What is an emulsion (and why do I care)?

By
Hannah Koelmeyer
Added
07 July, 2014

If you’ve ever made mayonnaise, you’ll know that emulsions are some kind of magic – so what’s actually going on there?

What is an emulsion?

An emulsion is basically making two liquids that are generally known to be ‘unmixable’ (think: oil and water) combine into a substance that is thicker than the two original liquids.

You can make a temporary emulsion, like a vinaigrette, by simply mixing or shaking vigorously enough for the substances to ‘combine’. The water molecules become suspended within the oil molecules, however they will separate again if left to sit.

A permanent emulsion, such as mayonnaise, requires an emulsifier or stabiliser to actually bind the molecules together. Egg yolk contains lecithin, which is a natural emulsifier, and fine powders or starches, such as flour, also work to stabilise an emulsion. In the case of mayonnaise, the slow addition of the oil also allows the oil molecules to be more evenly dispersed, which also makes the emulsion more stable.

And why do I care?

Without emulsion we wouldn’t have mayonnaise, custard, hollandaise sauce (I know – can you imagine a world without hollandaise?), salad dressings, béchamel sauce – basically all of the delicious things we put on delicious food to make it even more delicious.

Emulsion turns runny stuff into thick, creamy, unctuous stuff that can be spread on sandwiches, blobbed on top of puddings and scooped into with a pommes frite. What would we do without it?


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