Cooking Knowledge


How water and oil become inseparable in the kitchen

Emulsification is, by definition, virtually impossible: mixing together two unmixable components. Read on to find out how you can perform this miracle in the kitchen. 

Emulsification – A Definition

Emulsification is actually a term used in chemistry to describe the process of dispersing one liquid in a second, immiscible liquid. The resulting product is what’s known as emulsion. But what is so special about mixing two substances—usually liquids—together? The difficulty lies in emulsifying two substances which are actually not compatible; in terms of cooking, this is the case for oil and water. Essentially, nearly all liquids can be divided into one of two categories: water-soluble and fat-soluble. 

In fact, even though both substances are liquid, they don’t mix together when left to their own devices. It’s a phenomenon you’ve no doubt witnessed before: after a short amount of time, the oil separates from the water and floats to the top—no matter how well you whisked the mixture to start with. There is a chemical explanation for this: the forces at work amongst oil molecules are different to those of the hydrogen and oxygen molecules of water. The two substances are therefore unable to combine. 


Got an almost-empty jar of mustard in the cupboard? Put it to good use by making a fine vinaigrette salad dressing. Put all desired ingredients in the jar, close it tight and shake vigorously a few times. Both the mustard and the shaking motion allow for optimal emulsification of the oil and vinegar—what remains is a clean jar and a delicious dressing.

Emulsification – Natural Emulsifiers

You can overcome this problem by using a so-called emulsifier. These are chemically constructed in such a way that they can bind to both fat and water molecules. In doing so, they act as a kind of bridge or mediator. The most well-known emulsifier is called Lecithin, a substance contained in pulses, soya products and egg yolk (among others). Lecithin is also the substance behind the food additive E 322. Water and oil can also be emulsified using honey or mustard. 

Emulsification - Examples of Emulsions

You come across emulsions on an almost daily basis in the kitchen, most commonly the so-called oil-in-water emulsion. This includes things like gravy, homogenised milk and any dressing that can be made by mixing water, vinegar and oil with mustard, for instance. Examples of ready-made water-in-oil emulsions are products such as margarine or butter.

Making mayonnaise also requires vinegar and oil to be mixed together, with raw egg yolk and a dash of mustard acting as the emulsifying agents. When beating egg yolk and mustard together, it is especially important to add the oil just a drop at a time in order to ensure a smooth mixture. Also make sure that the egg is fresh, and use the mayonnaise within two days.

Even when using natural emulsifiers, it is crucial to stir vigorously to make sure the two substances are well mixed together. Emulsifying fat with water is best done with a whisk or mixer. A hand-held blender may also be useful. Of course, if you own a food processor, you can let that do all the work. 

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