[This is certainly among the most divisive topics in this household. I’m a Hellman’s kinda guy, and SB Sandy never met a mayonnaise that she didn’t hate. “Hate” isn’t a strong enough word, maybe despise. Nope “despise” doesn’t quite get there in terms of her feelings towards mayonnaise. What do other Silverbacks have to say on this subject? Say it now and say it proud! SB SM]
It’s lobster roll and tomato sandwich season, so we asked New England chefs and foodies to share their thoughts on mayonnaise.
By Nicole Kagan Globe Correspondent Updated August 15, 2023, 7:00 a.m.
Hellmann’s mayonnaise is stored in a pantry at Little Whale in Boston. CARLIN STIEHL FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE
Each summer, when the first tomatoes begin to blush, growing sweet and heavy on the vine, tomato sandwich season begins. And with it comes a sudden increase in conversation — or more likely, debate — about a certain creamy condiment.Some people require a slathering of mayonnaise on every dish, while others shudder at the thought. But very few are indifferent. Those who decide to dollop have strong opinions about food pairings and specific brand loyalties.In New England, people seem particularly passionate about the condiment. Perhaps because it’s used in cold lobster rolls, a summer staple. (Hot lobster rolls contain butter instead.) Or perhaps it’s out of pride for the regional mayo brand, Cains, often referred to as New England’s favorite (though a Globe poll poked some holes in that claim).
Whatever the reason, people here are connected to mayonnaise, the top-selling condiment in the United States, bringing in $164 million in 2021 alone. (Second place? Ranch dressing.) But what foods do they slather it on? Which brands do they reach for? After talking to dozens of local chefs and foodies, the Globe found answers.
(left) Chef Michael Serpa prepared a Maine lobster roll containing Hellmann’s mayonnaise at Little Whale in Boston CARLIN STIEHL FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE
But first, what exactly is mayonnaise?
The condiment, invented in France, starts with egg yolks in a bowl. (Yes, there are raw eggs in mayonnaise. No, they will not give you salmonella. The eggs are usually pasteurized, and the acidity from the vinegar protects against bacteria.) As the yolks are beaten, oil is slowly added until a thick cream, or emulsion, forms. Then lemon juice, mustard, vinegar, salt, and pepper are whisked in.
At this point, the condiment is ready to be consumed, but it can also serve as the base for dozens of other sauces. Add pickles, anchovies, and horseradish, and it becomes a remoulade. A generous portion of garlic, and it’s an aioli. Throw in chopped capers, pickles, and herbs and you’ve got a tartar sauce.
But even with the plain stuff, applications are vast and varied. The obvious and most common is a spread on sandwich bread. But mayonnaise can also be used to make creamy salad dressings, mashed potatoes, macaroni salad, alfredo sauce, and anything else that calls for a salty, subtly tangy binding agent. Globe restaurant critic and food writer Devra First uses mayo most often to make curried chicken salad with raisins. “It’s a condiment with its place, and in that place it’s irreplaceable,” First said. “Sometimes I’ll substitute plain yogurt, and it’s just not the same. ”First grew up on Hellmann’s, so that’s what “tastes most right” to her. Locals seem to agree. A Twitter poll asking New England foodies to vote on their preferences revealed nearly 60 percent use Hellmann’s. For Boston chef Michael Serpa, it’s the only option.
Serpa prepared a Maine lobster roll containing Hellmann’s mayonnaise. CARLIN STIEHL FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE
“My family’s all Cuban. So growing up, we always had a lot of different seasonings and spices and all that stuff, but mayo was always Hellmann’s,” he said. “Now if I try a different brand, I’m like ‘What is this?’ ”At his restaurants, Select Oyster Bar, Little Whale, and Atlántico, Serpa adds Hellmann’s to dishes that are fried or breaded (“they just kind of scream aioli”). But his favorite thing to make with the condiment is a tomato sandwich.
Nicki Birarelli, owner of Joe’s on a Roll, in Beverly, agrees. She buys Hellmann’s for her restaurant, and it’s the only brand allowed in her house. Of Cains, Birarelli said, “I’ve sold a lot of lobster rolls in my life. We’ve been here a long time. Not one person has ever asked me for Cains mayonnaise.”
