Grilling? Don’t hold the mayo!

Noelle Carter
Los Angeles Times

This is the season of outdoor parties and cookouts, as those of us self-professed grill masters and weekend warriors deftly show off our live-fire cooking skills in front of family and friends. That is, until the grill flares up and those beautiful steaks are reduced to charcoal and we’re peeling them off the grill through a cloud of smoke.

It’s an all-too-common tragedy played out in backyards everywhere. What if there was an easier way?

My challenge was always fish, which would glue itself to the grill whether I oiled the fillets or the grill racks, or both. Then I noticed chef Michael Cimarusti lightly brush delicate halibut fillets with mayonnaise before grilling. Yes, mayo — the stuff of cafeteria bologna sandwiches and picnic potato salads. Cimarusti is chef and owner of Providence, No. 1 for the last few years on Jonathan Gold’s 101 Best Restaurants List. He uses the technique at the restaurant, and when I asked him about it, he explained that the mayonnaise keeps the fish from sticking to the grill. He adds a very thin layer, “so it’s almost not there.”

This isn’t the first I’d heard about cooking with mayonnaise. It’s often touted as the fat of choice, particularly when making a grilled cheese sandwich. Dave Danhi, founder of the Grilled Cheese Truck, slathers a combination of butter and mayonnaise on the outside of his sandwiches before cooking.

“I’ve done it since the beginning,” said Danhi, formerly chef at fine-dining restaurants including the Water Grill, touting the golden-brown crust it gives the sandwiches. He argues that the addition of mayonnaise raises the smoking temperature so the sandwiches don’t burn on the griddle.

But what about the grill?

It can take the heat

“This is an area I’m playing a lot more with now. Mayonnaise really works,” said Meathead Goldwyn, founder of the popular website and author of “Meathead: The Science of Great Barbecue and Grilling.” “It sticks really well to the food, helps release food from the hot grill surface, and gets a beautiful golden color.”

Part of the reason mayonnaise works so well is because of its composition. “Mayonnaise is an emulsion, which means you have small droplets of oil surrounded by egg yolk, and that has a couple of really cool properties,” said Greg Blonder, professor of product design and engineering at Boston University and co-author of Goldwyn’s cookbook.

This emulsion allows the oils in mayonnaise to stick to food, unlike plain oil. Oil and water don’t mix, which is why it’s hard to get the fat to adhere to foods you want to grill. So as you grill, you’re left with a very limited amount of oil to keep food from sticking. Also, as the oil runs off, it’s likely to result in flare-ups.

“Mayonnaise acts like little time-release oil capsules, and you can put it on thick. And the emulsifiers like to stick to the meat,” Blonder said.

Mayonnaise is a great release agent for meat, and is particularly helpful for grilling chicken and fish.

Where oil only heats and browns the food thermally, mayonnaise also browns food chemically — that golden-brown color — through the Maillard reaction, which requires sugars and proteins to work; as these are heated, the nonenzymatic reaction produces browning. “When you just put regular oil on meat, it doesn’t bring these to the table. It only brings fat,” Blonder said.

Mayonnaise may help foods retain moisture as they cook on the grill.

“Chicken breasts — they’re the world’s driest food. Mayo is one way to make them moist,” Goldwyn said.

Though he hasn’t formally tested moisture retention yet, Goldwyn said he believes the mayonnaise might help to keep food tender.

“If nothing else, the mayo evaporates under the heat rather than the moisture in the meat,” he said, arguing that the meat won’t dry out.

He compares it to the baste that pitmasters use when cooking tough cuts for long periods over low heat. The baste is what evaporates, rather than the moisture in the meat.

“But the baste drips off and evaporates pretty quickly, so you’re not getting a great deal of benefit,” Goldwyn said.

He said he thinks mayonnaise might give more benefit as a baste.

“I haven’t tried it on a pulled pork or, heaven help me, on a brisket. But I’m getting ideas now.”

