Easy to grow, but often taken for granted compared with more exotic spices, mustard is undoubtedly an essential ingredient in many recipes, writes Elizabeth McCorquodale
Mustard, that old store cupboard staple, is rather taken for granted and is rarely, if ever, considered as a food that you might grow from scratch, yet with a pot of really good mustard now retailing for about £5, it is a wonder that we don’t all grow our own… or at least process our own from seed. It is, after all, terribly easy to grow.
Mustards have been valued as flavourings and condiments for a very long time. The seeds were found in the tombs of the pharaohs, and they have been written about, along with accompanying recipes, for thousands of years. It was from Pliny and his Roman countrymen that we get the word ‘mustard’, as it was known then as mustum ardens, or ‘burning must’, because the heat of the seed was retained by mixing the crushed seed of the plant in cold grape must – the unsieved juice of the grape. Pliny recorded using mustard as a flavouring for wild boar, and the Chinese and the peoples of the Indian subcontinent have been using mustard seed and mustard oil to spice up their dishes for thousands of years. Doctors have even recommended mustard for curing a snake bite – it was believed the cold, wet venom could be cured by the heat of the mustard – and the warming qualities of the plant are still used in some households in ‘hot poultices’ and fiery foot-baths as a way to chase away colds. It certainly warms you up.
Because mustard grows wild in Europe it never really gained a reputation on its home ground as a spice of any consequence. Readily available and easily processed into a foodstuff, it was never really valued – perhaps because there just wasn’t any money to be made. Consequently, together with common horseradish, it was viewed as a food of the commoner, and when the spice trade took off, mustard was relegated to the kitchens of the poor and uneducated. A foolish move!
Besides being grown for the seed, mustards can also be used cooked as a vegetable (as in mustard greens), as salad leaves (either on its own or in combination with other tiny leaves like cress – also part of the mustard family), or as the ubiquitous seed sprout. They are all the same plant – they are just harvested at different stages.
However, when talking of any mustard, you need to know that there are several species that are grown for making the actual spice, though all the species are relatively closely related and belong to the same genus. Rather irritatingly this one genus is recognised as either Sinapis or Brassica. White mustard – also known as yellow mustard – is therefore known as either Brassica alba or Sinapis alba. And because, like all other members of the cabbage family, they easily cross-breed with each other, it has led to some confusion by taxonomists… hence our yellow/white mustard can also be known as Sinapis hirta. Confused? Fortunately, that is about as bad as it gets!
Yellow (or white) mustard seed is the mildest of the three types, with both brown and black mustards having a spicier, more fiery flavour. Black mustard, Sinapis nigra, and brown mustard, Sinapis juncea, are very similar in flavour, but black mustard is more difficult to grow and harvest.
A huge influence in the final flavour of any prepared mustard is how it is processed, and luckily the processing of mustard seed is very well suited to the typical home farmer. Basic processing involves grinding your mustard seed and mixing it with liquid. That liquid could be grape must (in the style of the Romans), cold water (in the English style), or (after the French fashion) some sort of acidic liquid such as vinegar or verjuice. English mustard is customarily ground to a fine powder with the consistency of white flour, but it is up to you how fine or how coarse you grind your seed. Some like the texture of a coarse, grainy mustard, while others prefer it smooth… the nicest thing about growing your own seed is that you can experiment with many different textures and flavours.
There are several essentials to understand when processing mustard. First, is that a fiery hot mustard can only be made using cold liquid. If you use hot liquid on the crushed seed you will end up with a milder mustard. The flavour and heat is caused by a simple chemical reaction when the sulphur compounds within the seed – the glucosinolates – are in the presence of a liquid, acted upon by an enzyme called myrosinase, which is also held within the seed. This myrosinase breaks down the glucosinolates and the result is the characteristic heat and flavour. A warm or hot liquid, be it water, vinegar, verjuice or grape must, will alter the reaction between the glucosinolates and the enzyme, resulting in a milder mustard.
CRUSHED OR DRIED?
