The devil's condiment

The world’s second-most popular spice, mustard has been used for millennia as a sharp seasoning.

Mustard in tablespoon 311 (photo credit: courtesy/MCT)
Mustard in tablespoon 311
(photo credit: courtesy/MCT)
Mustard is the world’s second-most popular spice, after black pepper, wrote Michele Anna Jordan, author of The Good Cook’s Book of Mustard. Yet “no wars have been fought to obtain it, and it has never commanded a high price on the world market.”
For millennia, people have seasoned their foods with the seeds of the mustard plant, both wild and cultivated. The plant is so prolific that in some areas it is considered a weed. In fact, every year mustard plants come up in our back yard. Although two of the three major kinds of mustard probably originated in the Mideast, mustard is not prominent in the region’s cuisines.
Jordan wrote that white mustard comes from the eastern Mediterranean, and black mustard was first recorded in Persia. The third kind, brown mustard, came from the Himalayas.
In the childhood memories of many who grew up in the US, mustard figures as the bright yellow sauce that came with hot dogs. Unlike other kids in my neighborhood, I wasn’t a fan of frankfurters, so when I think of mustard, I picture the orange-pink dressing that my mother made for our Shabbat salads. She used equal amounts of mild mustard, ketchup and mayonnaise in her Russian dressing, which we found most appealing.
In Israel, when I married into a Yemenite family, mustard did not appear on our table at all. This changed drastically when Yakir and I moved to Paris. We ate mustard-seasoned food nearly every day. The French love their moutarde de Dijon, or smooth Dijon mustard made with brown or black mustard seeds, not just to accompany poached beef and sausages but also as a popular seasoning for vinaigrette dressing for their daily green salads.
Since then, we have also enjoyed hot mustard sauce served with Chinese appetizers, as well as Indian vegetable dishes seasoned with black mustard seeds.
“Mustard as a condiment seems to be most popular in northern temperature climates,” observed Jordan. “It is not widely used in Latin America (although it is popular in Argentina, where beef is a major part of the diet) nor in most of Africa. The Arab world has largely ignored mustard.”
The spice does not play a significant role in southern Europe’s cooking, either. India uses mustard oil and mustard seeds but not prepared mustard.
“The characteristic quality of mustard is its sharp, bright heat, an element that is released partially by the simple chewing of the raw seeds,” wrote Jordan. “With white mustard, the burning sensation... is felt only on the tongue. With brown and black mustards, there is also a sense of vaporization that affects the eyes, nose and sinuses in much the same way as with the Japanese horseradish wasabi....The reaction is both the key to mustard’s intrigue and the reason mustard was not widely accepted in the United States until 1904, when Francis French developed a mild recipe based exclusively on white mustard seeds.... The rest of the world, however, seems to prefer mustard... with more heat.”
France is the country best known for its use of mustard. “Dijon in eastern France today is considered the capital of the mustard world... over half of the world’s prepared mustard comes from Dijon,” wrote Jordan.
At cooking school in Paris, although our vinaigrettes were generally made with a neutral vegetable oil, they were flavorful because they were made with mustard. Our chefs nearly always included Dijon mustard also when making mayonnaise; it gave the sauce a superb flavor and helped it to thicken properly without separating. Mustard seasoned a variety of our cooked sauces too, from cream sauces to brown sauces. The chefs’ most important rule for cooking with mustard was: Stir mustard into hot sauces at the last moment; overheating the mustard in the sauce would make it bitter.
In our cooking classes we used mustard in marinades for broiled and grilled meats. We especially liked poulet a la diable, or devil’s chicken, for which the bird was coated with mustard before being broiled or roasted. Classic American-style deviled eggs also take their name from the mustard used to flavor them, which can be either mustard powder or prepared mustard from a jar.
Americans traditionally use bright yellow mustard colored with turmeric. Germans like brown mustard, which Jordan calls “somewhat sweet and fairly hot.”
Fischer and Wieser, a Texas-based company that makes flavored mustard, recommends flavoring mashed potatoes with medium-hot mustard. For German potato salad, they suggest making a sauce of 1⁄3 cup medium-hot mustard and 1⁄4 cup mayonnaise and mix it with potatoes, diced hardboiled eggs, chopped green onions and dill relish. Their glaze for grilled chicken is a mixture of 1⁄2 cup mustard, 1⁄4 cup marmalade and 2 minced garlic cloves.
The English prefer hot mustard, which is “automatically served with roast beef, bangers, cheddar cheese and other standard British fare,” wrote Jordan. “Colman’s is a name synonymous with English mustard, just as Dijon is synonymous with French mustard.”
Jeremiah Colman, founder of the company, developed a way to grind mustard seed without heating it. Colman’s mustard powder is a mixture of ground white and brown mustard seeds packaged in yellow tins.
Mustard powder is used in cheese sauces, especially those made with cheddar cheese; in spice mixtures for pickling vegetables; and as a seasoning for ground meat dishes such as meatballs. Colman’s recommends using the powder along with Worcestershire sauce and chopped onions to flavor meatloaf. To add a finishing touch to barbecued chicken, the company suggests blending mustard powder with honey (1⁄2 tsp. mustard powder for 1⁄4 cup honey) and brushing it over the chicken at serving time.
