Mayonnaise informally mayo is a thick, creamy sauce, which is made and eaten cold.
It varies in color from near white to pale yellow.
Mayonnaise is one of the mother sauces of classic French cooking, so it is the base for many other chilled sauces and salad dressings.
While some culinary historians observe that a mayonnaise-like mixture of olive oil and egg was consumed by ancient Egyptians and Romans, the mayonnaise that we know today—an emulsion of oil, egg and lemon juice and/or vinegar, plus seasonings—was developed by one of the great chefs of France.
Food historians offer few possible theories for the origin of mayonnaise. The most popular story dates to June 28, 1756, when the French Duke Richelieu captured Port Mayon on the Spanish island of Minorca. When preparing the victory feast, the duke’s chef was forced to substitute olive oil for cream in a sauce. Unexpectedly pleased with the result, the chef christened the result “mahonnaise” in honor of the place of victory.
Years after its debut, the great French chef Marie-Antoine Carême (1784-1833), founder of the concept of haute cuisine, lightened the original recipe by blending the vegetable oil and egg yolks into an emulsion. It was his recipe that became famous throughout Europe, and subsequently, the United States and the world.
Mayonnaise quickly became a popular sauce and spread in European cuisine. In the early 1900s, a German immigrant named Richard Hellmann opened a delicatessen in New York City. The salads that his wife made with her homemade mayonnaise were particularly popular items. When customers began to ask if they could purchase the mayonnaise itself, the Hellmans produced it in bulk and sold it by weight in small wooden butter-measuring vessels.
Eventually the Hellmans were packing their mayonnaise in glass jars. In 1913, they built their first factory in Astoria. A company in California, Best Foods Inc., was also enjoying success with their version of mayonnaise. In 1932, Best Foods acquired the Hellman’s brand.
Today, mayonnaise is regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Standard of Identity. It must contain at least 65% oil by weight, vinegar, and egg or egg yolks. Spices and other natural seasonings may added with the exception of turmeric and saffron. It sales are about $2 billion per year in the U.S.
Mayonnaise is very popular in Russia, where it is made with sunflower oil and soybean oil. A study showed that Russia is the only market in Europe where mayonnaise is sold more than ketchup by volume. It is used as a sauce in the most popular salads in Russia, such as Olivier salad (also known as Russian salad), dressed herring, and many others.
Japanese mayonnaise is typically made with apple cider vinegar or rice vinegar and a small amount of MSG, which gives it a different flavor from mayonnaise made from distilled vinegar.
Commercial egg-free alternatives are made for vegans and others who avoid chicken eggs or dietary cholesterol.
The etymology of the word “mayonnaise” is uncertain. It may be a corruption of moyeunaise, moyeu being an old French word denoting the yolk of an egg. The French chef Antonin Carème thought that it derived from the verb manier, meaning “to stir.” Another possibility is that it was named after the victory of the Duke de Richielieu at Mahon in Minorca in 1757.