Slip, slop, slap some mayonnaise on the barbecue this summer

More than a condiment: Mayonnaise can be used to baste barbecued meats, too.
More than a condiment: Mayonnaise can be used to baste barbecued meats, too. Photo: William Meppem

This is the season of outdoor parties and barbecues, as those of us self-professed grill masters and weekend warriors deftly show off our live-fire cooking skills in front of family and friends. That is, until the grill flares up and those beautiful steaks are reduced to charcoal and we're peeling them off the barbecue through a cloud of smoke.

It's an all-too-common tragedy played out in backyards everywhere. What if there was an easier way?

Mayonnaise may help foods retain moisture as they cook on the grill.
Mayonnaise may help foods retain moisture as they cook on the grill. Photo: Marina Oliphant

My challenge was always fish, which would glue itself to the grill whether I oiled the fillets or the grill racks, or both. Then I noticed chef Michael Cimarusti lightly brush delicate fish fillets with mayonnaise before grilling. Yes, mayo – the stuff of cafeteria sandwiches and picnic potato salads. He uses the technique at his Los Angeles restaurant Providence, and when I asked him about it, he explained that the mayonnaise keeps the fish from sticking to the grill. He adds a very thin layer, "so it's almost not there."

This isn't the first I'd heard about cooking with mayonnaise. It's often touted as the fat of choice, particularly when making a grilled cheese sandwich. Dave Danhi, founder of the Grilled Cheese Truck, slathers a combination of butter and mayonnaise on the outside of his sandwiches before cooking.

"I've done it since the beginning," said Danhi, touting the golden-brown crust it gives the sandwiches. He argues that the addition of mayonnaise raises the smoking temperature so the sandwiches don't burn on the griddle.

There is something magical about mayonnaise.

But what about the grill? 

The science of mayonnaise and heat

"This is an area I'm playing a lot more with now. Mayonnaise really works," said Meathead Goldwyn, founder of amazingribs.com and author of Meathead: The Science of Great Barbecue and Grilling. "It sticks really well to the food, helps release food from the hot grill surface, and gets a beautiful golden colour."

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Part of the reason mayonnaise works so well is because of its composition. "Mayonnaise is an emulsion, which means you have small droplets of oil surrounded by egg yolk, and that has a couple of really cool properties," said Greg Blonder, professor of product design and engineering at Boston University and co-author of Goldwyn's cookbook.

This emulsion allows the oils in mayonnaise to stick to food, unlike plain oil. Oil and water don't mix, which is why it's hard to get the fat to adhere to foods you want to grill. So as you grill, you're left with a very limited amount of oil to keep food from sticking. Also, as the oil runs off, it's likely to result in flare-ups.

"Mayonnaise acts like little time-release oil capsules, and you can put it on thick. And the emulsifiers like to stick to the meat," Blonder said. Mayonnaise is a great release agent for meat, and is particularly helpful for grilling chicken and fish.

Crayfish is one of 20 things to barbecue with a coating of mayo.
Crayfish is one of 20 things to barbecue with a coating of mayo. Photo: Marco Del Grande

Where oil only heats and browns the food thermally, mayonnaise also browns food chemically – that golden-brown colour – through the Maillard reaction, which requires sugars and proteins to work; as these are heated, the nonenzymatic reaction produces browning. "When you just put regular oil on meat, it doesn't bring these to the table. It only brings fat," Blonder said.

Mayonnaise may help foods retain moisture as they cook on the grill. "Chicken breasts – they're the world's driest food. Mayo is one way to make them moist," Goldwyn said.

Though he hasn't formally tested moisture retention yet, Goldwyn said he believes the mayonnaise might help to keep food tender. "If nothing else, the mayo evaporates under the heat rather than the moisture in the meat," he said, arguing that the meat won't dry out.

He compares it to the baste that pitmasters use when cooking tough cuts for long periods over low heat. The baste is what evaporates, rather than the moisture in the meat. "But the baste drips off and evaporates pretty quickly, so you're not getting a great deal of benefit," Goldwyn said. He said he thinks mayonnaise might give more benefit as a baste. "I haven't tried it on a pulled pork or, heaven help me, on a brisket. But I'm getting ideas now."

The mayonnaise mojo

One of the reasons people may be afraid to try mayonnaise is flavour. "They think it will add flavour. But that's the thing. It doesn't alter the flavour [of the food]", Goldwyn said.

Mayonnaise works well as a vehicle for other flavours. "It's a white canvas you can flavour with almost anything," Goldwyn said, including just about anything in your spice rack. "I call it mayo mojo."

I've recently brushed mayonnaise on everything I've grilled, from chicken breasts to pork chops, asparagus to mushrooms. When I added a dill-flavoured mayonnaise to salmon, it was as if I was grilling on Teflon, the fish released so easily. I almost felt like I was cheating (see recipe below).

Goldwyn recommends mayonnaise for garlic bread on the grill, and slathers a flavoured mayo to add a crust to cooked potato slices – "They get crunchy, like those coated French fries." I mentioned one of my favourite meals is a steak sprinkled with Maldon salt and freshly cracked pepper. Would mayonnaise work on steak, I asked. Goldwyn paused to consider. "Well, why not?" he decided.

For the record, I brushed a thin layer on prime rib-eye steaks just the other day (see recipe below). It worked perfectly.