The mayonnaise mojo

One of the reasons people may be afraid to try mayonnaise is flavor.

“They think it will add flavor. But that’s the thing. It doesn’t alter the flavor” of the food, Goldwyn said.

Mayonnaise works well as a vehicle for other flavors.

“It’s a white canvas you can flavor with almost anything,” Goldwyn said, including just about anything in your spice rack. “I call it mayo mojo.”

I’ve recently brushed mayonnaise on everything I’ve grilled, from chicken breasts to pork chops, asparagus to mushrooms. When I added a dill-flavored mayonnaise to salmon, it was as if I was grilling on Teflon, the fish released so easily. I almost felt like I was cheating.

For what it’s worth, allegiance to mayonnaise brands can spark as much debate as politics or religion.

“This country is divided into — not Democrat and Republican — but Hellman’s and Miracle Whip,” Goldwyn said.

Personally, I’m a Best Foods (or Hellman’s, as it’s known in other parts of the country) fan, and haven’t tried grilling using Miracle Whip, though I did use an olive oil-based store brand I found in the back of the fridge when my Best Foods stash ran out last week, and everything grilled up just fine. (I also frequently use Kewpie — a Japanese mayonnaise, and a favorite of some of my chef friends — on my grilled cheese sandwiches.)

Goldwyn recommends mayonnaise for garlic bread on the grill, and slathers a flavored mayo to add a crust to cooked baking potato slices — “They get crunchy, like those coated french fries.”

I mentioned one of my favorite meals is a steak sprinkled with Maldon salt and freshly cracked pepper. Would mayonnaise work on steak, I asked. Goldwyn paused to consider.

“Well, why not?” he decided.

For the record, I brushed a thin layer on prime rib-eye steaks just the other day. It worked perfectly.

Perfect Grilled Steak

From Noelle Carter.

2 (1-pound) thick-cut boneless rib-eye steaks, prime or choice grade

4 to 6 tablespoons mayonnaise

Maldon or other coarse sea salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Temper the steaks: Remove the steaks from the refrigerator and set aside to come to room temperature, about 1 hour. Blot the steak on all sides with paper towels to remove excess moisture.

Brush a thin layer of mayonnaise over both sides of the steak. Season each steak on each side with 1 teaspoon Maldon salt, or as desired, along with several grinds of black pepper.

Heat a gas grill over medium-high heat until hot. Add the steaks and grill for about 3 minutes on one side, then rotate the steaks and grill for another 3 to 4 minutes. Flip the steaks over and repeat, grilling each steak for a few minutes, and then rotating to get good grill marks.

Check the steaks for desired doneness. Remove the steaks to a cutting board several minutes to give the meat time to rest. Slice and serve. Serves 4.

Grilled Avocado With Marinated Tomato Salad

From Noelle Carter.

Marinated Tomato Salad

1/4 cup olive oil

2 tablespoons sherry vinegar

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

1/2 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1/4 red onion, very thinly sliced lengthwise

6 large basil leaves, very thinly sliced

2 tablespoons capers, drained and crushed

2 garlic cloves, minced

2 pints ripe grape or cherry tomatoes, halved

In a non-reactive bowl, whisk together the oil, vinegar, mustard, salt and several grinds of black pepper. Stir in the onion, basil, capers and garlic. Gently fold in the tomatoes. Cover and refrigerate at least 3 hours before serving, up to overnight.

Grilled Avocado and assembly

2 large ripe avocados

2 to 3 tablespoons mayonnaise

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Prepared marinated tomato salad

Halve the avocados and discard the seeds. Brush the cut interior of the avocados with a layer of mayonnaise (this will also keep them from browning before grilling). Season each half with a sprinkling of salt and a couple grinds of pepper.

Heat a grill over medium-high heat until hot.

Place the avocados cut-side down on a grill rack. Grill the halves for a couple of minutes. Using tongs, rotate the halves slightly for good grill marks and grill for another couple of minutes. Remove to a serving platter, cut-side up.

