Mustard 101

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  • Hot English Prepared Mustard Hot English Prepared Mustard
  • Dry Mustard Dry Mustard
  • Mustard 101

Mustard 101

Food chemist and author Harold McGee praises mustard for its "… head-filling hotness."

Before considering how to cook with an ingredient that delivers that kind of pleasure, here's a little background on how we get from a tiny mustard seed to gravlax dipped in mustard sauce, or half a chicken broiled with a mustard coating, or pickled fruit that becomes mostarda, or a Chicago hot dog with celery salt, a pickle and a smear of yellow.

From a Plant To a Seed To a Hot Dog

The mustard plant gives us both seeds and greens. The greens have a sharp mustard flavor and are one of the nutrient-rich superfoods. Various species of the mustard plant give us three types of seeds -- black, brown, and white or yellow. Each is slightly different to grow and has a slightly different potency.

Most European mustards, including Dijon, are made with brown mustard seeds. White or yellow mustard seeds are used mostly in the U.S. for making prepared mustards and pickle mixes. Black, with its higher pungency, is mostly used in India but because it is more complex to grow, it is increasingly being replaced by the brown.

Here is an unexpected piece of trivia: Canada grows 90% of all the mustard seed that is produced for the international market and the Canadian province of Saskatchewan alone produces almost half of the world's supply.

And are mustard seeds good for you? Well, it seems both yes and no. They have some nutritional value with trace amounts of selenium, omega 3s, and a few vitamins. Once the seeds get turned into prepared mustard, it has very few calories -- about 3 per teaspoon -- and no fat. But salt is added so it's also high in sodium.

Mustard Is International But Not Global

Mustard is an ancient flavor. Its uses, both medicinal and culinary, can be traced back to Roman times and in the centuries that followed, it found its way into some, but curiously, not all cuisines. It is most popular in Indian, Pakistani, French, German, English, Scandinavian, and American cooking. Elsewhere it seems to be used strictly as a condiment, if even that.

There is nearly none of it in Italian cooking -- not even on panini sandwiches. The exception is a unique concoction called mostarda di frutta, which is candied whole fruit that is pickled with mustard and usually served with boiled meats, adding subtle sweetness, heat and pungency all at once. The best known is mostardi di Cremona, named for a town in the Lombardy region of Italy.

In her book, Marcella Says … , Marcella Hazan wrote about a favorite mostarda that comes from the city of Vicenza that's made with quince jam and mustard. Signora Hazan and her husband Victor retired to Florida and being unable to buy this kind of jam-y mostarda in the U.S., she instead made her own by mixing good quality quince preserves (her favorite was one made by the Swiss maker, Hero) and Colman's dry mustard, adding one tablespoon jam for each teaspoon of mustard. She served it with a dollop of mascarpone on grilled bread with a glass of Prosecco.

Mostarda can also be served with cold ham or chicken, on sausage, or of course, as Signora Hazan pointed out, on hot dogs. I love it best drizzled over a piece of pecorino cheese.

Dry Vs. Prepared Mustard

Dry mustard is made by grinding mustard seeds into a fine powder. The best known is Colman's.  Dry mustard can be added to sauces, mixed with other dry spices in a dry rub or with bread crumbs, added to a fruit compote, used in home baked crackers, or in any other recipe that benefits from mustard flavor but not the acidic liquids that are often used to turn dry mustard into prepared.

Prepared mustard is made from combining ground mustard seeds with a liquid to create a paste. The liquid is most commonly vinegar, wine, verjus (see our article for more about verjus), or water. Some prepared mustard is very smooth; others are left coarse with the flecks of crushed mustard seeds.

Among prepared mustards there are many variations:

Freshness counts with mustard. Once a container is opened, whether it's a jar, crock, can, squeeze bottle or a tube, it should be refrigerated -- not because it will spoil, because it won't. But instead because exposure to the air causes the flavor to quickly fade. I asked the folks at Roland Foods, who import dozens of mustards among their 1,500 products, about this.

"True French Dijon is all about freshness," said Lisa Kartzman, Roland's director of public relations. "Smooth Dijon has a pungency life of about 18 months in an unopened jar. Also, mustard as we know, never really goes bad. While Dijon may lose its pungency overtime, it is still technically good and somewhat flavorful to continue to consume. Many people and chefs continue to use it even though the heat has diminished, but the flavor hasn’t."

So if you're not going to use mustard frequently, buy it in smaller containers so that it doesn't fade before you finish the jar.

Despite the huge variety of prepared mustards available at our markets, home cooks can also make our own from either crushed whole seeds or powdered mustard. Adding moisture to either the seeds or to dry mustard powder releases enzymes, which have the compounds with the pungent flavor we love. The moisture can be an ingredient that adds additional flavor or acidity, as with wine, verjus, vinegar, or fruit juice.

How To Cook With Mustard

1/4 cup Dijon mustard
1/4 cup honey mustard
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
Juice of 1/2 lemon (about 1 tablespoon)
1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Stir together the mustards, olive oil, lemon juice and dill. Season to taste with the salt and freshly ground pepper.

If you're looking for a food-related vacation this summer and the rising price of gas doesn't stop you from a long road trip, you might want to head to Middleton, Wisconsin where you can visit The Mustard Museum (see our link). If you can't get there in person, their website also has an online store plus answers to such compelling questions as, has a jar of mustard ever been before the Supreme Court of the United States?





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