For years, I’d heard the whispers. Now it’s out of the dark. This is the year of Mayo Steak. And for some, there will be no going back.
You can witness the paradigm shift all over the internet, including on YouTube. There are so many people showing off a perfectly decent ribeye getting slathered in mayonnaise that it almost seems like Best Foods started some sort of underground PR project to increase sales.
Even Alton Brown, America’s favorite geeky TV cook, got in on it after realizing he “didn’t have butter or oil” in his house. I find this statement suspicious: Brown, running out of any cooking fat despite doing food for a living? I think the alternate possibility is more real: He couldn’t resist the allure of Mayo Steak.
I’ve seen a lot of cooking trends come and go (I’m really waiting for manufacturers to stop selling us “air fryers,” for one), and so I wasn’t surprised that my gut reaction to the concept of cooking steak in mayo was that it could only be a gimmick that just costs more for ingredients. Somehow, however, I’ve learned that I’m both right and wrong. Your friends and family will cringe and ooh and ahh as they gaze upon the disgusting raw prep and try to wrap their heads around the “why.” But they will also drool as they gaze upon a deliciously bronzed steak — one that doesn’t reek of mayo.
And I’m shocked.
Have we missed the mark with all of our jokes about how mayo is white culture or that millennials have killed mayo or that Mayo Pete is Peak Mayo? Have we unfairly relegated the pale white condiment to burgers and potato salad despite its versatility? Can mayo, so often accused of overwhelming the palate with its cloying richness, actually have elegant utility in the kitchen? And damn, do I love mayo after all, despite wanting to gag whenever I see a lump of the stuff wiggling at the end of a spoon like some sort of hellspawn Jell-O?
I’ll cut to the chase with my home experiment: Yeah, the shit works.
In a side-by-side test, I cooked up three strip steaks: one brushed with mayo and set directly into a hot pan, one that was marinated in mayo for an hour and one that was cooked normally without mayo. Lo and behold, the first one took on a crusty, crunchy edge faster than the control steak I plopped naked into a hot puddle of grape-seed oil. The steak that marinated in mayo for an hour, meanwhile, didn’t seem to taste much different from the former despite again browning more quickly. All three steaks tasted amazing, although I thought I could catch a whiff of an extra MSG-like savoriness on the mayo versions.
How could this work? In his breakdown, science-obsessed cook (and Serious Eats founder) J. Kenji Lopez-Alt notes that mayo is mostly made of the stuff you already use to cook a steak anyway. “For starters, mayonnaise — a seasoned emulsion of oil in water — is mostly fat, making it a great delivery mechanism for the fat-soluble flavor compounds found in many aromatics, while leaving behind no distinct flavor of its own. This means that mayo-marinated meats don’t taste like mayo once they are cooked,” he wrote in the New York Times.
As the steak sizzles, the water in the condiment evaporates away. What you get, Lopez-Alt notes, is “a thin, evenly distributed layer of fat, as well as a very, very thin coating of egg protein.” (Mayo isn’t just fat, of course; it has considerably more protein than any oil or butter, because it’s made with eggs.) The interplay between fat, protein and heat is what creates a craggy crust, so no wonder that a mayo rubdown is especially handy for thin cuts of meat, like a skirt steak, that can easily overcook in the center before the outside has a chance to catch a thick sear. It’s also an excellent addition to watery marinades, which add delicious flavors but slow down any browning with all that moisture.
More largely, using mayo on steaks is the latest trend in man’s never-ending quest to achieve the perfect Maillard reaction, which makes our food taste more than the sum of its parts. The human body craves amino acids, and the flavors born on the surface of a sizzling steak as those amino acids collide is a uniquely human invention — no other animals, after all, use heat and flame to cook. Philosophically speaking, this obsession is the reason why men adore finding new ways to make a steak: Deep-frying it, blowtorching it and cooking it on rocks, over lava or even straight on the coals (a personal favorite of mine ever since I drunkenly dropped a ribeye onto embers instead of the grill grate).
Steak is man’s ultimate plaything, the result of a process of evolution that somehow gave us the knowledge to harvest animals, put their meat over fire and then endlessly bicker about how to get a proper sear on the damn thing. American men are bonded with the act of eating meat, and they consume roughly 60 percent more of the stuff than women do. We’ve more or less perfected the steak process (consider the reverse sear!), and yet we’re still out here smearing condiments on raw beef in the hopes it’ll turn out marginally better. (Peanut-butter seared steak, by the way, is awful.)
We’re playing with our meat in the same way we play with cars and guns — not because we need innovation or change, but because tinkering with that stuff becomes part of our identity. Red meat has always been strongly linked to masculinity in an assortment of cultures around the world, and especially in America. And it’s not just that men show their meat-consuming prowess to show off their man-ness — it literally makes us feel bigger and stronger. (So much so that some people swear by a meat-only diet.)
Throwing mayo on that red meat, however, almost seems like a formula straight out of a viral Epic Meal Time video circa 2011. Such is the lie of mayo — its suburban banality has always obscured its magic trick of emulsion and flavor. I marveled at how un-gross the whole experiment felt once the globs of white melted into a pool of fairly normal-looking oil. Even a fairly standard butter-basting finish on half of my “normal” control steak tasted more aggressive.
So, yeah, go ahead and make a Mayo Steak. It might teach you something about subverting expectations, having a fun party trick for the next potluck or the importance of not judging a condiment by its stereotypes, racial or otherwise. What it will not do is revolutionize your steak-eating, which we should be doing less of given that our love affair with raising and consuming cattle is killing the planet.
Thus, with an ambitious heart and fully clogged arteries, I propose a new trend for 2020: Mayo Mushrooms. (Don’t knock it ’til you try it.)