Holy Aioli 

What is it about the omnipresent sandwich condiment that keeps us coming back for more?

Jonathan Boncek

Duck fat fries and duck club sandwich from Tattooed Moose

Mayonnaise is a quintessential polarizing foodstuff. Sure Southerners love to sing the praises of Duke's, but just as many South of the Mason-Dixon Line will tell you they hate it. But what about aioli?

"Mayonnaise is essentially an aioli," says Adam Close, executive chef at Blossom, "yet I find that quite a few people are not fond of mayonnaise. On the other hand, almost everyone likes aioli."

A cornerstone of Mediterranean cuisine, classic Spanish aioli consists of two simple ingredients — crushed garlic and olive oil — emulsified together with a mortar and pestle. French versions add egg yolks and lemon juice, with creamier results. So how does it happen that these two condiments, veritable kissing cousins, enjoy such diverse reputations? And why does (almost) everyone, it seems, love aioli on a sandwich?

1. Biology

When we consume food rich in salt, sugar, and fat, our taste buds send a signal to our brain. This, in turn, stimulates neurons which trigger the opioid receptor-related processes in the nucleus accumbens and ventral pallidum. In other words, aioli (in a roundabout way) enables the body to perceive a highly rewarding experience.

Although fat doesn't have a specific flavor, it enhances others, and its subtle essence is identified as umami, one of the five basic taste sensations. And while there is little protein in aioli, a hint of it is transmitted through glutamate, an amino acid plentiful in egg yolks. Glutamate acts as a protein indicator to our gustatory system, thought to have been useful in our evolutionary past when the body needed encouragement to load up when it could. In other words, aioli doesn't just bring pleasure, it instructs you to keep consuming more.

2. Tradition (Spanish, French, Southern, Whatever You Got)

Although any meal at The Macintosh is certain to delight, the current menus boast a sambal, a saffron, and a pine nut aioli. Executive Chef Jeremiah Bacon knows a thing or two about making aioli. Perhaps that's why he dove right into the thick of this gelatinous debate. "I think people, particularly in the South, love aioli because of its similarity to mayonnaise. The culture of mayonnaise in the South is pretty strong, and aiolis seem to fall into the 'kith and kin' of the mayo culture."

3. Fat

click to enlarge The Wagyu beef panini at Ted's is topped with blue cheese garlic aioli - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • The Wagyu beef panini at Ted's is topped with blue cheese garlic aioli

Bert Sheffield, head butcher at Meathouse Butcher Shop and former aioli-maker at its sister restaurant, Tattooed Moose Johns Island, has no doubt made barrels of the stuff. So what's the appeal? "That's easy. It's fatty, delicious, dippable, and it goes on everything," Sheffield explains. With no fear of gilding the lily, the restaurant notoriously pairs their duck fat fries and duck club sandwiches with the rich emulsion. But apparently that wasn't pushing the unctuous envelope enough. "I've been working on a habanero-bacon fat aioli made with four types of Meathouse Butcher Shop bacon," he reports. "It's spicy, sweet, smoky, and meaty." Bypass surgery optional.

4. Flavor Vehicle

click to enlarge Tarragon aioli for Warehouse's cauliflower sandwich - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • Tarragon aioli for Warehouse's cauliflower sandwich

"Aiolis allow you to introduce additional flavors without piling on more ingredients," says Ted Dombrowski, chef and owner of Ted's Butcherblock. His red onion and herb aioli and blue cheese garlic aiolis are no shrinking violets. "It seems like there is an either "love it or hate it" relationship with aioli, but the people who love it really want it. I had one customer who would order our Wagyu beef panini with extra aioli on the sandwich and four extra sides. I think he was stocking his fridge with it."

Chef Close takes that idea a bit further. "Aioli is generally made in small batches in scratch kitchens and combined with other ingredients that mask the baseline ingredients more than commercially produced mayo. So instead of tasting raw egg, oil, and vinegar as the predominant flavors — and these are flavors that don't taste particularly good by themselves — you taste garlic, lemon, curry, mustard, horseradish, etc. The aioli becomes a vessel. I am very partial to lemon and horseradish as the predominant flavors in aioli and not just because it is on our menu. It's a versatile sauce that goes well with everything from fried seafood to beef carpaccio, and it compliments well without overpowering." Case in point, Blossom's fried pork chop sandwich featuring mustard aioli.

And if all that's not enough, try this...

5. Contagious Enthusiasm

Emily Hahn, the crafter behind Warehouse's black pepper, tarragon, and even red curry aiolis, notes that "aioli for me is like the perfect necklace: It's all about accessorizing. Aioli is the yin to the yang. It's the shmear with a bang. Who doesn't want to dip their everything in it?"

What "everything" might mean is up to you and the guy hoarding blue cheese aioli from Ted's, but there's no need for aioli-based shame. Those rich, oily, piquant, garlicky, greasy secrets are yours to keep.


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