Starting Slowly

Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

  • About
There’s a simple reason for starting the emulsion slowly and carefully, with small amounts of the dispersed phase. In the early mixing, when little or no oil has yet been emulsified, it’s easy for large droplets to avoid the churning action of the whisk and collect at the surface. If a large volume of oil is added before the previous one has been fully emulsified, then the bowl may end up with more unemulsified oil than water. The oil then becomes the continuous phase, the normally continuous water becomes dispersed in it, and the result is an inside-out emulsion, oily and runny. By whisking in the first portion of oil in small doses, the cook makes sure to produce and maintain a growing population of small droplets. Then when the rest of the oil is incorporated more rapidly into the already well-emulsified system, the existing droplets work as a kind of mill, automatically breaking down the incoming oil into particles of their own size. In the last stages of sauce making the cook’s whisk need not break up the oil drops directly, but has the easier job of mixing the new oil with the sauce, distributing it evenly to all parts of the droplet “mill.”