Let’s get all hot and bothered together. Join me on a joyous journey through some seedy facts and grainy history about mustard.
My adventure into the dynamic and varied mustard universe began quite recently. While planning a recipe that required spicy brown mustard, I realized I only had Dijon in the frig. So of course I went to my food guru, my BFF. I asked her what the difference was and if we could use what I had. Naturally, I expected her to be fully acquainted with mustards since, for as long as I have known her (39 years now), she has been concocting and crafting delightful dishes and desserts with every ingredient imaginable. Imagine my bewilderment when she simply replied, “I don’t know”. So down the spicy rabbit hole, I disappeared to discover what the differences were, if any.
Mustard may be the world’s first-ever condiment. Egyptian pharaohs counted it among their treasures in their tombs. The Romans were the first people to grind the seeds for use. Ancient Greek and Roman philosophers and physicians prescribe it in various forms for bodily ailments.
Mustard has been applied as frostbite prevention, used to clear sinuses, and increase appetites. Modern-day applications include hair growth stimulant, weight loss supplement, asthma suppressant, cholesterol regulator, dermatitis treatment, immunity booster, and cancer preventer.
The Romans married unfermented grape juice, or must, with ground mustard seeds to produce a mustum ardens, or “burning must” paste. Thus today we call it “must ard” which is derived from the Latin words.
Today we use this yummy condiment on sandwiches, hot dogs, hamburgers, and pretzels. And don’t forget BBQ sauces, salad dressings, and marinades.
What Is It Anyway?
You know it, you love it, it is one of the world’s favorite and oldest condiments, or is it a condiment? I am glad you asked. Mustard is a plant. It is a cousin of many common, and not so common, vegetables and herbs including broccoli, cabbage, sweet asylum, cress, cauliflower, radish, candytuft, turnip, and wallflower.
On the other hand, what we commonly call mustard and refer to as the condiment is ‘prepared’ mustard. To prepare, the mustard seeds of the mustard plant are ground and mixed with a liquid. The liquid releases the seed’s enzymes that convert into oils, giving the condiment its bite. This burn, or taste, is a natural defense against insects.
Mustard Seeds + Liquid = Tasty Condiment
The world’s present-day consumption of this tasty treat exceeds 400 million pounds.
Mustard seeds come in three varieties: yellow (also known as white), brown, and black. Yellow seeds are the mildest and least sharp while brown and black seeds dish out the heat and intensity.
Liquids in today’s recipes range from water to beer, spirits, wine, and vinegar.
Additives such as honey, maple, brown sugar, spices, horseradish, sriracha, and habanero will bump your mustard experience to the next level.
The mustard’s heat and pungency are directly related to the seeds used and the mixture’s acidity. Using one or more of these seeds in different ratios mixed with varying types of liquids and flavorings gives you nearly endless flavor combinations.
The higher the acidity of a liquid the slower the speed of the enzymes’ reaction. This results in a more mild heat while maintaining the mustard’s pungency for longer. Less acidic liquids, such as water, yield hotter mustard, but the potency drops quickly. The temperature of the water used can further affect the results. Hot water will deactivate the enzymes, breaking down the aromatic compounds. Conversely, using cold water keeps the enzymes intact, resulting in a clear-your-sinuses heat.
What’s Your Favorite?
With the virtually limitless number of possible mustards, you are bound to find a favorite or two, or three, or four…
I was shopping and asked the salesperson if they still had the “mustard yellow” plaid pants available. As it turns out, “mustard yellow” is a misnomer since the seeds used to make yellow mustard are more white. Rather the yellow color of “yellow” mustard is primarily due to the addition of turmeric, a very dark yellow spice. However, I don’t think the salesperson would have known what I was talking about if I had asked for the “Tumeric yellow” pants.
Yellow mustard is a vivid, catch-your-eye color, is most known as American mustard, and is mostly used in America. It is a favorite at picnics and is great in BBQ sauces and salad dressing because of its mild flavor.
