Provençal Recipes: Aioli, An Introduction

Homemade aioli drizzled over boiled potatoes, with grilled pork ribs.

Homemade aioli drizzled over boiled potatoes, with grilled pork ribs.

Although the base ingredients of aioli are invariable—garlic, egg yolk, olive oil—personal variations abound from cook to cook. Some versions call for mustard, others lemon juice, and there’s no clear consensus on a precise egg-to-garlic ratio. In Provence A-Z, British ex-pat writer and expert on all things Provençal Peter Mayle describes a ‘classic recipe’ with 16 cloves of garlic and three egg yolks; while a recipe I recently tried, courtesy of native Californian and prolific food writer Georgeanne Brennan’s The Food and Flavors of Haute Provence, called for six egg yolks and six to 10 cloves of garlic (this version was indeed very eggy, and a pretty bright yellow color; aioli can range from almost white to pale or dark yellow).  Julia Child’s curious version of ‘Provençal garlic mayonnaise’ lists fish stock as an ingredient, and a slice of milk- or vinegar-soaked bread to be mashed with the garlic! With respect to that grande dame of French culinary artistry, there’s something suspect about including liquid-softened bread, as this can only dilute flavor and unnecessarily alter what should be, if handled right, an already perfect consistency.

All aioli recipes concur on one point: the method. Traditional aioli is made by slowly whisking vegetable oil into egg yolk until a creamy mayonnaise forms, then adding fresh garlic that’s been pounded and processed until smooth using a mortar and pestle. (Food processors will ruin aioli.) For those dubious of raw egg, you can make a version of aioli without egg, a kind of garlic paste. It will keep longer, obviously—freshly-made aioli, like any homemade mayo, can stay in the fridge for three to four days, sealed—but this not, technically speaking, aioli.

Experiment with aioli. Take advantage of its adaptability. Add lemon juice, ground pepper, or crush a fresh chili pepper with your garlic. As a dipping sauce for boiled vegetables or French bread, a vigorous, tangy aioli works wonderfully. With fish, crab cakes and soups, on the other hand, an aioli with less punch will enhance those flavors you’d rather compliment than knock out altogether.

Be warned: once you get a taste for homemade aioli, you’ll never settle for store-bought mayonnaise again. Or at least you shouldn’t.