Mustard flavors even Colman’s chocolate spice cookies. Seeing this recipe made me wonder whether this was a gimmick; but according to Jordan, mustard is used in traditional recipes for gingerbread and chocolate cake. Jordan likes mustard also in vanilla and gingerroot baked custards. “It contributes a richness and a depth of flavor that is not necessarily identified as mustard but is essential nonetheless.”
Specialty shops carry a variety of flavored mustards, which can be pricy. Some cooks prefer to make their own. Jan Roberts- Dominguez, author of The Mustard Book, noted that mustards are simple to make, with plenty of leeway for creativity. “There’s something truly satisfying about taming the fiery character of the mustard seed and then using it to elevate the mundane, be it a hot dog or a salad dressing, to the sublime.”
The easiest to make is Chinese mustard, which is simply a mixture of mustard powder and cold water. For most other kinds, wrote Roberts- Dominguez, it’s better to use whole mustard seeds and to soak them in vinegar or other liquids for two days. Soaking “allows them to soften and plump and when you puree the seeds in a food processor, the finished product is creamier and more richly flavored.” At this time you can add flavorings such as garlic, sun-dried tomatoes or fresh herbs. The mixture is pureed at length to a creamy paste.
Roberts-Dominguez uses vinegar in her mustard recipes to help mellow the mustard. Using liquids with less acid, such as wine, beer, rum or whiskey, results in a finished mustard with a more robust flavor. To make wholegrain dill-seed mustard, she soaks mustard seeds, mustard powder and dill seeds in cider vinegar and dark ale, and then purees the mixture with salt, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg and turmeric. Raspberry vinegar, honey and raspberry jam flavor her raspberry mustard, which she likes with turkey sandwiches. Pinot Noir wine and sweet spices flavor her whole grain mustard, which stands up to hearty grilled sausages.
Jordan’s Quick Mustard Tips:
❖ Chinese-style mustard should be made fresh, about 30 minutes before serving. In a glass or ceramic bowl, stir enough very cold water into hot mustard flour or Colman’s dry mustard to make a paste. Let it sit for 20 minutes, and then add water as needed to make the consistency you want.
❖ Mustard mayonnaise: Mix 2 Tbsp. mayonnaise with 2 tsp. extra-strong Dijon or any favorite flavored mustard. Serve as a dip with hot or chilled artichokes.
❖ Mustard butter: Mix 110 grams (4 ounces) unsalted butter with 3 Tbsp. Dijon mustard, 1 chopped shallot, 1 chopped garlic clove, 2 tsp. chopped parsley, salt and pepper. Toss with pasta or use to flavor a grilled cheese sandwich, broiled fish or tomatoes, or serve with baked potatoes.
Health-conscious cooks have another good reason to enjoy mustard. According to the World’s Healthiest Foods website (, mustard seeds are a very good source of omega-3 fatty acids.
Like other spices, mustard powder and mustard seeds should be kept in a cool, dark cupboard. Mustard in a jar should be refrigerated after it is opened.
This is an easy version of French poulet a la diable or devil’s chicken. The reason for this name is that the chicken is coated entirely with hot mustard and seasoned with cayenne pepper before being grilled.
✔ 1 Tbsp. Dijon mustard ✔ 2 boneless chicken breast halves (about 350 gr. or 12 oz. total) ✔ Salt and freshly ground pepper ✔ Cayenne pepper to taste ✔ About 11⁄2 tsp. unseasoned bread crumbs ✔ 1 -2 tsp. extra virgin olive oil
Spread mustard on both sides of chicken. Cover and refrigerate for 10 minutes or up to 2 hours.
Preheat broiler with rack about 10 cm. (4 inches) from heat source. Lightly oil a broiler-proof pan. Sprinkle chicken with salt, pepper and cayenne and put in pan, skin side up. Broil 6 minutes per side or until color of meat is no longer pink; cut in thickest part to check.
Turn skin side up. Sprinkle lightly with bread crumbs, drizzle with olive oil and broil 1 or 2 more minutes or until browned; be careful not to let bread crumbs burn. Serve immediately, with juices from pan spooned over chicken.
This recipe is from The Good Cook’s Book of Mustard. Author Michele Anna Jordan recommends serving this simple, fairly sweet dish with beef or chicken.
✔ 450 gr. (16 oz.) young, small carrots ✔ 2 Tbsp. butter ✔ 2 Tbsp. Dijon or coarse-grain mustard ✔ Salt and freshly ground black pepper ✔ 2 Tbsp. chopped fresh parsley
Trim carrots and peel or scrape them. If they are very small, leave them whole. For larger carrots, cut them into medium julienne (thin strips).
Heat butter and brown sugar in a heavy saucepan, add carrots, cover, and cook until they are tender, 4 to 8 minutes, depending on the size of the carrots. Remove from heat. Stir in the mustard, season with salt and pepper and place on a warmed serving plate. Sprinkle the parsley over the carrots and serve.
Faye Levy is the author of the three-volume Fresh from France cookbook series and, in Hebrew, of the French cookbook series Mivhar Matkonei Tsarfat.