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Mayonnaise

By Cook's Illustrated Published June 2012

How we tested

Whether it’s binding a potato salad, moistening a BLT, or holding crumbs in place on a baked fish, mayonnaise is a kitchen staple. Americans spent more than $1.3 billion on it in 2010, making it the nation’s top-selling condiment. Yes, you can make it yourself, but doing so requires careful technique, and the shelf life of homemade mayonnaise is short. That’s why more durable supermarket mayonnaise is a convenient option, and while we didn’t expect to find a brand as creamy, fresh, and, frankly, transporting as homemade, we did demand one that was perfectly respectable in a chicken salad sandwich or dolloped on a salmon burger.

The last time we held a taste test for mayonnaise, almost 10 years ago, Hellmann’s Real Mayonnaise won for its classic flavors (if you live on the West Coast, you know it as Best Foods Mayonnaise). With the multitude of variations that have appeared on the market in recent years, is that brand (or any traditional mayonnaise) still best?

How We Selected Which Brands to Test

We loaded our shopping cart with 15 top-selling jars chosen from a list compiled by Chicago-based market research firm SymphonyIRI Group. We included everything from classic mayonnaise to Miracle Whip, as well as health-oriented olive oil–, omega 3–, or canola-based versions; reduced-fat brands; and even one lime-flavored mayonnaise. (Miracle Whip is 40 percent oil by weight, which means it’s not technically mayonnaise according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. But Miracle Whip is so popular that we included it anyway.)

How We Tasted Mayonnaise

Back in the test kitchen, we held several rounds of blind tastings during which 24 editors and test cooks sampled all the mayonnaise varieties plain. The results led us to eliminate eight that our tasters thought tasted artificial, sour, or too sweet. The seven that remained went on to a final round of testing. We tasted these seven in Cook’s Country’s recipe for Creamy Macaroni Salad.

Supermarket Mayonnaise versus Homemade Mayonnaise

While the home cook slowly drizzles and whisks oil into egg yolks to make mayonnaise by hand, commercial manufacturers vigorously agitate ingredients by machine, creating hundreds of gallons of mayonnaise in minutes. To extend a product’s shelf life, they add stabilizers and preservatives, such as potassium sorbate and calcium disodium EDTA. Instead of egg yolks, they use whole eggs to cut costs (no waste, no step of separating the eggs), but since egg whites are less rich and flavorful, manufacturers add other ingredients to enhance the taste.

All that tinkering can produce mayonnaise that’s a long way from homemade. We found that the best-tasting brands had the fewest ingredients and the simplest flavors. Tasters downgraded dressed-up variations that used cider vinegar instead of more neutral distilled vinegar, or honey instead of sugar (commercial manufacturers often include a little sweetener). We didn’t like add-ins such as dried garlic or onion either; they turned plain mayonnaise into something closer to salad dressing. Our top-rated brand didn’t even include lemon juice or mustard, though we use both in the test kitchen’s recipe for Homemade Mayonnaise.

Examining Salt and Fat

Surprisingly, fat levels in the mayonnaises didn’t affect our rankings. Aside from the “light” version, all contained 10 to 12 grams of fat per tablespoon; our favorite had 11 grams. As is often the case at our tastings, what did matter was salt. The top-ranked portion of the lineup had more than the bottom portion; indeed, plenty of salt helped our light mayonnaise make the grade. It had 125 milligrams of sodium per tablespoon; the rest of the lineup averaged 79 milligrams. The preservative calcium disodium EDTA, used in five of the seven brands, also adds a faint salty taste; the two that didn’t use it ranked fourth and sixth.

Our Favorite Mayonnaise

In the end, we liked all the mayonnaises in our final lineup enough to recommend them, although we had reservations about the bottom two. Our winner nudged aside our reigning champion. Not only did it have the shortest ingredient list, but it was also the only brand that used egg yolks alone (no whites) for a richer, deeper flavor. Unfortunately, while our winner is a powerhouse brand in the South and Southeast, if you live elsewhere, you’ll have to mail-order it. Our close runner-up and former favorite is still a fine option and is available nationwide.

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The Results

Winner
Recommended

Skippy Peanut Butter

In a contest that hinged on texture, tasters thought this "smooth, "creamy" sample was "swell" and gave it top honors, both plain and baked into cookies. Its rave reviews even compensated for a slightly "weak" nut flavor that didn't come through as well as that of other brands in the pungent satay sauce.

$2.39 for 16.3-oz. jar (15 cents per oz.)*
Recommended

Jif Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The big favorite in satay sauce, this peanut butter's "dark, roasted flavor"—helped by the addition of molasses—stood out particularly well against the other heady ingredients, and it made cookies with "nice sweet-salty balance." Plus, as the top-rated palm oil-based sample, it was "creamy," "thick," and better emulsified than other "natural" contenders.

$2.29 for 18-oz. jar (13 cents per oz.)*

Reese's Peanut Butter

This is what peanut butter should be like, " declared one happy taster, noting specifically this product's "good," "thick" texture and "powerful peanut flavor." In satay sauce, however, some tasters felt that heavier body made for a "pasty" end result.

$2.59 for 18-oz. jar (14 cents per oz.)*

Skippy Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The only other palm oil-based peanut butter to make the "recommended" cut, this contender had a "looser" texture than its winning sibling but still won fans for being "super-smooth." Tasters thought it made an especially "well-balanced," "complex" peanut sauce.

$2.39 for 15-oz. jar (16 cents per oz.)*
Recommended with Reservations

Peanut Butter & Co. No-Stir Natural Smooth Operator

Though it says "no-stir" on the label, this "stiff" palm-oil enriched peanut butter was "weeping oil" and came across as "greasy" to some tasters. However, it turned out a respectable batch of cookies—"chewy in the center, crisp and short at the edge"—and made "perfectly good" satay sauce.

$4.49 for 18-oz. jar (25 cents per oz.)*

Maranatha Organic No Stir Peanut Butter

On the one hand, this organic peanut butter produced cookies that were "soft and sturdy" yet "moist," with "knockout peanut flavor." On the other hand, eating it straight from the jar was nearly impossible; its "loose," "liquid-y," and "dribbly" consistency had one taster wonder if it was "peanut soup."

$5.69 for 16-oz. jar (36 cents per oz.)*
Not Recommended

Smart Balance All Natural Rich Roast Peanut Butter

Besides being unpalatably "tacky" and "sludgy," this "natural" peanut butter suffered from an awful "fishy" flavor with a "weird acidic aftertaste" that tasters noted in all three applications. Our best guess as to the culprit? The inclusion of flax seed oil, an unsaturated fat that's highly susceptible to rancidity.

$3.59 for 16-oz. jar (22 cents per oz.)*

Smucker's Natural Peanut Butter

With its only additive a negligible amount of salt, the only truly natural peanut butter in the lineup elicited comments ranging from mild dissatisfaction ("needs enhancement with salt and sugar") to outright disgust ("slithery," "chalky," "inedible"). Cookies were "dry and crumbly" with a "hockey puck" texture, and the satay sauce was "stiff," "gritty," and "gloopy."

$2.69 for 16-oz. jar (17 cents per oz.)*