Whether it’s binding a potato salad, moistening a BLT, or holding crumbs in place on a baked fish, mayonnaise is a kitchen staple. Americans spent more than $1.3 billion on it in 2010, making it the nation’s top-selling condiment. Yes, you can make it yourself, but doing so requires careful technique, and the shelf life of homemade mayonnaise is short. That’s why more durable supermarket mayonnaise is a convenient option, and while we didn’t expect to find a brand as creamy, fresh, and, frankly, transporting as homemade, we did demand one that was perfectly respectable in a chicken salad sandwich or dolloped on a salmon burger.
The last time we held a taste test for mayonnaise, almost 10 years ago, Hellmann’s Real Mayonnaise won for its classic flavors (if you live on the West Coast, you know it as Best Foods Mayonnaise). With the multitude of variations that have appeared on the market in recent years, is that brand (or any traditional mayonnaise) still best?
We loaded our shopping cart with 15 top-selling jars chosen from a list compiled by Chicago-based market research firm SymphonyIRI Group. We included everything from classic mayonnaise to Miracle Whip, as well as health-oriented olive oil–, omega 3–, or canola-based versions; reduced-fat brands; and even one lime-flavored mayonnaise. (Miracle Whip is 40 percent oil by weight, which means it’s not technically mayonnaise according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. But Miracle Whip is so popular that we included it anyway.)
Back in the test kitchen, we held several rounds of blind tastings during which 24 editors and test cooks sampled all the mayonnaise varieties plain. The results led us to eliminate eight that our tasters thought tasted artificial, sour, or too sweet. The seven that remained went on to a final round of testing. We tasted these seven in Cook’s Country’s recipe for Creamy Macaroni Salad.
While the home cook slowly drizzles and whisks oil into egg yolks to make mayonnaise by hand, commercial manufacturers vigorously agitate ingredients by machine, creating hundreds of gallons of mayonnaise in minutes. To extend a product’s shelf life, they add stabilizers and preservatives, such as potassium sorbate and calcium disodium EDTA. Instead of egg yolks, they use whole eggs to cut costs (no waste, no step of separating the eggs), but since egg whites are less rich and flavorful, manufacturers add other ingredients to enhance the taste.
All that tinkering can produce mayonnaise that’s a long way from homemade. We found that the best-tasting brands had the fewest ingredients and the simplest flavors. Tasters downgraded dressed-up variations that used cider vinegar instead of more neutral distilled vinegar, or honey instead of sugar (commercial manufacturers often include a little sweetener). We didn’t like add-ins such as dried garlic or onion either; they turned plain mayonnaise into something closer to salad dressing. Our top-rated brand didn’t even include lemon juice or mustard, though we use both in the test kitchen’s recipe for Homemade Mayonnaise.
Surprisingly, fat levels in the mayonnaises didn’t affect our rankings. Aside from the “light” version, all contained 10 to 12 grams of fat per tablespoon; our favorite had 11 grams. As is often the case at our tastings, what did matter was salt. The top-ranked portion of the lineup had more than the bottom portion; indeed, plenty of salt helped our light mayonnaise make the grade. It had 125 milligrams of sodium per tablespoon; the rest of the lineup averaged 79 milligrams. The preservative calcium disodium EDTA, used in five of the seven brands, also adds a faint salty taste; the two that didn’t use it ranked fourth and sixth.
In the end, we liked all the mayonnaises in our final lineup enough to recommend them, although we had reservations about the bottom two. Our winner nudged aside our reigning champion. Not only did it have the shortest ingredient list, but it was also the only brand that used egg yolks alone (no whites) for a richer, deeper flavor. Unfortunately, while our winner is a powerhouse brand in the South and Southeast, if you live elsewhere, you’ll have to mail-order it. Our close runner-up and former favorite is still a fine option and is available nationwide.