Aioli All Wrong

Jerry:  Are you still master of your domain?

Elaine:  I am queen of the castle! 

Recent events in the kitchen left me head in hands, brow furrowed, my inner voice suggesting not-so-nice nostrums. I had ruined the homemade aioli, and in the process wasted two cups of impossibly expensive olive oil from Italy. And by ruined, I mean I’d created a separated, watery mess of egg yolks, lemon, garlic, and mustard from Dijon, France. A mess by any measure. Ish.

So, you may be asking, why go to the terrible trouble of making homemade aioli when a perfectly acceptable facsimile by Hellmann’s or Best Foods can be procured at every market in America? To that question, I can only reply: Have you ever had homemade aioli? It is to store-bought mayonnaise as Iberian jamon made from pigs that eat acorns under cork trees is to Hormel Black Label. Like so many things, it is the same, but different.

How this culinary disaster, this cocina catastrophe, happened is partially beside the point. Suffice to say that being in too great a rush is a situation with which I am all too familiar. Sensei says: Speed up by slowing down. In layman’s terms, I added the oil too fast, thereby preventing proper molecular emulsification. Turns out, making aioli is a chemistry experiment. Who knew! You can’t just dump the oil into the lemony yolk and mustard mixture; you have to drip it in with patience and practiced intention. Flub this process and you end up with a ruined mess of mayo-not-so-much. And not just a little off — I mean all the way ruined, in the “totally unusable” form of the word. In FEMA terms, an inedible Irma.

So there I stood, rubber spatula in hand, staring ashamed into the unusable, unsavory mess in my KitchenAid. Before I could get around to tossing the whole shebang down the Insinkerator, I decided to check in with the patron saint of home cooks and Francophiles everywhere to try to figure out how I had gone so horribly wrong.

Julia Child to the rescue.

Some time back, I procured a treasured volume of the book Julia and Jacques Cook at Home from Culpepper Books in Tacoma, WA, my former base of operation. Culpepper’s is a splendid little cranny, nooked into brick block between a bank and a very nice Italian joint called Europa Bistro. This bitty gem of a bookstore has an exceptional cookbook section. In addition to JJ@H, I have procured several other cooking books, including my de rigueur copy of Larousse Gastronomique. JJ@H reads as much like a work of fiction as a collection of recipes, with the key literary components of conflict, crisis, and resolution all present.

In the section on making your own mayonnaise, I learned that aioli is a lot like life: It is simple, but not easy. Aioli is important. Its creation is among the most elementary, foundational skills of cooking, but it is also oh-so-easy to screw up.

A frequent construct of the book is for Jacques and Julia to offer different approaches and techniques for the same dish. In her section, Julia not only offers tips on whipping up the perfect aioli, but devotes a lengthy section to its resuscitation if it should break.  DON’T THROW AWAY a separated aioli, she admonishes; it can almost always be resurrected. In fact, learning how to salvage this sauce is a critical kitchen skill on its own, because sooner or later, no matter how skilled one becomes, a moment of inattentiveness will cause you to bungle it. Madame Julia goes so far as to suggest ruining a batch on purpose, so you will know how to repair it when the time comes.  Acquiring this skill, she says, will provide the home cook with a profound sense of accomplishment and mastery. The idea is that fixing something is often more satisfying than creating it perfectly in the first place. It’s like The Nordstrom Way, but in the kitchen instead of women’s shoes.

You can read the full instructions in the manual (RTFM to my engineering friends), but here is the gist: Place a dab of Dijon (the mustard, not the town) in a metal bowl and whisk in a tablespoon of your dreck. As this emulsifies and thickens, keep adding more dreck in minuscule increments, all the while beating it as though your life depended upon it.  Before long, you will have a half a batch rescued, and then you can add the rest faster.

Following the tutelage of my patron saint, I saved the mayo, if not the day. And Julia was right about that mastery thing too. Seldom have I been so proud of myself.

There is a life lesson embedded in there somewhere, but I’ll resist the urge to emulsify you with it, my gentle readers. Suffice to say that while you can save a ruined aioli, you can’t un-grill an overdone steak (a particular bitch if you just took out a second mortgage to pay for that porterhouse, even at today’s low, low interest rates).

So am I the Master of My Domain, the Lord of the Manor? Depends on what time of day you ask. Thanks to a teaspoon of inspiration from Julia Child, though, for this one glorious moment, full of grace, Yes I Am.

Julia Child’s Food Processor Aioli

If you want to be super-authentic and become known as a true kitchen ninja, you can do this with a metal bowl and a hand whisk. I have done it this way, but it makes my wrist sore. 




2 large egg yolks (save the whites for something else; they are always nice to have around)

1.5 tsp. good Dijon mustard (the smooth stuff, not the whole grain)

1 tbsp. lemon juice (from a Meyer lemon, if you have one)

Dash each of salt and pepper

Up to 2 cups good oil (this greatly affects the taste of the dish; for a milder flavor, cut a good EVOO with canola oil).

Pulse the first 4 ingredients in your food processor until they are well combined. With the blade running, slowly (and by slowly, I mean excruciatingly so) drizzle in the oil — one drop at a time to start, then a steady thread, and finally a stream. Augment with minced or roasted garlic and/or finely chopped fresh herbs like parsley, chive, or chervil.

Eat Well.

About John Idstrom

My name is John Idstrom and I write Meezenplace, which is an intentional misspelling of the french cooking term Mise en Place. I am a non-indiginous, invasive species who lives and writes by the beaches of Monterey Bay. I used to think Meezenplace was about food, and maybe it was at some point. Now it's just stories I find that have food in them. Pull up and chair and join me for a meal.
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5 Responses to Aioli All Wrong

  1. mptesq says:

    Good stuff; thanks.

  2. Colleen Hollinger Petters says:

    You’ve inspired me to watch for a used version, in good condition of course, of that book, on my travels into used bookstores. I prefer to buy used cookbooks (vs. new) as I feel they’ve had some living and soul put into them by the previous owner.

    Have you read Gentleman in Moscow? You, being you, will love his weaving of food, wine, and life together. It is my new all time favorite book.

    Thanks John!

    Colleen Hollinger

    Collegeville Brokerage
    15 E. Minnesota St., Suite 104
    St. Joseph, MN 56374


  3. John Idstrom says:

    I agree on used bookstores. Just something about them. Culpeppers is a used place, full of great finds. I miss it, but you never know when you are going to stumble on something in your travels. Like, I stumbled into this store in the old part of Monterey the other day that was super, I found a novel by MFK Fisher.

    Gentleman in Moscow just went on my list – thanks.

  4. Colleen Hollinger says:

    John, I’m re-reading this older post of yours as I knew I had saved it somewhere in one of my various emails.

    Friday night, while artichokes were steaming I started my aioli. A bad choice of bowls from which to pour my olive oil resulted in the catastrophe you described. I couldn’t find this post and ending up dumping the embarrassing works. Having found this today and refreshing my memory of what to do, I’m considering “causing the aioli to break” so I learn by doing. Simple Dijon.

    So, thank you! And I’ll be dropping this Collegeville email shortly, so would you change my address for your blog posts from the current one to the Gmail I used here? I’ve noticed Gmails sometimes end up getting filtered to the junk box so if you would let me know you got this I would appreciate it. Thanks! Colleen Hollinger



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