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Hot Stuff

I’m finding cooking to be a major antidote to boredom and anxiety during these trying times.  (Unfortunately, so is eating… but that’s a topic for another time.) Recently, our daughter B suggested I write about mustard. Can’t remember what prompted this, but here goes.

Did you know that mustard is one of the world’s oldest condiments? According to my “deep” Internet dive, the Romans used to grind mustard seeds with grape juice (called must) to create a spicy paste known as mustum ardens (“burning must”) in Latin. Travelers brought mustard seeds to Gaul, where they were planted in vineyards alongside the grapes. French monasteries cultivated and sold mustard as early as the ninth century, and the condiment was available in Paris by the 13th century.

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Very simply, mustard is a combination of the ground seeds of the mustard plant and some form of liquid such as water, vinegar, lemon juice, or wine. Different types of each create different varieties: some sweet, some spicy, some eye-wateringly hot. While the level of heat is mostly related to the style of seed—yellow seeds are mild, while brown and black seeds are spicier— it’s the liquid that activates their natural enzymes and determines a mustard’s potency.

These enzymes convert to mustard oil once the seed is broken. The more acidic the liquid, the longer lasting the burn will be; less acidic mustards tend to be quite pungent at first, but quickly lose their punch.

Generally low calorie, especially compared with condiments like mayonnaise, mustard also provides important nutrients. Mustard leaves contain significant amounts of calcium, vitamins A, C, K, and copper, while the seeds are rich in fiber, selenium, magnesium, and manganese.

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What follows is adapted from an article at spoonuniversity.com, which includes recipe suggestions.

YELLOW mustard (aka ballpark mustard) is the most basic. Made from yellow mustard seeds and vinegar, it gets its yellow color from turmeric. It’s one of the mildest types of mustard, popular on hot dogs and other sandwiches.  I think of it as “starter” mustard.

DIJON takes mustard to the next level. White wine is used instead of vinegar, and the seeds are brown rather than yellow.  This results in a complex flavor with more of a bite, perfect for salad dressing, potato salad, and sauces for fish and chicken.

SPICY BROWN mustard is made with coarsely-ground brown mustard seeds that offer more heat than classic yellow or Dijon, along with turmeric and a combination of spices such as allspice, ginger, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Commonly found in delis, the warm flavor goes beautifully with meat.

Too tame? HORSERADISH MUSTARD packs even more heat.

HOT MUSTARD You’ll find this searingly hot mustard in most Chinese restaurants. What makes it so brutally strong is that brown or black mustard seeds are mixed with water. These seeds are naturally more pungent than yellow seeds, due to their alkaline nature. An acidic liquid– like the vinegar used in yellow mustard — would calm that natural heat, while water’s neutral ph lets it go roaring forth.  Your sinuses know what I’m talking about.

WHOLE GRAIN This is more of a manufacturing process than a type of mustard—as the name suggests, the seeds are essentially whole. Type of seeds and mixing liquid can vary, with most brands available in the store featuring brown mustard seeds mixed with white wine.  Expect a flavor similar to that of Dijon with a coarser texture that pairs well with cheese, potato salad, and sandwiches.

STONE GROUND mustard is the middle ground between smooth Dijon and the chewiness of whole grain. Most commonly, brown seeds are ground between two stones in the form of a mortar and pestle. This type of mustard is typically made with vinegar, and has a little more heat than yellow mustard with less spice than brown mustard.

HONEY MUSTARD is both sweet and tangy and works well in salad dressing, especially to soften the taste of bitter greens such as kale. You can whip some up yourself by mixing your mustard of choice with honey in a 1:1 ratio. Use half as much honey if you prefer less sweetness than commercial brands.

Do you have a favorite type? Or a recipe to share?