There is no one secret to good cooking. There is no coveted culinary key that unlocks a hidden door behind which the Illuminati of chefs sit, drinking and dining on a banquet of perfect dishes.
Rather, cooking is like most learned processes — it starts with understanding and refining simple concepts before moving on to more complex ones. The beauty of cooking is that it’s an ongoing education, like a door behind which lays a series of doors, each one leading to more and more doors.
The journey begins with learning the basics. As in a story, you have to meet the characters, learn a bit about them and then find out how their plot lines interact or conflict with each other. A perfect example of this in cooking is the concept of emulsification; more specifically, the beauty of how basic, disparate components like fat and liquid come together to form a single harmonious sauce like aioli.
Aioli, similar to it’s close relative mayonnaise, is a sauce made up of ingredients that do not normally mix well. Emulsifications like aioli, mayonnaise and vinaigrette are essential building blocks to becoming a better cook but are made up of scientific principles that belie their seeming simplicity.
Oil and water, or other liquids, do not naturally want to stay together. They need another character to help bring them together and more importantly, keep them together as one. That’s where the emulsifier, ingredients like eggs or mustard, comes in.
In film terms, think of the emulsifier as the matchmaker or comedic relief best friend — it brings the two individuals together and somehow keeps them together for the happily ever after ending. Cue appropriate early era Beatles song and end credits.
With cooking, it is a matter of understanding the ingredients unique qualities and how to add others to defy their natural scientific tendencies. For aioli, that means connecting and keeping the oil and liquid together.
Noted food scientist, author and personal hero of mine Harold McGee simplifies this in his essential book On Food and Cooking, into what he calls the “continuous” and “dispersed” phases. The oil, or dispersed phase, is added slowly into the continuous phase, which mixed with the emulsifier, causes the oil to disperse into the liquid in tiny droplets rather than separating into an oil slick on top of the liquid.
Don’t worry, this is a 101 class, so all you really need to know is that mixing the liquid and emulsifier together and then slowly adding the oil will give you the wondrously garlicky, tasty treat known as aioli.
While aioli shares a DNA with mayonnaise, is not just “mayo with garlic” as so many people would have you believe. It is its own beautiful sauce and once mastered, can be adapted to fit a number of different flavors to enhance countless dishes.
In this day and age of the two-gallon Costco mayo monstrosities, it is in simple ingredients and science that you can come to know the culinary bliss of homemade emulsification such as aioli.
This recipe calls for the addition of saffron, anexpensive edible flower
we’ve gone over before, but you can add ingredients like herbs, spices, chilies and more to fit your aioli whims. A good idea is to think of how you will be using it and what ingredients you will be enhancing with it.
Cooking a bit of shrimp or fish? Well, you could add a complimentary flavor like tarragon or capers. A proper roast chicken or grilled vegetables would go swimmingly with a smoked paprika and black pepper flecked aioli. The world knows few joys as simple and beautiful as a freshly steamed artichoke alongside a dollop of fresh aioli.
This goes back to the idea I mentioned before about one door leading to another series of doors. The secret is in first mastering a basic method. Once you unlock aioli, you have a versatile and invaluable friend in the kitchen that will open up limitless prospects in cooking.Saffron Aioli
Makes 1 cup
Aioli and mayonnaise can be made with mixing bowl and whisk, but are much easier for the home cook in a food processor or using an immersion or stick blender. For a larger batch — double this recipe, a food processor works well. For smaller batches, I find the immersion blender easy and effective. If using the whisk, make sure to do so vigorously to start to help form and strengthen the emulsification of oil and liquid.1 egg yolk 2-4 cloves garlic, crushed and finely chopped 1 lemon, juiced 1 to 1-1/2 cups extra virgin olive oil or grapeseed oil 4 strands saffron 3/4 teaspoon sea salt
In bowl of the food processor, add crushed garlic, egg yolk, salt and 1/2 of the lemon juice. Blend together to let the ingredients mingle. With machine running, add the oil in a very slow drizzle, best done from a measuring cup with pouring spout. As the emulsification forms, you can add the oil in slightly faster. You want the aioli to thicken, but you may not need all of it. Go to the desired consistency, and then taste. Add rest of lemon juice if needed. Enjoy!
Tyler Fox, personal chef/event caterer who emphasizes ‘nose-to-tail’ cooking philosophy as well as vegan and local/farm to table foods.