Spoon the tomato salad over the avocados and serve immediately. Serves 4.

Grilled Potatoes With Parmesan, Garlic and Rosemary

From Noelle Carter. Recipe inspired by a chat with Meathead Goldwyn.

2 large baking potatoes

1/2 cup mayonnaise

1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

1 tablespoon minced garlic cloves

2 teaspoons chopped fresh rosemary

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Cook the potatoes: Prick the potatoes several times all over with a fork. Place the potatoes on a paper towel in the microwave. Cook the potatoes over high heat for 5 minutes. Prick the potatoes with a knife to see if they are just tender (do not overcook or the potatoes will fall apart on the grill), cooking an additional minute at a time if needed. The potatoes can also be cooked, on a baking sheet, in a 400-degree oven for an hour or so until tender. Set the cooked potatoes aside and cool to room temperature.

While the potatoes are cooling, make the spread: In a bowl, whisk together the mayonnaise, Parmesan cheese, garlic and rosemary. Season with 1/2 teaspoon salt and several grinds of pepper, or to taste.

Cut the cooled potatoes crosswise into 1-inch thick slices. Liberally brush the spread on each cut side of the potato slices.

Heat a grill over medium-high heat until hot. Place the potato slices on the grill racks. Grill the potatoes for 1 to 2 minutes, then rotate using a pair of tongs to get good grill marks. After another minute or so, flip the slices over. Grill the potatoes on the other side for a few minutes, rotating partway for good grill marks.

Remove the potatoes to a plate and cool slightly before serving. Serves 4.

Grilled Salmon With Dill

From Noelle Carter.

4 (6-ounce) center-cut salmon fillets

2/3 cup mayonnaise

1/4 cup chopped fresh dill

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Lemon wedges, for serving

Pat the salmon fillets dry to remove all excess moisture.

Make a dill spread: In a bowl, whisk together the mayonnaise, dill, a generous 1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste, and several grinds of black pepper. Brush the spread over the salmon fillets on all sides.

Heat a grill over medium-high heat until hot. Place the fillets flesh-side down on the grill. Grill for about 6 minutes on one side, rotating partway through for good grill marks. Flip the fish over and continue grilling, skin-side down until the fish is cooked to desired doneness, about 6 minutes more.

Remove to a platter and serve garnished with lemon wedges. Serves 4.

20 things to grill using mayonnaise

■Salmon fillets; with mayonnaise and chopped fresh dill.

■Garlic bread; with mayonnaise, chopped fresh oregano, garlic and Parmesan cheese.

■Halved avocados; with mayonnaise, salt and pepper.

■Chicken breasts; with pesto-flavored mayonnaise.

■Chopped zucchini; with mayonnaise, garlic, Italian seasoning.

■Steaks; with mayonnaise, salt and pepper.

■Pork chops, with mayonnaise and toasted, ground fennel seeds.

■Asparagus spears, with mayonnaise, Dijon mustard, red wine vinegar and garlic.

■Cheese sandwich; mayonnaise.

■Thick tomato slices; with mayonnaise, chopped fresh basil and oregano.

■Halved lobster; with mayonnaise flavored with garlic, paprika and lemon zest.

■Thick slices of cooked baking potatoes; with mayonnaise, garlic, rosemary and Parmesan cheese.

■Shishito peppers; with mayonnaise flavored with sesame oil, soy sauce, garlic and rice wine vinegar.

■Eggplant slices; with tapenade-flavored mayonnaise

■Lamb chops; with mayonnaise, flavored with mint, rosemary and anchovy.

■Chopped fingerling potatoes; with mayonnaise, garlic and thyme.

■Chicken wings; with chipotle- or Sriracha-flavored mayonnaise.

■Grilled onions; with mayonnaise flavored with sherry vinegar and fresh thyme.

■Shrimp; with mayonnaise flavored with chermoula.

■Burger buns; with a thin layer of mayonnaise before toasting.