It is usually made with finely ground white mustard seeds, vinegar, water, turmeric, and other mild spices. This thick, squeezable condiment is at the bottom of the heat scale while still maintaining a clean, sharp flavor.
With 56mg of sodium and only trace amounts of carbohydrate, fat, and sugar, this tasty sauce is a great condiment for the health-conscious.
In 1856 Jean Naigeon of Dijon, France, created this flavor when he replaced vinegar. His recipe used less acidic verjuice, the “green” juice of unripe grapes. Originally Dijon mustard had to be made in Dijon to carry that name. In the modern culinary world, Dijon refers to the recipe rather than its location. Presently most Dijon is made outside of France.
This recipe uses brown or black seeds, finely ground, and white or burgundy wine. The less acidic wine gives this mustard a robust profile, intensified heat, and sharper flavor than your standard yellow mustards. A little gives a big flavor boost to vinaigrettes and sauces.
Other Wine Mustard
These are similar to Dijon but may use any type of wine for a unique flavor.
Beer and Spirit Mustard
These mustards probably originated in the Midwestern USA during the 20th century. They make good dipping sauces.
In beer mustard, beer is used in place of or in addition to vinegar. Having less acidity than vinegar, beer mustard tends to deliver a massive punch of heat. Full-flavored brews such as porters, dark ales, and stouts are superior at imparting their flavor on the sauce then more mellow suds, which tend to get hidden within the pungency of the mustard.
Spirits are more robust than beer and will quickly add depth and character to mustard. They are usually used in addition to vinegar. Whiskeys and bourbons couple well with the zest of mustard seeds.
Spicy Brown Mustard
This appropriately named mustard pumps up the natural heat with a somewhat coarser grind and a higher concentration of spicy brown seeds. The seeds are soaked in less vinegar than typical mustard resulting in a pronounced, nose-punching heat and deeper flavor.
The spiciness and full flavor of spicy brown mustard lend itself to Indian, Chinese, and Japanese dishes nicely, as well as big meaty deli sandwiches such as roast beef and pastrami. Add some cinnamon, ginger, or nutmeg for a light, earthy flavor.
Depending on the grind, some spicy brown mustards fall in this category. The grind will range from rough to chunky and add texture, character, and dimension to sauces and sandwiches.
Whole Grain Mustard
While there is no specific recipe for these mustards, the seeds are ground just enough to form a thick, coarse paste resulting in the chunkiest texture. You should be able to see the whole grains easily in the jar.
Most store-bought whole-grain mustards are influenced by the Dijon recipe and use some type of wine. The texture and punchy flavor lend well to cheese plates and ham sandwiches or try in your homemade salad dressings and sauces for a textured consistency.
These mustards have had something sweet added, usually in a one-to-one ratio. Common additives include honey, brown sugar, and maple. They can have any combination of characteristics: fine or coarse ground, thick or thin, sweet, hot, tangy. The goal is to bring some sweetness to neutralize the spicy edge while keeping the complexity of mustard. Sweet mustards make excellent dipping sauces and enhance a ham sandwich.
We now know there are 2 ways to temper the heat of ground mustard seeds: hot water and acidity. On the other hand, adding cold water in place of either of these will result in a full mouth-searing fire in your mouth. Using only brown and black seeds with the cold water will amp that mouth-blistering flame even more.
The full potential of fiery potency is reached at about 15-minutes after adding the cold water and then declines from there. Vinegar or refrigeration can slow the decline but will not halt it completely. For this reason, store-bought hot mustards will not be as potent as what you can produce at home.
English– This is a spicy, bright yellow sauce that is one type of hot mustard. It is not as hot as Chinese mustard since it combines yellow with brown seeds, but it is way spicier than American mustard. The most well-known brand is Coleman’s dry mustard.
