What Is Emulsification and What Are Its Benefits?
Emulsification is the process of creating an emulsion. And what, exactly, is an emulsion? It’s a substance in which two immiscible liquids, such as oil and water, are bound together in the presence of an emulsifying agent. The result is a single, slightly creamy looking liquid.
Homemade vinaigrette salad dressing provides the perfect example. Savvy home cooks know that you can add olive oil to vinegar and shake or blend until you’re blue in the face. But as soon as you stop blending, you’ll eventually end up with oil floating on a distinct layer of vinegar. That works fine for some people. But isn’t there a better, more satisfying way to get the flavor and mouthfeel of both the oil and the vinegar without one overwhelming the other? One ingredient — the vinegar — is water based; the other — the delicious olive oil — is an oil (in chemistry, it’s known as a lipid). Everyone knows oil and water don’t mix.
The “Magic” of Emulsification
But that’s not quite true. Add a special ingredient called an emulsifying agent (also known as a surfactant), mix vigorously, and voilà, you get a creamy dressing that does not separate into layers. Even hours or days later, your emulsified vinaigrette will remain a smooth, appealing liquid ready for pouring over your favorite greens. This is known as a stable emulsion. In the case of our vinaigrette, knowledgable cooks know that adding a dollop of mustard — which contains a natural emulsifying agent — will allow these otherwise unmixable ingredients to combine in harmony.
This same principle works for edible and non-edible substances alike. Emulsification is the reason we can buy smooth, uniformly creamy hand and body lotions — or CBD-laced salves — without having to stir before every use. It puts the shimmering creaminess in tangy hollandaise sauce, and allows you to spread mayonnaise on your bread without oil seeping out and spoiling your sandwich. Technically, emulsions of two liquids involve a dispersed and a continuous phase. In the case of an oil-in-water emulsion, the oil is the dispersant, while the water is the continuous phase.
The process of mixing these two liquids, known as homogenizing, can be achieved in the kitchen using a tool as simple as one’s wrist and a handheld whisk. In the lab or within industry, this sleight-of-hand, so to speak, is performed by a machine called a mixer, blender, or homogenizer. Our X1000 homogenizing drive with G20 shaft, for instance, is capable of mixing oil and water so thoroughly that it’s possible to create an emulsion without adding a surfactant. In order to create a stable emulsion, however, you’ll want to add some sort of emulsifier.