When referring to emulsifiers in the culinary world, we are talking about any one of a number of chemical additives which encourage the blending of two different liquids. In other words, an emulsifier promotes the suspension of one liquid in another liquid.
Everyone knows that oil and water don’t mix. But apparently emulsifiers never got that memo. They are used in food things such as salad dressings, ice cream, margarine, and Hollandaise sauce.
Emulsifiers and emulsions are very sciency, and it’s easy to get carried away with using big words and sounding like I know what I’m talking about. Take the term ‘continuous phase’ for instance. I have no idea what that means but it has something to do with emulsifiers. I don’t think it’s a term cooks use often.
The bottom line is when I say that emulsifiers are chemical additives, I don’t mean something solely limited to a chemistry lab. It sounds fancy, but it really just means adding some ingredient that binds two liquids together.
The word “emulsion” comes from the Latin mulgeo, meaning milk. Milk is an emulsion of water and fat. There’s also something called stabilizers which are closely related to emulsifiers, but instead of helping liquids combine, they maintain the combination of liquids once they’ve reached the emulsified state.
To clear up any confusion, the term ’emulsifier’ refers to the agent responsible for bringing two liquids together. The term ’emulsion’ is the product of that process.
Mayonnaise is an emulsion. Eggs, containing the emulsifier lecithin are combined with lemon juice or vinegar and then oil is added drop by drop and whisked like crazy until the mayonnaise comes together.
I’m not positive on this but I’m sure the French had something to do with identifying and using emulsifiers in their cooking. It’s complete speculation on my part, but the French seem to know everything about cooking.
I brought up Hollandaise sauce earlier. Well it’s an emulsion of lemon juice and butter. Eggs yolks are the emulsifiers in this recipe. If you like eggs benedict and Hollandaise sauce then definitely check out our recipe here: Classic Hollandaise Sauce and Eggs Benedict
Otherwise, that is all on the topic of emulsion. Go read Wikipedia if you want to learn more.