Chinese- This mustard is for only the bravest of souls with its sinus-clearing, mouth-blistering heat. It is made from ground brown mustard seeds and water. It can be found in Chinese restaurants. A scant dabble will give you a big bang of heat and flavor. Try it with your egg roll next time you’re in a restaurant.
Jamaican & Bahamian- These mustards are less fierce than Chinese but still deliver a good punch and exceptional flavor.
German- Passion, devotion, love-affair, tryst. All of these describe how Germany feels about their mustard. German mustards run the gamut from sweet, spicy, coarse, fine, added spices and flavors, and everything in between.
The most commonly found mustard in Germany is a mixture of yellow and brown mustard seeds that pack a punch or two above Dijon. It is aptly named mittlescharf, or medium hot.
Traveling through Germany you will find that specific region have their favorite flavors. Heading west towards Dusseldorf will see the heat ramping up because of an increased ratio in brown seeds, less acidic liquids, and added spices. If sweet mustard is your preference, you will want to head South to Bavaria, where they mix in honey, brown sugar, or applesauce. No matter where you travel in Germany, you will undoubtedly discover many wursts and pretzels that work with every sauce.
The Other Side of the Rabbit Hole
Having enthusiastically bounded into the fascinating world of mustard, I have emerged on the other side considerably more educated and excited about mustards. I even know the approximate number of seeds in an 8oz jar; care to hazard a guess?
Some other fun, facts I’ve learned:
- One teaspoon of your standard mustard is a healthy condiment weighing in at only five calories, 120 mg of sodium, and trace amounts of carbohydrates and fats.
- You can add just about anything to mustard to diversify its taste.
- Unless a rogue food particle finds its way into your jar, mustard consisting of seeds, an acidic liquid, and spices, will not spoil (though it will eventually lose its pungency leaving you with mediocre mustard).
- Most of the world’s mustard seeds are grown in Canada and Nepal. These countries contribute more than half of the seeds used in modern-day production.
- You can dramatically decrease the condiment’s pungency by cooking with it.
- One of the best things about this sauce is its simplicity enabling even the novice chef to make at home, whether mixing standard mustard or a flavored one.
- In the U.S., mustard use is only second to that of peppercorns.
- The first Saturday of August is National Mustard Day.
- Can you believe it? There is actually a free National Mustard Museum in Middletown, Wisconsin. Currently, they boast over 6090 mustards from the 50 U.S. states and 70 countries. Check them out at https://mustardmuseum.com/ and help them keep the entrance fee-free by donating or buying some mustard from their gift shop.
- And finally, the answer to the burning question of how many mustard seeds are in an 8 oz. jar of mustard…approximately 1000 seeds.
I can hardly wait to start discovering all the wonderful flavors created by my fellow humans, along with experimenting and creating some of my own.
Cate Girone n.d., The Difference Between Yellow, Brown & Dijon Mustard, Leaf TV, accessed 20 August 2020, The Difference Between Yellow, Brown & Dijon Mustard
Jann Seal n.d., Dijon Mustard Substitutes, Leaf TV, accessed 20 August 2020, Dijon Mustard Substitutes
Joshua Bousel updated August 10, 2018, Mustard Manual: Your Guide to Mustard Varieties accessed 21 August 2020, Mustard Manual: Your Guide to Mustard Varieties
National Mustard Museum, accessed 24 August 2020, https://mustardmuseum.com/
Paul Harrison March 10, 2016, A Guide To All The Different Kinds Of Mustard, Food Republic, accessed 20 August 2020, A Guide To All The Different Kinds Of Mustard
Rhonda Parkinson updated July 9, 2020, What Is Chinese Hot Mustard?, accessed 27 August 2020, What Is Chinese Hot Mustard and How Is It Used?
Roma Panganiban August 3, 2019, 13 Spicy Facts About Mustard, Mental Floss, accessed 23 August 2020, 13 Spicy Facts About Mustard
What Is Mustard Made Of? 2020, Wonderopolis: National Center for Families Learning, accessed 23 August 2020, What Is Mustard Made Of?