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Pungent Spices - Mustard - Brassica species

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Mustard - Brassica species

Black mustard, B. nigra, and white or yellow, B. alba, are native to southern Europe and western Asia, brown, B. juncea, to India. White mustard has long been naturalized in Europe and North America. The Romans, who made prepared mustard, introduced the plant to England. In medieval Europe, mustard was the one spice ordinary people could afford. The French started to add other ingredients in the 18th century, while the English refined the powder by removing the husks before grinding the kernels.

Culinary uses

In Western cooking, whole white mustard seeds are used primarily as a pickling and preserving spice, and in marinades.

Brown seeds (known as rai) have increasingly taken the place of black in much Indian cooking. They figure prominently in the cooking of southern India, where whole seeds are usually first dry-roasted or heated in hot oil or ghee to bring out an attractive nutty flavor for a tadka or baghar. The dishes are not pungent because the hot oil does not activate myrosinase. In Bengal, ground raw seed is used in pastes for curries, especially fish in mustard sauce. Mustard oil – viscous, deep golden, and quite pungent – is made from brown mustard seed and several lesser varieties. It is widely used as a cooking oil, most of all in Bengal, where it is heated to smoke point to reduce the smell, then cooled before use. Its piquant flavor contributes to the distinctive taste of many Indian dishes.

Powdered mustard flavors barbecue sauces and meat dishes and works well with most root vegetables. Add it toward the end of cooking because heat dissipates its strength fairly quickly.

The seeds are not the only part of the mustard plant to be used. Fresh sprouted shoots are often used in salads. In Japan, and now in Europe, the beautiful, feathery mizuna is grown as a salad herb; it makes its appearance alongside Chinese red mustard and other varieties in gourmet mixtures. Shredded leaves make a pleasant garnish for root vegetables, and potato and tomato salads. In Vietnam, leaves are used to wrap stuffings of pork, shrimp, and herbs.

Prepared mustards

To prepare blended mustards, the seeds are soaked in water to activate the enzyme myrosinase; once the required heat has been achieved the enzyme’s activity is stopped. The resulting flavor is determined largely by the acidic liquid used – vinegar gives a mild tang, wine or verjuice a more spicy pungency, beer a real heat. Water gives the sharpest, hottest taste, but will not stop the enzyme’s activity and therefore does not make a stable mustard. Prepared mustards are best stored at room temperature even when opened; they will keep for 2–3 months, but they may dry out a little and will steadily lose their flavor.

French mustards, milder than the English, are made in three forms. Bordeaux is brown, although made from white seed, and contains sugar and herbs, usually tarragon. Dijon, made from brown (but husked) mustard seed and white wine or verjuice, is paler and stronger, with fewer additives. Meaux is quite hot, made from crushed and ground grains, a step toward the many wholegrain mustards, some of them made more fiery by the addition of green peppercorns or chili peppers.

In Germany, Bavarian mustard is of the Bordeaux type, but Düsseldorf mustard is a pungent version of Dijon. Zwolle, in Holland, makes a mustard flavored with dill that would be great with gravad lax. Mild and runny American mustard is made from white mustard, with rather too much turmeric. The aromatic, mild Savora mustard was developed in England around 1900 and is popular throughout South America. English mustard powder is made up with cold water, then left for about 10 minutes to develop its clean and pungent taste. Once made up it will not keep.

Prepared mustards are mainly used as a condiment with oxtail or other meat casseroles, or a “tracklement” with roast beef, ham, and other cold meats. The various kinds are equally good in many cold sauces, from vinaigrette to mayonnaise, as dressings for green or other salads, vegetable dishes, and plain cooked or smoked fish. Added toward the end of the cooking process, they will spice up a wide variety of casseroles, such as rabbit with mustard sauce.

They also go well with many cheese dishes. Sweet mustards, made with honey or brown sugar, make good glazes for chicken, ham, or pork, and can be a piquant addition to some fruit salads.

Essential to panch phoron, sambhar powder.

Good with roast and grilled beef, cabbage, strong cheeses, chicken, curries, dals, fish and seafood, cold meats, rabbit, sausages.

Combines well with bay, chili, coriander, cumin, dill, fennel, fenugreek, garlic, honey, nigella, parsley, pepper, tarragon, turmeric.

Other mustards

B. juncea has a yellow variety, used in Japan in cooking (stuffed into lotus roots fried in tempura batter) and as a condiment, made English-style and very hot, to go with oden, a fishy stew, and in dressings and pickles.

Field mustard, B. campestris, and rapeseed, B. napus, are both used to produce oil.

Tasting notes

Whole mustard seed has virtually no aroma. When ground it smells pungent, and cooking releases an acrid, earthy aroma. When chewed, black seeds have a forceful flavor; brown ones are slightly bitter, then hot and aromatic; the larger white seeds have an initial sickly sweetness.

Parts used

Dried seeds.

Buying and storing

White and brown mustard seed is widely available. Black is hard to find; brown can be used instead but is less potent. Ground white mustard is relatively coarse as it contains the husk. Mustard powder is the finely sifted flour of seed kernels; its bright color is due to added turmeric. All forms keep well, provided they are kept scrupulously dry.


Mustard is harvested by cutting the stems when the seeds are fully developed but not quite ripe, to avoid the pods bursting open and spilling their contents. Black mustard is particularly prone to this, which is why it has largely been replaced by brown in commercial production. The stems are dried, then threshed.

Whole seeds

Mustard’s pungent taste is determined by an enzyme, myrosinase, which is activated by water.

Black seeds

Black seeds are larger than brown and are oblong rather than round. Their heat affects the nose and eyes as well as the mouth.

White seeds

Sandy-yellow mustard seeds are much larger than the brown or Asian variety.

Brown seeds

Brown seeds have a long-lasting pungency, almost as intense as that of black seeds.

Mustard oil

Mustard oil is easier to digest after brief exposure to a very high temperature.

Bordeaux mustard

In Bordeaux mustard some of the hulls are left in the mixture, giving a darker appearance. It is mildly spicy with a hint of sweetness, and is good with sausages and in cheese dishes.

Meaux mustard

The town of Meaux has produced mustard since the 17th century. Usually sold in stoneware jars, this grainy mustard has a bite followed by a mouth-filling roundness. An excellent table mustard.

Dijon mustard

Dijon mustard has an appellation contrôlée; the name refers to a style of mustard that is pale, smooth, and clean-tasting. The classic mustard for sauces and salad dressings, it is highly prized throughout the world.

American mustard

Mild, sweet American mustard has devoted followers among hot-dog fanciers, but the turmeric that colors it bright yellow can also make the taste dusty.

Moutarde au cassis

This wholegrain mustard from Dijon contains crème de cassis liqueur, which gives it a rich, fruity flavor and its red color.

English mustard

English mustard powder is a mixture of finely ground brown and white seeds, rice or wheat flour, and spices. Fiery and slightly acidic, it is good with roast beef and oxtail stew.

Tarragon mustard

Tarragon mustard is made by adding tarragon and sometimes green food coloring to a pale mustard. It is good in sauces for fish and chicken dishes.

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