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:
- Dijon. Named for a mustard-producing city in France, Dijon mustard usually refers to smooth, medium-heat mustard, although some Dijon mustards are also coarse and others are extra hot. While Maille and Pommery are two of the better known brands, not all Dijon mustard comes from France. In fact, most do not, so think of Dijon as a type of mustard not a place where it comes from. Grey Poupon is a Dijon-style mustard that originated in France in 1777, but today is produced by Kraft. It once compromised the dignity of the distinguished English actor, Ian Richardson, in a television commercial that showed mustard-swapping between Rolls Royces.
- American. The best known are yellow, spicy brown, and deli mustard made by French's and Heinz. But American companies like Roland and Gold's also import or make a mix of international styles of mustards, including Dijon, coarse, dry and flavored. The bright yellow mustard we associate with hot dogs and cookouts is sometimes called ball park mustard and gets its bright color from the addition of tumeric.
- Creole. A spicy coarse mustard usually made with brown mustard seeds. Zatarain's is a popular regional brand from New Orleans that's increasingly available across the U.S.
- Flavored. These are prepared mustards with other ingredients added to compliment the mustard taste and some cuisines use some flavors more than others. Additions can be horseradish, tarragon, garlic, basil, nuts, peppercorns, even black currants.
- English. Colman's is the best known British brand. They make a prepared mustard that has a smooth texture and hot pungency, as well as those little tins of dry mustard. English mustard is usually hotter than French mustard.
- German. From the areas around Dusseldorf and in Bavaria, two of the best-known German mustard producers are Dusseldorfer Senf and Lowensenf. In German cuisine, mustard is primarily used with meats and sausages and their heat ranges from medium to very hot.
- Irish. Prepared whole grain mustard made with honey, stout, or Irish whiskey. Flavors range from mild and tangy to robust and rich.
- Australian. A mix of English yellow and whole grain mustards. Flavors range from mild to robust.
- Chinese. This generally means mustard powder that is transformed into hot mustard with the addition of water. It's usually served as a dipping sauce.
- Wasabi. This isn't mustard but instead the enlarged stem of an East Asian cabbage, wasabia japonica, which is a plant native to Japan but also now cultivated in other countries and available fresh. The pale green paste or powder we buy or see in Japanese restaurants is a powder made from the wasabi plant that is tinted green and then reconstituted with water.
- Mustard Oil. Made by crushing mustard seeds, usually black ones, mustard oil is used for cooking especially in the cuisines of Pakistan and northern India. There are conflicting reports on how healthy this oil is and gradually other vegetable oils have replaced it. In some south Asian and subcontinent cultures mustard oil is also used to light lamps, make cosmetics, as a hair conditioner, even to tune some Indian drums.
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
- Use it as a condiment. Besides hot dogs, mustard is a favorite for corned beef sandwiches, on biscuits when served with slices of baked ham, on burgers and sausages, and alongside platters of cold meats and patés.
- Add it to sauces and dressings. Mustard is a popular flavor in barbecue sauces, notably and with great pride in South Carolina.
- Sprinkle crushed yellow mustard seeds on softened goat cheese for little bursts of mustard flavor.
- Add dry mustard to your favorite glaze for baked ham, roasted fillets of salmon or black cod, or to finish a pork roast.
- Include mustard seeds when blending and grinding your own curry.
- Add to miso dressing to make an Asian coleslaw.
- Use it to coat a piece of meat or fish to help a crust stay attached. For example, you can braise or roast a pork shoulder and when it's nearly completely cooked, coat it with smooth mustard and then add breadcrumbs mixed with fresh herbs (the mustard will help the crumbs stick). Finish it in a hot (450° F) oven for about 15 minutes until the mustard and crumbs create a firm, browned crust.
- Mix with citrus juice to make a dipping sauce for egg rolls or a sauce for chicken or steamed vegetables.
- Add both flavor and moisture to fish or chicken by coating it with prepared mustard and then finish cooking under a broiler. See our link to a recipe for Halved Chicken Broiled With Mustard that is a city kitchen-friendly adaptation of a recipe by Patricia Wells.
- Mustard is an essential ingredient in rémoulade, which is a mayonnaise and mustard sauce favored in French, Danish, and Creole cuisines that is usually served with seafood or as the dressing on shredded celery root to make céleri rémoulade. See our recipe.
- Mustard Sauce is a classic companion to gravlax, which is raw salmon that has been cured in salt, sugar and dill. This version is adapted from a recipe in The San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market Cookbook by Christopher Hirsheimer and Peggy Knickerbocker:
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.
- Many classic French dishes feature mustard, including sauce for rabbit, in warm potato salad, and vinaigrette for salad greens. But adding a little mustard to dressings, vinaigrettes, and sauces is a way to add complexity and brightness, as when adding a forkful of Dijon to a Caesar salad dressing, a tablespoon to your favorite macaroni and cheese recipe, or dry mustard to cheese soufflés or cheese fondue.
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?