that fat is suspended in an emulsion. An emulsion is a homogeneous mixture of two or more liquids that typically don’t mix together. Fat droplets have a natural tendency to coalesce when suspended in water. (Think: the shattered pieces of the liquid metal Terminator coming back together.) To make mayonnaise, the trick is to break up that fat into droplets that are so fine that they have difficulty reuniting.
Image Credit…David Malosh for The New York Times. Food Stylist: Barrett Washburne.
Emulsions are always more viscous than either of their independent constituents, which is what gives mayonnaise its semisolid texture. This quality makes it easy to spread a mayonnaise-based marinade evenly across the surface of a piece of meat — and more important, it stays there.
Mayo also improves Maillard browning, which are the chemical reactions that take place when you sear foods.
Functionally, we can think of mayonnaise as consisting of three ingredients: Along with fat and water, there is also egg protein. As the mayonnaise on the surface of a piece of meat cooks, its water content eventually evaporates away, breaking the emulsion and leaving behind a thin, evenly distributed layer of fat, as well as a very, very thin coating of egg protein.
This extra source of protein and fat can increase browning on naked meat or in watery or low-sugar marinades. This comes in handy when you want to minimize the time a piece of meat spends on the grill or in a pan. Thinner cuts — skirt steak, flank steak, skinnier pork chops — typically have trouble browning before they overcook in the center. A chicken cutlet will cook through on a hot grill or skillet in under four minutes. This isn’t a lot of time to properly brown, but with a thin coat of a mayo-based marinade, it’s easy.
On the other hand, it’s difficult to work with sweet sauces like barbecue or teriyaki, which have a tendency to burn as your meat grills. Mayo solves this problem by diluting and coating the sugars with fat and egg protein. Combining a sweet sauce with mayonnaise before rubbing it on the meat allows you to grill as hot as you like without risk of burning. Also, that sauce flavor really sticks to the meat.
Perhaps the greatest advantage a mayo marinade gives you is the ability to easily incorporate flavors. I tried combining mayonnaise with a wide range of sauces and condiments — chimichurri, pesto, Thai red curry paste, barbecue sauce, teriyaki sauce, Buffalo sauce — before marinating and grilling chicken cutlets, steaks, pork chops, vegetables and fish fillets, and tasting side-by-side with mayo-free counterparts.
Every marinade and sauce was improved — every single one. This was true with both homemade and store-bought mayo.
Another neat thing I discovered: Mayo-marinated meat can be cooked in a cast-iron or nonstick skillet as is, no extra oil necessary. The mayonnaise provides all the fat the pan needs.
The basic process I follow is simple: I season my meat with salt and pepper, I combine some sauce or marinade with a dollop of mayonnaise and rub that all over the meat, I let it marinate for a while if I feel like it, I cook the meat, then I serve it with the remaining sauce. Any sauce, any meat, indoors or out.
How do you like mayo now?