Vegan mayo can’t be very good, can it? Read on for a shocking surprise.
How We Tested
Sandwich slather. Salad binder. Bread-crumb adhesive. Dip base. These are just a few of the many uses for mayonnaise. Traditional mayonnaise is an emulsion of oil, acid (lemon juice or vinegar), and egg yolk. The yolk, apart from imparting flavor and richness, contains lecithins that stabilize the emulsion; that is, they help the oil and acid combine. But recently a number of egg-free substitutes have hit the market—America’s largest convenience chain, 7-Eleven, even replaced regular mayonnaise with vegan mayo in its prepared foods. (The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires products branded as “mayonnaise” or “mayo” to contain egg, so the egg-free products are technically called dressings or spreads.) But are these vegan mayos any good? They can’t possibly compete with real, egg-based mayonnaise . . . can they?
To find out, we purchased six widely available vegan mayonnaises and gathered 21 editors and test cooks to sample them in a series of blind taste tests. Every taster tried each mayo plain, in tomato sandwiches, and in our All-American Potato Salad.
Differences were apparent immediately, as tasters easily sorted the mayos into three products they liked (albeit two with reservations) and three they very much did not. Among the lower-scoring options, one was glaringly white, looking more like school glue than mayo. Others were gummy, greasy, and/or gelatinous, and a few smelled and tasted—there’s no other way to say it—awful. But on the positive side, one product rose to the top of our rankings and was universally praised for its clean flavor and smooth, nongreasy texture.
Why were these mayos so different? The differences in texture, flavor, and aroma can be attributed to two components: the emulsifier and the oil. Traditional mayonnaise consists of oil droplets dispersed in a small amount of acid (lemon juice or vinegar), thanks to the emulsifying power of egg yolk. The six vegan mayos we tasted substituted pea protein, soy protein, or modified food starch for the yolk. Pea protein (from the very same plant that gives us green peas) and soy protein both have emulsifying powers comparable to those of egg yolks. But the two mayos at the top of our ratings—both of which were praised for their homogeneous, nongreasy texture—use pea protein. Why is pea protein better?
Under acidic conditions, as in mayonnaise, pea protein dissolves better than soy protein, allowing it to mix better with other ingredients. Because it combines more fully, pea protein produces a superior emulsion. We saw this reflected in our results: The products that used pea protein were creamy and spreadable; the rest used soy protein and were at least a little (and sometimes very) oily, runny, or lumpy due to soy’s less-than-stellar emulsifying properties at a low pH.
Oil, and lots of it, is also essential to making a smooth, spreadable mayonnaise. The mayos in our lineup had fat contents that ranged from 3.5 to 10 grams per 14-gram serving; the lower-fat products don’t have enough fat to naturally sustain an emulsion, so manufacturers have to use chemical thickeners and stabilizers to approach the consistency of mayonnaise. These lower-fat mayos were unanimously panned as unnaturally dense or gloppy. Tasters preferred mayos with more fat—9 to 10 grams per 14-gram serving—since these natural emulsions had the creamy consistency we wanted. More fat also translated into richer flavor.
Said winner, Hampton Creek Just Mayo, Original, was really good—so good that we wanted to see if it could come close to the real McCoy. So we pitted it against Hellmann’s Real Mayonnaise in three additional side-by-side taste tests: plain, in our Make-Ahead Vinaigrette (to see how well it emulsified a dressing), and in place of the butter on the outside of grilled cheese sandwiches (a test kitchen trick we sometimes use to ensure great browning). To our utter surprise, the Hampton Creek Just Mayo, Original matched Hellmann’s in every test, and we liked it just as much in every application.
Twenty-one America’s Test Kitchen cooks and editors tasted six vegan mayonnaises in three blind taste tests: plain, on tomato sandwiches, and in our All-American Potato Salad. Once we had a winner, we tested it against Hellmann’s Real Mayonnaise, the industry standard and a product we recommend, tasting it plain and in our Make-Ahead Vinaigrette and using it in place of the butter on grilled cheese sandwiches to see if both could brown and flavor the toast. We obtained nutritional information from product labels.