If the mustard seed is crushed dry, with no liquid present at all, this reaction will not take place and the heat and flavour will be preserved until liquid is added – hence the long shelf life of a tin of mustard powder. If, however, the crushed seed is mixed with liquid and stored in the fridge, the heat and flavour will slowly improve over a day or so, but will then dramatically reduce until there is little left to recommend it as a foodstuff… although it still won’t go off.
Just as the mustard plant has superb antimicrobial and allelopathic properties – it is these same properties for which mustard is particularly valued as a green manure – so the seeds have these same properties, making it a great preservative. Its high oil content – almost 50% oil in some varieties – has something to do with this, and it is the chemical make-up that is mostly responsible. In fact, mustard is one of the few foods that simply won’t go off, although that isn’t to say that it will remain flavourful and hot indefinitely, just that both as a dry powder or when made into a paste, the mixture won’t sustain the growth of moulds or bacteria. It might dry out, but it won’t go bad. Hence there is no requirement for manufacturers to recommend storing your Dijon mustard in the fridge.
HOW TO PRESERVE THE FLAVOUR
If you want to preserve the flavour for longer (perhaps if making up some gifts of specialty mustard), the addition of an acidic liquid such as vinegar with, perhaps, a touch of salt, honey or sugar, will help to stabilise and preserve the flavour of the mustard paste for far longer.
MAKING YOUR OWN MUSTARD
There is no great mystery to making mustard. It is just a case of experimenting with different seeds (white, brown or black) and then mixing them with different liquids. Once you have made a mustard you like, try it with different foods – there are many dishes that are made richer by the addition of a good mustard.
Mustard is a common, though underrated, ingredient in many recipes, from the dill and mustard flavoured sauce that accompanies gravadlax, or a lovely cider or beer flavoured mustard to accompany croque-monsieur, to the ubiquitous mustardy mash – never tried it? Mix a tablespoon of Dijon-style mustard with some buttery mashed potatoes just before serving! My all-time mustardy favourite, however, is rabbit (or chicken) in a creamy mustard sauce. Of course, piccalilli also wouldn’t be piccalilli without mustard, and every hot dog and bratwurst would be a duller beast without the addition of your favourite mustard.
DIFFERENT TYPES OF MUSTARD AND TIPS ON MAKING THEM
English mustard is fiery hot and pungent, and made using a mix of brown and yellow mustard seeds crushed to a fine powder and sieved several times to remove impurities. The superb heat is preserved because it is made up using only cold water, but to experiment and develop the flavours, try using warm water, or other liquids such as beer, wine, vinegar, or even fruit juice.
Dijon mustard is made using brown mustard seed crushed to a fine powder and mixed with water, white wine and salt.
American mustard is mild and bright because it is prepared using mild seed made in one of the ways we have looked at here in order to reduce the heat. The colour is pepped up by the addition of turmeric. It may occasionally be viewed as a poor relation, but it has its place nevertheless, and turmeric is used to brighten many mustards, not just the typical American hot dog variety.
Honey mustard is usually made with a mild mustard mixed with the same amount of honey, and is delicious with Southern flavoured foods… the spicier the food, the more delicious the sweet mustard that accompanies it. You can also sweeten your mustards with brown sugar by mixing it first in the liquid to dissolve it, and mustard mixed with almost any fruit jam makes a superb spicy relish to liven up a plate of cheese or cold meats.
Brown mustards are usually made with brown and yellow seed crushed finely, then mixed with an acidic liquid, such as vinegar, wine or fruit juice, and with other spices added to alter the flavour. Tarragon vinegar is a good flavouring, as are cinnamon, garlic and horseradish – an old English favourite.
Whole mustard seeds are a wonderful flavouring all on their own, and an essential ingredient in pickling spice and chutney recipes. The nutty flavour of dry-roasted brown mustard seeds is a delight in all curries and any spicy Chinese foods.
Some people swear by the need to soak the whole seeds first, while others simply use a pestle and mortar or food mill to reduce the seed to a coarse powder. Sometimes it is desirable to sieve the crushed, dry seed, while at other times it is an unnecessary extra step. Try it out and see what best suits you.
