Conquering the Aioli

For years, I was mystified and intimidated by aioli. It struck me as a delicious thing that I always wanted more of, a rich, flavourful, fantastic explosion of fats and underlying goodnesses in my mouth, but never as something I could make myself. I noted that the aioli you bought in the store tended to have a kind of flat, metallic taste, while freshly made aioli in restaurants was much more creamy and packed with flavour, in addition to being more fragile. I spent years telling myself that I would learn to make this classic French sauce, and never got around to it.

Until last year, when I decided that the time for aioli had come, and I needed to get over my irrational fears of emulsions. They aren’t hard to make, and in fact there’s something deeply satisfying and fun about them; I love watching everything pull together into this amazing suspension of ingredients that can be remarkably fragile, but is also strangely beautiful and compelling. I love the chemistry behind it, just as I am fascinated by the chemistry behind baking. And I knew that with some practice and a basic recipe, I could start getting more imaginative when it came to variants on aioli that could be used for all sorts of nefarious activities.

For those unfamiliar with aioli, it’s a lot like mayonnaise in some senses. Actually, a lot of senses, because many people make it by whisking an egg yolk with oil, typically olive oil, which is exactly how you make mayo. You can actually use other binders in the emulsion for aioli instead of egg, although I haven’t done so; pears, for example, are an option, along with stale bread and other intriguing ingredients. With both sauces, you work to create an emulsion by slowly whisking some kind of oil into your binder so that the two emulsify and create a thick cream. It requires patience, but it’s actually quite fun.

Aioli also traditionally includes garlic, which gets smashed up very fine before you start up with all the whisking and other foofaraw. I like to grate the garlic fine and then smush it with a soup spoon in my mixing bowl to get it as creamy as possible before adding salt and pepper for the seasoning. One could throw in paprika, tarragon, mustard, and all sorts of other things as well if one was thus inclined: with this particular sauce, the world is your oyster, and the possibilities are endless. Some people, I suppose, would use a food processor to grind these ingredients up fine for a more even texture, but I do not, because I fear and distrust food processors. There are also people, of course, who take care of the entire process in a food processor or blender, which seems like no fun at all.

Then you pop in an egg yolk, or more, depending on how much you want, stirring it to mix it with the other ingredients, and start to slowly drizzle in oil. You really do need to go slowly, because you want to keep whisking (or forking, or, if you’re old-school, grinding in a mortar and pestle) steadily to maintain the emulsion while adding more and more oil. Olive oil creates a strong, distinctive taste, but you could use a blend of oils, or something like safflower or avocado oil for a lighter-tasting aioli. Dribble that oil in. Gently. Patiently. If you have a capable assistant, take advantage of that assistant’s services to control the flow of oil as you work. You will use a shocking amount of oil, and it will emulsify up into a significant amount of aioli. Prepare to be amazed.

Some people add lemon juice or water as well. It’s critical to take care, because if the emulsion breaks, you’re going to send up with a soupy mess. Don’t panic if that happens, though; start another batch, and slowly pour your broken emulsion into the new emulsion to integrate it and combine the components again. Eventually, you will end up with a thick and glorious suspension that you can serve at room temperature with whatever you please, or stick in the fridge for later, though I should note that aioli tastes the best, and has the best texture, when it has been allowed to rise to room temperature.

Which means, yes, you are eating raw eggs. At room temperature! Some people, I know, have concerns about that. Eggs from antibiotic-free chickens are a better bet in terms of avoiding foodborne illness, and make sure to wash the shells well before you crack them open to prevent contamination. And you’re not limited to chicken eggs by any means; duck, goose, emu (that would be rather a lot of aioli, but hey), and other birds produce perfectly suitable eggs for aioli production.

The trick is the patience, and that’s the fun part, as well. Watching aioli slowly beat itself up into a sauce may not sound like the most exciting thing ever, and I suppose it’s not if you aren’t food obsessed, but it’s immensely pleasurable to me, as is that sense of conquering something I always thought was way more complicated than it really was. It’s a simple sauce that whips up very quickly, and, as a bonus, people always act all impressed when you bust it out, like you’ve committed some kind of amazing kitchen feat because you’re capable of whisking oil and eggs together. And then you can teach them and demystify the aioli monster for them, too, thus spreading the circle of homemade aioli deliciousness.