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Food Science

How to Make (and Fix) Emulsion Sauces

By Fine Cooking Editors, editor

October 27th, 2011

By David Joachim and Andrew Schloss
from Fine Cooking #114, pp. 38-39

What do mayonnaise, hollandaise, and vinaigrette have in common? They're all emulsion sauces, which means they get their luscious mouthfeel from fat suspended in water. But we all know that fat and water don't mix, so emulsified sauces are always on the verge of "breaking," or separating. Knowing the science behind that separation can help you prevent it.

What exactly is an emulsion sauce?

Emulsion sauces are made by mixing two substances that don't normally mix. To do this, you have to break one of them into millions of miniscule droplets and suspend those droplets in the other substance by vigorously whisking, or better yet, blending them in a blender or food processor.

When two substances don't naturally mix, it's because the molecules of each are more attracted to themselves than to the others, so even the most thoroughly combined emulsion sauce will not stay combined for long. To prevent separation, a substance called an "emulsifier" is often mixed in. Emulsifiers, such as egg yolks and mustard, are made up of big, bulky protein molecules. When combined with fat, like oil or butter, and watery ingredients, like vinegar, lemon juice, and of course, water, these molecules get in the way, making it harder for like molecules to find and bind to each other. Therefore, there's a better change that the emulsion will hold.

Some of the most common emulsion sauces are vinaigrette (oil suspended in vinegar, sometimes emulsified with mustard), mayonnaise (oil suspended in lemon juice and water, emulsified with egg yolk), hollandaise (melted butter suspended in lemon juice and water, emulsified with egg yolk), and beurre blanc (butter suspended in white wine vinegar, emulsified by the milk solids in the butter).

Get the recipe:
Blender Mayonnaise
Blender Mayonaise
How do you keep an emulsion sauce together?

Add ingredients in the right order. Begin with the watery ingredients mixed with an emulsifier; then whisk in the oil or butter.

Start slowly and whisk vigorously. It's important to make the network of fat droplets as fine as possible. To that end, you need to add the oil in a slow stream or the butter a tablespoon at a time, while whisking constantly and making sure each addition is fully incorporated before adding the next. The fat droplets will become interspersed with the emulsifier, which encourages them to stay in suspension and form a thick, stable emulsion. Once the sauce gets viscous, it's safe to add the remaining oil or butter more quickly.

Control the temperature. If an emulsion sauce that contains egg, like hollandaise, gets too hot, the egg proteins will coagulate and turn the sauce lumpy and thin. In an eggless emulsion, like a beurre blanc, too much heat will make the butterfat separate from the butter and leak out.

Sometimes, despite your best efforts, an emulsion sauce might still break on you. If this happens, you may be able to rescue it. See the chart below for some quick fixes.

Troubleshooting Emulsion Sauces
When an emulsion breaks, how you fix it depends on the sauce.
  Problem Cause Fix
MAYONNAISE The mayonnaise fails to thicken. The oil has been added too quickly, so it never gets dispersed. Beat a fresh egg yolk with a tablespoon of water and/or lemon juice in a clean bowl, and slowly whisk in the broken sauce.
The mayonnaise becomes oily on the surface. Water has evaporated from the mixture, giving the oil droplets a chance to coalesce. Whisk in a spoonful of water.
HOLLANDAISE The sauce is lumpy and thin. The egg yolk has overcooked. Strain out the lumps and whisk the hot broken sauce into another gently heated egg yolk in a clean bowl.
The sauce has separated while being kept warm. The sauce has become too hot, causing the butterfat to leak. Take it off the heat and whisk it vigorously, or briefly re-emulsify it in a blender.
VINAIGRETTE The oil and vinegar have separated. The simplest vinaigrettes do not contain emulsifiers like mustard, so the oil and vinegar separate unless they are being actively mixed. Whisk the broken vinaigrette in a bowl or shake it vigorously in a closed jar and pour it over the food immediately, while it's still in motion. A separated mustard vinaigrette is fixed in the same way.

The sauce hasn't thickened. The ratio of butter to liquid is too low. Either the vinegar mixture was not reduced enough before the butter was added, or not enough butter was added. Add more butter.
The sauce is creamy at first, but then suddenly thins. The sauce has become too hot. Because all of the elements to maintain an emulsion are still present, all you need to do is remove the sauce from the heat and whisk in ice chips, a few at a time, until the emulsion returns.
posted in: Blogs, vinaigrette, hollandaise, food sience, mayonnaise, emulsion sauces
Comments (3)

Punisher5150 writes: Hey brother (orvis1) As we all know lemons agitate every taste bud and due to their particular citric acid content, usually generating a sweetened sour taste. Vinegar is a combination of bitter ingredients. So the two together usually create a balance of flavors. However every persons taste is their owe unique set of taste buds. I have found that using an enhancement like rice wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar helps. As well as adding honey to your recipe. Also, if you haven't already, get other opinions from your consumers. It may taste perfect, its just your taste buds results and the way it will always taste to you. But hopefully my suggestion of ingredients will fix that for you so you can enjoy your production. Let me know. Posted: 7:46 pm on January 21st

mkstmn writes: Re: Bitter Lemon Vinaigrette.

orvis1, did you get some of the white pith when you zested your lemon? That would make it bitter.

mkstmn Posted: 2:37 pm on March 20th

orvis1 writes: I have a question on making a simple Lemon vinaigrette. I have followed the recipe and it seems to be bitter? Not sure what i am doing wrong? I am using Virgin olive oil also i am using a dijon musturd; grey poupon. I follow the steps and even have to put extra suger in...and still it is bitter. Any suggestions? I also put in some lemon zest to give it a more lemon taste. Posted: 1:22 pm on March 20th

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