ALE AND BROWN SUGAR MUSTARD
The following recipe is just one of many mustard recipes, and is particularly delicious spread over bratwurst and enjoyed in a crisp roll, perhaps accompanied by a glass of the brown stuff – but not mustard! Use this as a base, then build up your mustard store cupboard by tweaking and changing the ingredients according to your fancy.
- ½ cup yellow mustard seeds
- ¼ cup brown mustard seeds
- ½ cup water
- ½ cup brown ale
- ⅓ cup cider vinegar
- ½ cup dark brown sugar
- 1 tsp salt
1 Place the ingredients in a bowl and soak for 12 hours, or overnight.
2 Whizz up all the ingredients into a fine (or coarse) paste, then transfer to a glass jar and store in the refrigerator.
Mustard will crop most heavily in cooler weather, and in milder areas of the UK it can be sown in the autumn to overwinter and get a head start in early spring. Most mustards will bolt in very hot weather, which will result in a lower seed yield, but you will generally still get a decent crop of salad leaves, mustard greens and mustard seed.
If you intend to experiment with making mustard in a big way, invest in the seed of both yellow and brown mustard. Black mustard is not a reliable crop in this country, and nor is it easy to harvest because of the size of the mature plant. You can grow yellow and brown mustards from seed bought for grinding, or you can buy seed from a specialist seed supplier or seed merchant for growing as sprouts. Caliente mustard is a mixture of brown and yellow mustard. Sow the seed thickly, then use the thinnings in salads and stir-fries. Thin again to 15cm apart and pull out every second plant when large enough to enjoy as mustard greens and then leave the rest in at 30cm apart, to grow on into seed-bearing plants. Leaf crops can be harvested at any stage, though the younger they are, the less bitter the leaves will be.
To harvest the seed, wait until the plants have flowered and the seed pods have formed and filled out, but before they are fully mature or you risk losing all your hard-won seed. Pull the whole plant up and trim the top, leaving enough stem to let you hang the plant upside down over some newspaper in an airy place. After a couple of weeks the seed pods will open and shed their seed. Collect the seed and lay it out to dry for a few days. Once dry, store the seed in airtight jars until needed.
WHICH MUSTARD SHOULD YOU GROW?
The following list refers to the names and, on occasion, the uses of the various mustard seed and mustard plants, but not to the names of prepared condiments which often, and confusingly, also go by the names yellow or brown mustard, though they aren’t necessarily made using the correspondingly coloured mustard seed! All mustard seeds are of varying shades of yellow on the inside, and their names refer not to the colour of the prepared spice but to the colour of the seed coat. English yellow mustard, for example, can be made with a mix of both yellow and brown mustard seeds.
- Yellow mustard seed (Sinapis alba).
- White mustard seed (Sinapis alba).
- Brown mustard seed, Oriental mustard, Chinese mustard (Sinapis juncea).
- Black mustard seed (Sinapis nigra) – this is more difficult to harvest (it grows to over 2m tall!) and, as the oils are volatile, it is a less reliable crop, although it is delicious.
- Mustard and Cress-type mustard (Sinapis alba) – other species can be used, depending on the seed supplier.
- Mustard greens (Sinapis juncea) – all mustards can be enjoyed as a green vegetable, especially when harvested young; the greens of Sinapis juncea are particularly flavourful and are often used to make Indian and Chinese pickles. < pic 9 with caption: Mustard greens. >
- Salad leaf mustards – all sorts of mustards can be used, often subspecies or varieties of Sinapis juncea.
- MUSTARD OIL MUSTARD – a mixture of Sinapis juncea and Sinapis nigra. These plants produce a spicy oil from their seeds, with some specially selected seeds producing as much as 50% oil!
- Standard green manure mustard (Sinapis alba).
Caliente green manure mustard – a mixture of Sinapis alba and Sinapis juncea. Interestingly, Sinapis juncea has been found to be particularly good at phytoremediation in fields contaminated with cadmium.
Green manure mustards are most valuable if they are dug into the soil just before they flower; however, you can easily exploit a neat patch of caliente or other green manure mustard by digging in the majority of the crop just before it flowers, but leaving a patch uncut to go to seed.