Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Mustard

Mustard seeds, prepared mustard and dried mustard

When Hippocrates uttered the famous words, "Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food," he was surely talking about the mustard seed. These tiny powerhouses, the progeny of the mustard plant, are seemingly innocuous. They're nearly flavorless when whole. But crack or grind these minuscule miracles and add a splash of water and - pow! - mustard shows its muscle. That's because the grinding unleashes two compounds, myrosin and sinigrin that, when mixed with liquid, create a chemical reaction that gives mustard its heat. The resulting paste can not only flavor your game day dog; it can clear your sinuses and cure your boo-boos, too. 

A Brief History

In Hippocrates' time, mustard seeds weren't just prized for their flavor. The "father of medicine," as he is often called, was also known to grind mustard seeds to create healing plasters that were applied to the sick and wounded. Hippocrates was not alone in valuing the seed. It is believed that mustard was first cultivated in India around 3,000 BCE and the seeds are a popular element of the cuisine there today. The Pharaohs of Egypt included mustard seeds in their tomb provisions for their journey into the afterlife. The Bible, too, mentions mustard seeds.

Ancient Greeks and Romans enjoyed a version of prepared mustard, the condiment of ground mustard mixed with liquid that we commonly refer to as "mustard" today. They would grind the seeds at the table, similar to how we grind peppercorns, and then swirl the powder with a little wine or verjus (the juice from unripened grapes) to make a paste to season their food.

The Romans brought mustard to Gaul when they conquered it and it was there that the plant and the condiment flourished. The monks of the region planted mustard freely and created their own cottage industry as mustard makers. The temperate climate of the region turned out to be ideal for growing the mustard plant and, as the seeds were one of the very few spices that could be grown locally, mustard became a popular seasoning and, double happiness, was a powerful antiseptic that was marvelous for curing war wounds.

Mustard reigned until the spice routes opened up, bringing exotic flavors to Europe and crowding out the more commonplace mustard seed. Then, in 1777, two guys with some forward-thinking taste buds, Maurice Grey and Antoine Poupon, replaced the standard vinegar in prepared mustard with white wine, creating a smoother, milder condiment. Dijon mustard was created and mustard was back on the map. Fifty years later Jeremiah Colman, a miller, went in the opposite direction, creating a super spicy mustard using a special grinding method that retained all of mustard's pungent potential. His product, Colman's mustard, is an English staple and was so loved by Victoria it was dubbed "the Queen's Mustard."

In the United States, mustard was firmly established as a condiment staple at the 1904 World's Fair where a new type of treat - the hot dog - was also making its debut. The two have been together ever since.

Factual Nibbles

  • The United States consumes more mustard than any other country.
  • National Mustard Day is August 1st.
  • The National Mustard Museum in Middleton, Wisconsin displays 5,676 different types of mustard.
  • Guests at a fete given by the Duke of Burgundy in 1336 are said to have consumed 70 gallons of prepared mustard in one sitting.
  • All parts of the mustard plant are edible: the seeds, the leaves and flowers. 

Cultivation

Mustard is the leading spice worldwide: more than 300,000 metric tons are produced each year. The plant prefers a temperate climate. The countries that produce the most mustard are Canada, Hungary, India, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Mustard is easy to grow and self-seeds as a weed if allowed to do so. Seeds mature anywhere from 60 to 95 days from sowing. The seedpods must be harvested as soon as they begin to turn from green to tan, or they will burst and scatter.

If you are harvesting your own mustard seed, hang the ripe plants upside down in a dry, well-ventilated place. Tie paper bags around the plants to encase the pods. When fully dry, in about two weeks, the pods will burst, releasing the seeds into the bag. Carefully untie the bags from the plants and shake out onto a wooden cutting board. Separate the seeds from any plant matter by slightly tipping the board over towel. The seeds will roll down and onto the cloth. Transfer to an airtight container and store in a cool, dark place.

Seasonality

Mustard plants like cool weather. Plant three weeks before the last frost for a spring harvest and mid-summer for a fall harvest.

