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Thursday, November 4, 2010

Pass the Mustard

'Tis the season for gifting, and nothing says "you are special" more than something handmade and from the heart.  (Or a really expensive store.)   There's one condiment that is easily prepared that I'm keen as mustard about.

Prepared mustard is a condiment basically composed of mixing mustard seed with liquid(s), and is a great and low-fat way to spice up your food.  Since the word is derived from Latin - "must" was unfermented grape juice, and "ard(ens)" means burning - we know the Romans ate it, and that they made it hot in taste.  Mustard seeds have also been found in Egyptian tombs, and mention is found in both the Upanishads and the Bible.

Its first mention for healing was by Hippocrates, and the ancient Greeks used it to cure various ailments.  They believed it was a gift to mankind from Asclepius, the god of healing.  The oil of the plant is volatile and can blister the skin, but diluted and used as a poultice or liniment it is soothing.  Mustard plasters are still used, and have been used for centuries in baths where it draws the blood to the skin to comfort stiffness.  Its use has been prescribed for maladies as diverse as scorpion stings, snakebites, rheumatism, and colic, among other ailments.  

Because it adds a punch to foods, it became associated with vitality and zest and was used with relish (another great condiment, but I mean enthusiastically).  In the early 20th century, the word was used much the same as we use the term "hot stuff", as in, "That woman is mustard."  

The plant was once called “senvy”, and the word “mustard” referred to the condiment made from its seeds, but now refers to both the condiment and the plant.  It is a member of the Brassica family, which includes cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, radishes, turnips, and the dreaded brussel sprouts.  Currently over 400 million pounds are consumed worldwide.

Mustard seeds can be white (sometimes referred to as yellow), brown, or black, depending on the plant. Black seeds are considered the hottest, white seeds the mildest. The seeds are usually crushed, except in "whole grain" mustards, where the seeds are mixed ungrounded with the other ingredients. Although vinegar is most commonly used to mix with the ground seeds, water or other liquids - wine, vinegar, whisky, beer, salad oil, honey, and (hailing back to the Romans) verjuice – made by pressing unripe grapes - are often used.  Vinegar preserves the intensity, as does salt to a lesser extent, and combined with mustard's antimicrobial properties, it will last forever.  Using a cold liquid results in a stronger mustard - its pungency is lessened with heat, whether in its preparation or use.  Therefore if you cook with it, adding a little dry mustard before serving will sharpen the taste.  

Common flavorings used in prepared mustards include honey, turmeric, and horseradish. Sugar is also used to alter the taste. I recently bought some walnut mustard, which has an interesting flavor but can't as yet think of what to use it on (other than my fingertip, that is.)  Regional recipes vary, but some areas are famous for their preparations. Dijon mustard, from France, is not always made in the Dijon region; hence it has come to mean a type of mustard, usually containing both white wine and burgundy.   There is also Bordeaux mustard made with unfermented wine and flavored with tarragon.  Meaux is made of partly crushed, partly ground black seed, and is a crunchy and hot mustard good for bland foods.

Irish mustard is a whole grain mustard often mixed with Irish whiskey. English mustard (often called "made mustard") is brighter yellow in appearance, and much hotter than American prepared mustard. American mustard is often referred to as "ballpark mustard," reflecting the popularity of it on hot dogs, hamburgers, and other stadium foods (turmeric is added which adds to the yellow color).  German mustard is usually a smooth blend, however Weisswurstenf is a coarse mustard made for sausages such as bratwurst.  Chinese mustards are usually the hottest, and are sometimes mixed with soy sauce or garlic powder.

Dry mustard, sold in cans, can be mixed with your chosen ingredients to make your own mustard. Dry mustard is about twice as strong as prepared mustard, which makes sense if you are mixing the dry mustard in a 1:1 ratio with your chosen liquid(s). A general recipe for a smooth mustard would be half dry mustard and half liquid, which could be a mixture of different liquids, as in water, wine, and vinegar. Whole grain mustard can contain some whole mustard seeds, husking them or not is your choice. Try flavored vinegars for a unique taste. Store in a very clean, tightly sealed glass jar, and let sit for several weeks in order for the flavors to meld. You do not need to refrigerate this until after you open it.

Bulk mustard power can be bought from various online vendors. Also check local "big box" food warehouses for bulk containers. You can also grind your own mustard seeds in a spice grinder, food processor, or blender. 

This is one condiment that really cuts the mustard.  Experiment and try making different types.  Both you and your friends will enjoy them.



  1. Linda, I love the range of your posts! I'm learning so much about so many things.

  2. Thanks, Cokie! It's fun to research the things I'm interested in and then write about them.