20 things to grill using mayonnaise

Salmon fillets with mayonnaise and chopped fresh dill

Garlic bread with mayonnaise, chopped fresh oregano, garlic and parmesan cheese

Halved avocados with mayonnaise, salt and pepper

Chicken breasts with pesto-flavoured mayonnaise

Chopped zucchini with mayonnaise, garlic, Italian seasoning

Steaks with mayonnaise, salt and pepper

Pork chops with mayonnaise and toasted, ground fennel seeds

Asparagus spears with mayonnaise, Dijon mustard, red wine vinegar and garlic

Cheese sandwich mayonnaise

Thick tomato slices with mayonnaise, chopped fresh basil and oregano

Halved crayfish with mayonnaise flavoured with garlic, paprika and lemon zest

Thick slices of cooked baking potatoes with mayonnaise, garlic, rosemary and parmesan cheese

Shishito peppers with mayonnaise flavoured with sesame oil, soy sauce, garlic and rice wine vinegar

Eggplant slices with tapenade-flavoured mayonnaise

Lamb chops with mayonnaise, flavoured with mint, rosemary and anchovy

Chopped fingerling potatoes with mayonnaise, garlic and thyme

Chicken wings with chipotle- or Sriracha-flavoured mayonnaise

Grilled onions with mayonnaise flavoured with sherry vinegar and fresh thyme

Prawns with mayonnaise flavoured with chermoula

Burger buns with a thin layer of mayonnaise before toasting

Perfect grilled steak

Ingredients

2 (450g) thick-cut boneless rib-eye steaks

3 to 4½ tbsp mayonnaise

Maldon or other coarse sea salt

freshly ground black pepper

Method

1. Temper the steaks: Remove the steaks from the refrigerator and set aside to come to room temperature, about one hour. Blot the steak on all sides with paper towels to remove excess moisture.

2. Brush a thin layer of mayonnaise over both sides of the steak. Season each steak on each side with one teaspoon Maldon salt, or as desired, along with several grinds of black pepper.

3. Heat a gas grill over medium-high heat until hot. Add the steaks and grill for about three minutes on one side, then rotate the steaks and grill for another three to four minutes. Flip the steaks over and repeat, grilling each steak for a few minutes, and then rotating to get good grill marks.

4. Check the steaks for desired doneness. Remove the steaks to a cutting board several minutes to give the meat time to rest. Slice and serve.

Serves 4

Grilled avocado with marinated tomato salad

Ingredients

For the marinated tomato salad

¼ cup olive oil

1½ tbsp sherry vinegar

3 tsp Dijon mustard

½ tsp salt

freshly ground black pepper

¼ red onion, very thinly sliced lengthwise

6 large basil leaves, very thinly sliced

1½ tbsp capers, drained and crushed

2 garlic cloves, minced

about 2 punnets ripe grape or cherry tomatoes, halved

In a non-reactive bowl, whisk together the oil, vinegar, mustard, salt and several grinds of black pepper. Stir in the onion, basil, capers and garlic. Gently fold in the tomatoes. Cover and refrigerate at least three hours before serving, up to overnight.

Grilled avocado and assembly

2 large ripe avocados

1½ to 2 tbsp mayonnaise

salt and freshly ground pepper

prepared marinated tomato salad (recipe above)

1. Halve the avocados and discard the seeds. Brush the cut interior of the avocados with a layer of mayonnaise (this will also keep them from browning before grilling). Season each half with a sprinkling of salt and a couple grinds of pepper.

2. Heat a grill over medium-high heat until hot.

3. Place the avocados cut-side down on a grill rack. Grill the halves for a couple of minutes. Using tongs, rotate the halves slightly for good grill marks and grill for another couple of minutes. Remove to a serving platter, cut-side up.

4. Spoon the tomato salad over the avocados and serve immediately.

Serves 4

Grilled potatoes with parmesan, garlic and rosemary

2 large roasting potatoes

½ cup mayonnaise

¼ cup grated parmesan cheese

¾ tbsp minced garlic cloves

2 tsp chopped fresh rosemary

salt and freshly ground pepper

1. Cook the potatoes: Prick the potatoes several times all over with a fork. Place the potatoes on a paper towel in the microwave. Cook the potatoes over high heat for five minutes. Prick the potatoes with a knife to see if they are just tender (do not overcook or the potatoes will fall apart on the grill), cooking an additional minute at a time if needed. The potatoes can also be cooked, on a baking sheet, in a 200C oven for about an hour or until tender. Set the cooked potatoes aside and cool to room temperature.

2. While the potatoes are cooling, make the spread: In a bowl, whisk together the mayonnaise, parmesan cheese, garlic and rosemary. Season with half teaspoon salt and several grinds of pepper, or to taste.

3. Cut the cooled potatoes crosswise into two-centimetre thick slices. Liberally brush the spread on each cut side of the potato slices.

4. Heat a grill over medium-high heat until hot. Place the potato slices on the grill racks. Grill the potatoes for one to tw minutes, then rotate using a pair of tongs to get good grill marks. After another minute or so, flip the slices over. Grill the potatoes on the other side for a few minutes, rotating partway for good grill marks.

5. Remove the potatoes to a plate and cool slightly before serving.

Serves 4

Adam Liaw'sbarbecued one-sided salmon with dill and roe cold sauce.

Or try Adam Liaw's barbecued one-sided salmon with dill sauce RECIPE HERE. Photo: William Meppem

Grilled salmon with dill

4 (170g) centre-cut salmon fillets

⅔ cup mayonnaise

¼ cup chopped fresh dill

salt and freshly ground black pepper

lemon wedges, for serving

1. Pat the salmon fillets dry to remove all excess moisture.

2. Make a dill spread: In a bowl, whisk together the mayonnaise, dill, a generous half teaspoon salt, or to taste, and several grinds of black pepper. Brush the spread over the salmon fillets on all sides.

3. Heat a grill over medium-high heat until hot. Place the fillets flesh-side down on the grill. Grill for about six minutes on one side, rotating partway through for good grill marks. Flip the fish over and continue grilling, skin-side down until the fish is cooked to desired doneness, about six minutes more.

4. Remove to a platter and serve garnished with lemon wedges.

Serves 4

Los Angeles Times