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In a pickle: What to do if your emulsion separates

If you have ever tried your hand at homemade mayonnaise, hollandaise sauce or other emulsions, then there’s a good chance they’ve “broken” or separated on you. There’s no need to start from scratch if you learn this quick fix.

Homemade mayo

What is an emulsion?

An emulsion is the combination of two ingredients that don’t easily blend together, like oil and vinegar or water. By very slowly mixing one into the other their particles disperse and bond, creating a thick, creamy mixture like mayonnaise or hollandaise. Vinaigrette is also an emulsion, but it is what’s known as a “temporary” one, so it naturally separates and you can simply shake it to mix it back up.

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Why do emulsions break?

Making an emulsion is fairly easy, but it can be a little delicate. Often if the temperature is too high or the olive oil is added too quickly then the mixture can lose its ability to hold together. When this happens, the emulsification has “broken” or “separated.”

How do I know if my emulsion has separated?

When you are adding the fat (for example the butter or olive oil), if you notice that the mixture begins to look grainy or curdled, then this is a good indication that the emulsion is about to break or separate. Stop what you are doing immediately and follow the directions below.

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How can I fix my separated emulsion?

To save your emulsification, add a splash of cool water and whisk vigorously until the mixture is once again completely smooth. Then resume as normal. If this doesn’t work then your emulsion needs a little more TLC. In a separate bowl, whisk together an egg yolk and a splash of whatever acid you are using (typically lemon juice or vinegar). When it’s fully combined, then slowly begin whisking the broken mixture into the new one. This should allow it to form a new, strong emulsion.

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