by Alexlyn Dundas
Graphic courtesy of Noor Nasser
It is always disappointing when someone says they hate mayonnaise. They blame the way it looks and smells as it comes out of the bottle, or how it tastes like sour eggs. But that same person will happily share a love for the local gastropub’s aioli, or wax poetic about the ranch dressing that was paired with wings at trivia night.
Odd… Mayonnaise is the base for both.
There is a difference between store-bought mayo and the condiment that is prepared in small batches. Condiments found on grocery store shelves are not great. Blame it on mass production and national taste standards, but most grocery store condiments today are overly sweet or salty generalizations of their flavor-complex ancestors.
Condiments in their non-generic forms vary so much that they are loosely defined as “something that imparts flavor on or elevates the flavor of another food.” There is a lot of room to play with flavor and texture, something store brands are not doing.
Why not take matters into one’s own hands, considering the huge influence condiments can have on taste? Do not buy them: make them.
If ketchup is too sweet, use less sugar. If most hot sauces are one-dimensional, work new flavors into the pot. Tweaking classic condiments according to personal preferences is a great way to spice up one’s pantry and add personality to the most basic turkey club.
Store-bought mayonnaise has perhaps the worst reputation, regarded as boring and unsettling.
Elly Hu (Questrom ’16) said, “It kind of grosses me out that it's like a huge dollop. The taste is a weird blandness.”
However, mayonnaise is the condiment that comes closest to haute cuisine—it is an emulsion similar to hollandaise. One of the oldest recipes can be found in Escoffier’s Le Guide Culinaire.
Making mayonnaise is not difficult, if one understands this basic understanding of emulsion: do not rush. Bostonian and famous chef Jacques Pepin breaks it down simply:
Start by whisking two to three egg yolks, a dash of vinegar and a dollop of Dijon. Then slowly pour in the oil, little by little so the emulsion does not break into an eggy, oily mess. The result will be a fluffy mixture with stiff peaks—the whisk should never stop moving until those peaks form.
“Definitely use a hand or stand mixer if you have one,” said Zoraida Cabrera (CAS ’14). “Otherwise your arm will start to hurt.”
One can easily turn mayo into a garlicky aioli, add homemade chili oils for a kick, or throw in some herbs—seasoning mashed potatoes will take half the time.
Relish is another condiment that is better made than bought. Most commonly found on store shelves is the neon green concoction of cucumbers and onions in a jar of sweet pickle juice. Homemade relishes, however, have far more variation.
“The greatest part of making relish at home,” said avid home cook Alex Williams (CAS ’14), “is that you get to make your own pickles.”
In America, the basic cucumber version reigns supreme, but the word relish actually refers to the category of condiments made of pickles in a sauce. Piccalilli, for example, uses sour cabbages, peppers or green tomatoes. Indian chutneys include tart fruit, nuts and yogurt. Even onion jams and pepper jellies are considered relishes. Any fruit or vegetable can constitute a relish.
The basics for a quick pickle are simple: vinegar, salt and sugar. Bring them to a boil along with any complementary spices. Then toss them together with a bit of cornstarch.
“Relish was relish,” said Williams, “until I made it from carrots one day. Mind blowing.”
For most, nut butters are not considered condiments because, as any late-night snacker will admit, they can be eaten alone with a spoon. Tahini, though, shines best when it is used in complement.
Tahini is typically used in hummus, baba ghanoush and halva. However, a visit to bakeries like Tatte or Sofra, where tahini can be found in cookies or cakes, reveals just how integral this nut butter is to any Middle Eastern dish.
The recipe is the simplest. There are only three ingredients—sesame seeds, salt and oil— and two instructions: grind and combine. Food processors are most efficient because the blade sits low enough to reach the small sesame seeds. Blenders can be substituted, although doubling the batch may be necessary to achieve the desired consistency.
Sesame seeds can be bought in bulk, which makes tahini the homemade condiment with the biggest bang for your buck. It will store for months on the shelf and even longer in the fridge. Use it whenever the hummus has run out or add some to a quick savory yogurt dinner.
Having lived in Turkey, Williams is particularly fond of tahini.
“Tahini subbed for peanut butter in a PB&J with grape coulis—that’s perfect,” he said.
Buying any of these condiments is the easiest option, but one’s budget and cooking skills will benefit from a knowledge of homemade condiments. Be bold—never again will one’s pantry be boring or a meal lack imagination.