Each March, the annual Charleston Wine + Food Festival draws some of the region’s brightest culinary stars to the Holy City for a long weekend of fantasy league–level dining and drinking. For food lovers, the festival is a chance to sample some of the world’s best epicurean delights, all in one place. For the visiting chefs, restaurateurs, and mixologists, it’s an opportunity to catch up with friends and colleagues—or make new ones. For G&G, it’s a chance to have some fun. In past years, we’ve put some of that food-and-bev firepower in the hot seat, asking visiting chefs to choose between bourbon and beer or share their favorite kitchen tools.
This year, we invited twenty top Southern chefs to our offices and asked them to determine the best store-bought mayonnaise in a blind taste test. Duke’s obviously, right? Not so fast.
How’d the test work?
All mayonnaise shares the same formula: oil, eggs, and an acid, such as vinegar, whipped with seasonings into a creamy emulsion. But the proportions and ingredients can vary. Some brands use whole eggs, while others use only yolks; vinegar supplies the acid in some, lemon juice in others.
To tease out those small differences, we set up a blind taste test with five brands of mayo: Hellmann’s and Duke’s as the standards; Bama and Blue Plate as the sub-regional specialties; and Kewpie, the Japanese mayo beloved by many food insiders, as the ringer. We presented the samples in identical bowls identified by a randomized three-digit number. Each chef could take as much time as he or she wanted to sniff, sample, comment, and find a favorite.
What brand was the chefs’ favorite?
Duke’s and Hellmann’s tied with seven votes each. (Though it should be noted that fifteen chefs stated before testing that their go-to brand was Duke’s.)
For Vivian Howard, the winner was plain to see: “Duke’s has that thigh jiggle,” she said, shaking the sample bowl. Others relied more on their taste buds. “Duke’s has great salt and it’s really flavorful,” said Steven Satterfield. Katie Button agreed: “Mmm. It has more flavor—it’s more savory with less sugar.” (Indeed; there is no added sugar in Duke’s, and the acid is supplied by a blend of distilled and cider vinegar.) For Shuai Wang, fragrance was the first giveaway; he studiously sniffed each sample, and only then tasted them. “Duke’s is more eggy.”
Hellmann’s, the perennial national best-seller, earned raves for its mild quality and creamy texture. “I like the fact that’s it’s balanced,” said Ashley Christensen. The acid in Hellmann’s comes from lemon-juice concentrate instead of vinegar. Griffin Bufkin praised that “lemony” flavor, while for Brandon Carter, it evoked childhood memories: “This is what I grew up on.” “I guess I’m a Hellmann’s guy after all,” said a surprised Meherwan Irani.
Who stuck up for a regional favorite?
Jean-Paul Bourgeois opts for Gretna, Louisiana-made Blue Plate mayo as his go-to. “I’m a loyalist for Louisiana,” he said. His favorite in the blind test, though: Kewpie. “It’s savory and more balanced—not as sharp.”
What mayo fell flattest?
We’re sorry, Bama; the only thing that all twenty chefs agreed on is that the Yellowhammer State entry was too sweet. Like Duke’s, Bama is made by the Virginia-based C.F. Sauer conglomerate, but the formula is different. It’s the only mayo in the test in which sugar comes ahead of salt on the ingredients label.
What was the biggest surprise?
Kewpie clocked in just shy of the top tier by a single vote. John Lewis, Rodney Scott, and Todd Richards were among the six who praised its richness, savoriness, and acidic qualities. The formula contains yolks only, not whole eggs, plus ingredients like rice vinegar, mustard flour, and yeast extract that also contribute flavor.
Did anyone abstain?
Nope; all twenty chefs gamely scooped up spoonfuls. Even the mayo-averse. “I’d rather get dipped into a tank full of scorpions naked than do what I’m doing now,” said Karl Worley. But by the end, he began to come around. “This isn’t as bad as I thought,” he said, choosing Kewpie as his favorite. “But I’d still rather eat ketchup.”
Thank you to all of the chefs who participated: