Do you know how to be emulsified now? (Why didn't my emulsion emulsify?)
May 13, 2022 3:20 PM   Subscribe

This afternoon I tried to make this recipe for toum, a simple emulsion of garlic, lemon juice, salt, and vegetable oil. The recipe is very simple - not much more complex than combining the ingredients in a food processor and processing until the ingredients emulsify. Except that today, for some reason, my ingredients did not emulsify. I would like to understand why.

Several times previously I have made half-batches of the same recipe, in the same food processor, with the expected results (i.e. that after processing for some time, the oil/garlic/lemon/salt mixture will emulsify into a creamy white spread with a consistency similar to mayonnaise.) Today I tried to make 2/3 of the recipe, however, an emulsion did not form and I was left with a couple of cups of garlicky oil.

As in the past, I used canola oil for the base, though it is a different brand of canola oil this time. The garlic came from a different source as well but otherwise was pretty normal-looking fresh garlic that I peeled myself. The lemon juice was the same as used previously. I may have used kosher salt in previous batches, today I used iodized table salt (which would result in a slight increase in salt content because the smaller table salt crystals pack more densely..)

Can anyone explain what happened and why my attempt at toum failed?

Bonus question: can I somehow rescue it?

Music by which to ponder: "Emulsified" (Yo La Tengo cover version) (Rex Garvin and the Mighty Cravers original)
posted by Nerd of the North to Food & Drink (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I'm wondering if it could have to do with adding so much oil at once. The toum recipe I've used successfully many times has more alternation of ingredients with only 1/2 cup of oil at a time, so it could be more similar to your small batch. (Why this would matter more for you than for the recipe author, I don't know, but I've certainly encountered a few recipes for things which mysteriously didn't work for me.)
posted by LadyOscar at 3:32 PM on May 13, 2022 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Not to thread-sit, but.. as the recipe advised, I used the drizzle-hole in the food processor's chute to add the oil. I may still have wound up adding too much at once, but it was not dumped in en masse. It took about 5 minutes of processing for 2 cups of oil to slowly drizzle through the hole in the chute.

The recipe you linked does have some more explanation about the process of emulsification which is appreciated.
posted by Nerd of the North at 3:40 PM on May 13, 2022

Just a guess: Might it be the use of table salt? According to LadyOscar's recipe, kosher salt is used "for added friction". I wonder if the smaller crystals failed to breakdown the garlic enough to release sufficient quantities of the emulsifiers.
posted by lucasks at 3:40 PM on May 13, 2022

Emulsification can be fickle. It might be the speed you added the oil, perhaps some property of this specific batch of garlic or something else. Garlic is not a very powerful emulsifier, so it could just have been overwhelmed with too much oil. For adding the oil, it's only the drizzling at the very start that really matters. You need to establish an emulsion and then you can add the oil much faster.

To fix it, simply start again with some more garlic and lemon, maybe a 1/3 of a recipe worth, but this time add a few drops of oil to get started and then slowly add in the rest of your failed emulsion in place of the oil. You'll likely want to add a little extra oil at the end to balance things out, but do this carefully and slowly in case your problem was too much oil.

You can use this same technique with mayonnaise (start with another egg yolk and optionally a little lemon) or any other emulsion.
posted by ssg at 3:49 PM on May 13, 2022 [5 favorites]

You might be able to rescue this by adding a spoon-blop of mayo and that might add enough emulsifiers to get it across the finish line. I make my toum with egg white (or a whole egg) and a stick blender - if you have a stick blender you might just decant your garlicky oil into a narrow container (only slightly bigger than the stick blender, I routinely do this in a recycled jar or deli container) and add one more clove of garlic and a drizzle of water or lemon juice. Let it sit and settle for a couple minutes, put your stick blender in all the way to the bottom of the container, and then turn it on and run it as you slowly pull up through the mixture. If THAT doesn't emulsify, add the egg white or the bit of mayo and try again.
posted by Lyn Never at 3:51 PM on May 13, 2022 [1 favorite]

Yep. Lyn and dancing leaves got it. You need more water.

Your garlic may have been a bit dried out or wasn't ground up as finely as in previous batches (both instances would mean less water was available to form the emulsion). Maybe you didn't measure the lemon juice quite the same?

If it was a particularly warm day, or if the toum got too warm from being in the processor too long, that may not have helped.

But the vast majority of times, if a mayo or toum, breaks, it's because the mixture got overwhelmed with too much oil too quickly and/or there wasn't enough water to hold the emulsion.

Follow Lyn's directions and it should come back (you could prob even skip the clove of garlic) the key is getting a little more water into the mix.

Using a stick blender or a standard blender will help because it gives you a better blade to container ratio. The narrow container means the blade is dealing with a smaller amount of the mixture at a time, and you get more mechanical shearing. In essence, it's more bashy, so you get a thicker emulsion.

Good luck!
posted by jenquat at 4:45 PM on May 13, 2022 [2 favorites]

Emulsions are weirdly complicated. They're like the chemistry version of the Three Body Problem.

Emulsions are - by definition - molecules which do not want to mix together. The stability of an emulsion depends on how these molecules are interacting at a molecular level, and VERY SMALL CHANGES can totally break the emulsion.

I've worked with 3 ingredient emulsions before that had like a 1% tolerance... that is, if any ingredient was off by 1%, the emulsion would break.

I'm very much not an expert, and I don't know toum, but don't worry about not understanding emulsions. I don't think anyone does.
posted by chuntered inelegantly from a sedentary position at 4:49 PM on May 13, 2022 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: Unfortunately I have no stick blender. Also unfortunately, the 2/3-sized recipe was about at the practical limit for the cute little food processor I generally use for the half-sized batch I usually make.

Starting over with more garlic and lemon juice and slowly drizzling in the failed emulsion seemed like an idea that ought to work, so I moved everything to the full-sized processor and tried that with a notable lack of success.

I've probably ruined things beyond repair by now, but I'll try drizzling in cold water as suggested by dancing leaves.

I suspect that those who have suggested I could rescue it with a bit of egg or mayonnaise are probably correct but I'm not going to go there. I have an (admittedly irrational) aversion to mayonnaise and while it would very likely work, I'd rather junk everything and start over completely than add egg.

But I am learning some interesting things, so all responses are appreciated (whether they run afoul of my personal food foibles or not.)
posted by Nerd of the North at 5:10 PM on May 13, 2022

I have never made this. I am a chemist, however, and my first thought is temperature. It probably got too warm.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 5:32 PM on May 13, 2022 [1 favorite]

I agree that it could have gotten too warm in that little food processor, where there's just not much space for the friction heat to dissipate plus the little motors are rarely well-shielded. You could try fridging it for a bit and try re-beating quickly in pulses.

A blop of mustard will change the flavor profile somewhat (but in a bad way? I would suggest no) but is also full of emulsifiers. It's how you make vinaigrette emulsify, even temporarily.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:54 PM on May 13, 2022 [1 favorite]

I have never made this. I am a chemist, however, and my first thought is temperature. It probably got too warm."

With tuum, one of the "expert tips" you frequently see is to add a few drops of warm water, but yeah, it can break if it gets too warm

Another problem is if the garlic is too old — fresh garlic works best.

Finally, a bit of egg white (or if you're resolutely vegan, one of the many chemical lecithins) can really do wonders for recovery. The way I learned to make it was with a bit of egg white.
posted by klangklangston at 9:19 PM on May 13, 2022 [1 favorite]

Dijon works as an emulsifier-aid too (I use it in salad dressings for this). Doesn’t have to be much.
posted by supercres at 9:30 PM on May 13, 2022

Food-grade soy lecithin is a cheat code for emulsions, if you are okay with a little industrially processed cheating.
posted by away for regrooving at 10:04 PM on May 13, 2022

Response by poster: In the end I wasn't able to rescue the failed emulsions (or perhaps more accurately, my own food issues made the idea of adding egg white distasteful to me and the other likely-sounding rescue additives were not ones that I had on hand.)

Saturday I had to stop by the store to pick up a prescription and so I grabbed some new garlic and tried again and I don't know what the difference was, but this time I have a big batch of fluffy, garlicky toum.

I was more conservative about adding the oil very slowly, and the bulb of garlic that I bought was noticeably larger than the ones I had on hand for the first attempt, so it seems likely that either too little garlic or oil added too quickly were the issue but I don't know for sure.

I did learn that the recipe I'm using can fail, so in the future I'll try to be sure to make the toum a day ahead, so that if I have another broken emulsion I can start over and try again.

Thanks to all for their suggestions.
posted by Nerd of the North at 7:22 PM on May 15, 2022

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