Mustard plants bolt in hot weather (when warm temps set in, the plant rapidly produces seed). Although this might sound like a good way to get a stash of mustard seeds going quickly, bolted seeds are inferior to those that ripen on their own time.

Environmental Impact

Mustard plants are pretty hardy and don't require a lot of chemical inputs to thrive. In fact, mustard is a nitrogen-fixing cover crop, which means that it enriches the soil in which it is grown, increasing its fertility. 

Characteristics

Mustard seeds come in three varieties:

Brassica nigra, black mustard seed, is more expensive because the tall plants cannot be harvested mechanically. These seeds are mainly used whole rather than ground into prepared mustard.

Brassica juncea, brown mustard seed, is pungent and the base of assertive mustards such as Chinese mustard.

Brassica alba, called white or yellow mustard seed, is the mildest and is used to make the popular yellow mustard, which is colored with turmeric to get its bright hue.

What to Look For

Although there are thousands of different types of mustard, they are all prepared in the same way. The seeds are ground or cracked and liquid is added. Adding cold liquid retains the mustard seeds' heat. Adding hot liquid or cooking the mustard tempers the taste. Some of the more popular mustards include:

Dijon: a mild flavored mustard developed in Dijon, France. It used to have an AOC protection, meaning it could only be made in Dijon, but is now produced worldwide.

Yellow: the most popular type in the United States. This is your basic, ballpark mustard.

Grain/Stone Ground: mustard that uses cracked seeds rather than ground for extra texture.

Honey: mustard that has been sweetened with honey.

Spicy Brown: seeds are soaked in vinegar before grinding and the whole seed blended in for a more robust flavor.

Nutrition and Effects on the Body

Not only tasty, the mustard plant also has significant health benefits. Mustard seeds contain nutrients called isothiocyanates that have been shown to prevent the growth of cancer cells, particularly with regards to stomach and colon cancer. The seeds also contain selenium, which reduces the severity of asthma and rheumatoid arthritis, and magnesium, which may reduce high blood pressure and the frequency of migraines.

Spicy mustard oil, popular in Asian cooking, is making the leap to western kitchens where chefs appreciate its sinus clearing umph and clear flavors. Many eaters believe strongly in the oil's health properties, such as its antibacterial, antifungal, and antirheumatic effects. However, the oil's high level of erucic acid, linked in animal tests to health issues, has it banned in the United States for kitchen use. Asian cooks and other adopters, however, are bullish on the benefits of including mustard oil in their diets. They believe any fear about the product is unfounded and cite generations of good health by frequent consumers as evidence. 

What to Do with It and Cooking

Make your own: Si se puede! Add mustard to your list of mad DIY skills. It's super easy.

Salad dressing: mustard is a great emulsifier, so it makes a creamy, smooth dressing out of ingredients such as vinegar and oil that are always trying to separate. (Pro Tip: if you're nervous about a sauce, such as Hollandaise, separating, add a dash of mustard to keep it intact.)

Marinade: what is a marinade but a stronger version of a vinaigrette? Mustard tastes good on everything.

Sauces: from elegant fish to bring-me-a-bib ribs, mustard is the sauce master.

Anything with cheese: trust me here, mac and cheese, cheese soup and cheese dip are all better with mustard.

Storage

Stored in an airtight container in a cool, dark place, mustard seeds maintain their flavor for three to four years.

Prepared mustard has antibacterial qualities and requires no refrigeration but keeping the condiment cold preserves its pungency. You can expect an opened jar of the condiment to maintain its flavor for a month on the counter and up to a year if refrigerated.

Stretching Your Food Dollar Through Preservation

You can pickle mustard seeds for fun and flavor, but you needn't do so to preserve them.

When making your own mustard, you'll need to add a splash of vinegar to maintain the condiments kick. Once the crushed or powdered seeds are mixed with liquid, they will reach their full potency in about 10-15 minutes. After that, the mixture will begin to mellow rapidly, loosing much of its flavor within an hour. Vinegar or other acid, such as wine or citrus juice, will halt this decline. Acidification plus refrigeration will preserve prepared mustard the longest.