Our informal online poll supports this, revealing that less than 8 percent of the more than 300 respondents said they use Cains. Among them, Globe food writer Kara Baskin, who uses the New England brand because it’s what she grew up on. Boston-based chef Will Gilson’s preference is also motivated by childhood memories. “My most nostalgic bite of food from my teens was a turkey sub from my local house of pizza, and they would use the industrial, extra heavy Ken’s mayonnaise,” Gilson said. “So still to this day if I want to make a turkey sandwich, it’s Ken’s.”
Gilson’s restaurants, the Lexington and Puritan & Company, offer a variety of mayonnaise-based dips. (“As somebody who hates ketchup, I prefer to have my fried food dipped in some sort of mayonnaise-based item,” Gilson said.) Gilson makes his own specialty aiolis from scratch, “but if folks just want a side of mayonnaise, we keep this gallon of Ken’s extra heavy.”
Fried clams with a tartar sauce containing Hellmann’s mayonnaise at Little Whale in Boston. CARLIN STIEHL FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE
“It’s on the cusp of being gross how much I love mayonnaise. It’s a little creepy, to be honest,” Santos said.Santos opts for Duke’s because of its acidity and creaminess. He buys it on Amazon for his house because it can be difficult to find in stores.
“I’ve never met a mayonnaise I don’t like,” Santos said. “But I just think Duke’s is superior.” Most local restaurants the Globe surveyed use Hellmann’s or Duke’s. But there are outliers. James Hook & Co. on the Waterfront uses Ken’s. Saltie Girl in Back Bay uses Kewpie mayo, a Japanese brand. Fin Point Oyster Bar & Grille on the Waterfront uses Mike’s Amazing. Boston Chowda Co. in Quincy Market uses Monarch. And Yankee Lobster on the South Boston Waterfront uses Sysco’s house brand. But store-bought mayo doesn’t always do the trick, so some chefs make their own. Robert Sisca, chef at the Banks Fish House and Bistro du Midi in Boston, prefers homemade because it allows him to create a more complex flavor. “I almost make more of an aioli,” Sisca said. “I add garlic to it so it’s not your basic mayo. Fennel pollen. Celery salt. Red wine vinegar and sherry vinegar make it more acidic.”
Chef Robert Sisca made homemade mayonnaise with his twin sons Jameson (left) and Hunter in North Attleborough. PAT GREENHOUSE/GLOBE STAFF
By manipulating this base, Sisca creates sauces for dozens of dishes. Saffron aioli for mussels, cilantro aioli for crab cakes, banana pepper remoulade for calamari, basil-lime mayo for a swordfish BLT, the list goes on.
“We go through a lot of eggs, oil, and garlic,” Sisca said. For other chefs, moderation is key. In their dishes, the less noticeable the mayo, the better. Luke’s Lobster, a Maine seafood business turned global restaurant chain, uses Hellmann’s, but sparingly. “We use a minimal amount of mayonnaise, and we believe it’s a big faux pas to toss lobster meat in it,” said cofounder Ben Conniff. “Mayonnaise should be a very light accoutrement that goes in the bun and that isn’t clinging to and definitely never overwhelming the lobster.” For 25 percent of polled readers, minimal use is still too much. They voted that they were “unsupportive of mayo use” in any capacity. Some said they were “repulsed” by it. Something about the jiggly-ness or the raw eggy-ness. Sandy MacDonald of Nantucket grew up on Miracle Whip, but said she hasn’t used mayonnaise in 20 years. Her chief complaints with the condiment are its “awful chemical tang” and “lubricious texture.”
“I don’t buy it. I don’t eat those kinds of sandwiches anymore,” MacDonald said. “I can’t see a need for it.
”Haters can hate, or substitute, or avoid, but it won’t change the sales numbers. As mayonnaise continues to dominate the world, New Englanders can only hope that it won’t forget those who have supported it all along.
Nicole Kagan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.