Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A Break for Emulsion

In reflecting on the series of "Entire Animal" posts, I felt it was reasonable to take a break - hopefully returning to them in the future.  The posts were taking me a long time to compile, and I feel as though my readership might benefit from a respite, and a return to more comfortable pastures of eating.  

Hence, I will be going with a different series - emulsions.  These take considerably less effort to procure, produce, and are typically items that you would eat on a regular basis (I was all ready to run my post on tongues too!).  So, over the  next week or two, you will all have the chance to work on your emulsifying skills.  We'll start simple.

A Bottom-rung Dressing
- 3 parts Oil (Olive is best, and you can use the coveted Extra-virgin variety here)
- 1 part Vinegar (Whichever is your favorite, but stick with one not made from petroleum, i.e. white)
- An emulgent (more on this below)
- A creatively restrained blend of herbs and spices
An emulsion, for the uninitiated, is a blend of two liquids that under normal circumstances, do not blend.  Very simply here, when you pour oil and vinegar  into a jar, they separate, the lighter oil on top and the vinegar on bottom.  You can shake the jar and the oil will, for a short time, become emulsified, but when you let it stand for a bit, they separate back out.  This would be a very unstable emulsion.  What we'll make today is a bit more stable, though things will eventually separate out if left undisturbed.

So, your very best friend in the emulsion is your whisk.  The whisk is a beautiful tool, shining wire hoops bubbled out on top with glorious airspace between them.  If you have a crappy whisk, invest in a nicer one, one that feels right in the hand.  Your emulsions will thank you.  

On to the dressing.  Salad dressing is a great example of a prolefood.  The lowest common denominator are those packets that you add to a cruet with vinegar and oil.  These are mostly salt, and mostly overpriced.  The bottles at least can approximate the correct emulsficatory technique, but are still overpriced, and often use cheap oils and vinegar.  When you make your own bottom-rung dressing you can add to and use the highest or lowest quality oils you would like.  This is just a starting point, be creative in your endeavoring.  

Start by measuring out your oil and vinegar.  The ratio is 3:1 (oil:vinegar), so you can make as much or as little as your would like.  For your first emulsion I would suggest a Goldilocks approach, just right.  Don't start too small (e.g. 3 Tbsp to 1 Tbsp), but 18 cups to 6 cups is a bit too large.  Shoot for the middle road.  Put your vinegar into a easily held bowl.  

Now, for your emulgent.  You can make a dressing with only vinegar and oil, but if you add an emulgent, or a emulsificatory helper, things will hold together more easily and for a longer period of time.  The triumvirate of emulgents are: mustard (preferably dijon), honey, and egg yolk*.  Choose one and add it at something like a 3:1 (vinegar:emulgent) ratio.  Each will give the dressing a different kind of character, and all should be tried.  Whisk the emulgent and vinegar together with any flavorings you'd like to add**.

The actual emulsification is a kind of magical process, and will produce a end result that is vastly superior (and vastly cheaper) than the garbage that passes for dressing at the store.  To emulsify, get your vinegar mixture going with the whisk (be vigorous here, you may need a Campari and white wine, along with a slice of pheasant & trotter pie to keep yourself from getting too unsteady during this process).  Add just a drop or two of the oil*** and keep whisking, it should blend in nicely.  Add the oil, falteringly at first, growing more bold as time goes on - but never stopping your vigorous whisking.  If oil seems to be pooling on top of your mixture, stop adding it and really lay into the whisking until it disappears.  Once all of the oil is added, the mixture should have an opaque look to it (the color will depend on the vinegar you used).  Give it a taste and season with salt and pepper if needed. 

If your mixture quickly separates into oil and vinegar, the oil was added too quickly.  Your hand must be patient and calm when adding the oil.  Sloshing the oil in haphazardly will result in a poorly emulsified dressing.  All is not lost should this happen - try adding a bit more emulgent and really whisking it  - it may find itself and come together.

* Do not fear egg yolks.  The vinegar you are using is plenty acidic and will make the Salmonella that might be dwelling on your yolk very unhappy.  I have been making dressings emulsified with egg yolk for years and have yet to become sick from one.  The dressing emulsified with egg yolk will have a richness and body that will be unrivaled.

** Flavorings can be in many forms.  Just remember that any liquid additions should be balanced with the vinegar so that a good ratio is maintained (e.g. if you want to add lemon juice, or a fruit juice don't add it in excess of the vinegar, reduce the vinegar to compensate).  Dry or solid ingredients (roasted garlic, YUMM-O) don't require this kind of fussiness.

*** You may want to invest in some kind of squeeze bottle or other cruet that allows you some modicum of control over the flow of oil.  I use a nice, food grade bottle like those that they use for ketchup at your local hot dog stand.  Makes a big difference.


  1. I use sugar in mine...does that count?

  2. As an emulgent? In general, honey, egg yolk, and mustard all have either lecithin or something like casein (which I know would probably present some issues) that pull the oil particles into a stable configuration and keep things from separating too quickly. Sugar doesn't really have anything like that, so the emulsion might not take in the same way. If it works though, why not? As a flavoring agent, I happen to find sugar adds too much sweet and not enough complexity - but that is more a personal preference.