There's enough of a difference that it actually matters
I really don’t much like mayonnaise. I don’t want that slippery gloopy white stuff spread on my sandwiches, I don’t want to dip my fries in it, I do not even want to try those DIY hair and skin treatments that use mayo as a natural way to bring softness to skin and shine to locks. Here are my personal uses for jarred mayonnaise: I like just enough of it in tuna salad to bind it together nearly dryly, but not any more than that, if the tuna gets soupy or mushy, I’m out. I have enjoyed a couple of chocolate cakes that use mayo in the mix for moistness and tender crumb. There is the occasional salad dressing or sauce that use mayo, including my homemade ranch dressing, which is delicious. But I am that weird person who actually buys those adorable little eight-ounce jars of mayo, because unless I’m cooking for a crowd, I’m not going to get through much of a large jar before it spoils.
To be clear, we are talking about jarred mayo here, I do make the occasional homemade aioli when called for, and while I wouldn’t spread it on a sandwich, I might dip a fry in it. But if someone told me that mayo was going to go the way of the dinosaur, I wouldn’t shed any tears.
When I was growing up, the jar of Hellman’s was pretty common in my family fridge, but sometimes Mom would buy Miracle Whip. Not being a mayo girl, I always assumed they were the same. That is until I was in college and sharing a house with pals and picked up Miracle Whip, which was on sale, for the “mayo” requested on the shopping list. Three of my housemates became apoplectic upon my return, as if I had purchased a jar of pureed puppy souls, and the fourth got all nostalgic for her childhood and burst into homesick tears. Apparently most people have some serious opinions about mayonnaise. But is there a real difference?
There are indeed some serious discrepancies between the two. Miracle Whip has less oil in it than mayo, enough of a difference that it doesn’t meet the standard to be called “mayonnaise” by the FDA. The Miracle Whip people won’t say how far below the 62 percent threshold they stand, but it is enough that it technically is called “salad dressing.” While the initial basics of mayo and Miracle Whip are the same, egg, soybean oil, vinegar, water, Miracle Whip then goes rogue, adding corn syrup and a proprietary blend of spices to amp it up. But why would you mess with mayo, when it is such a simple thing?
Turns out, during the Depression, they invented Miracle Whip to be a cheaper alternative to mayo that contained more oil. The addition of sugar and spices allowed for the emulsification and texture that was needed to mimic the existing mayo on the market. Some of the people who bought it to be budget conscious ended up liking the sweeter, spicier flavor and so continued to buy it even after the economy recovered.
While I prefer a simple plain mayo for most of my cooking, I do have to say that using Miracle Whip in certain recipes really works, especially for things like creamy cole slaw, where it holds up to the more intense flavor of raw cabbage than your basic Hellman’s. And since I’m not a mayo girl anyway, I feel no shame in using both in my kitchen, and have no judgment as to what you prefer, whether you are a hardcore mayophile who orders Duke's online or a “whatever white stuff is on sale” kind of person, you do you in the mayo game. Even if that means your preferred mayo isn’t really mayo after all.