The Mustard Learning Curve

Just thinking about mustard can wake up my taste buds in anticipation. I order my Subway sandwiches with triple the amount normally applied. I even spent enjoyable hours one year sampling dozens of variations at the National Mustard Museum in Wisconsin!

Ken, on the other hand, thinks that yellow bland stuff made by French’s is the height of mustard achievement. So when I wanted to create specialty mustards for our produce stand, I had to turn to my neighborhood test panel (five nearby friends) for feedback. It was a long journey to success, but eventually I earned “wows” from the foodies down the street for three distinctly different mustards that we will be selling at the produce stand this year.

I learned a lot about the chemistry of mustard along the way. Did you know that:

  • While there are about 40 types of mustard plants, only three mustard seeds are generally used as food – yellow (or white), brown and black. Yellow is the mildest, black the hottest. Brown seeds can deliver plenty of heat, so that is the go-to seed for many online recipes.

  • Untreated, mustard seeds straight from the plant have no heat. The water or the vinegar you soak the seeds in creates a chemical reaction as the seeds break down that gives mustard its bite. Cold water makes for a very pungent mustard, while vinegar creates a longer-lasting but slower-forming heat.

  • Freshly made mustard has an unpleasant bitter taste but a few days of refrigeration usually takes the edge off.

My early experiments were discouraging. Mustards made with with honey and various dried fruit were so bad I didn’t even share them with the neighborhood panel. Another, made with expensive ground-up pine nuts and almonds, was too bitter so I shoved it to the back of the refrigerator and forgot about it. A recipe with banana peppers that got rave reviews online was met enthusiastically next door, but got polite responses (which really meant “no thanks”) elsewhere. Plus I wasn’t a fan, which makes it difficult for me to imagine selling it.

For a while, I gave up. But then my mustard-loving daughter visited and I brought out the nut mustard to demonstrate how poorly I had done. Amazingly, a month in the refrigerator had turned it into a delightfully tangy mustard with an inviting chewiness. Reinvigorated, I went online to look for more recipes. The more I read about mustard, the more I was determined to succeed.

The results are three mustards that will be available at the stand this year:

  • Ancient Roman Mustard, a recipe by food blogger Hank Shaw that contains both almonds and pine nuts. It relies on cold water to release the heat from the organic brown mustard seeds and then uses red wine vinegar to set the taste for longevity. This is a mustard with a lot of body and chewiness.

  • Spicy Brown Mustard, which relies on a long soak in rice wine vinegar to bring out the best in the brown mustard seeds. The tasting panel was sure that only horseradish could deliver such a kick, but it was simply the right vinegar and the high-quality organic brown mustard seeds. Add spices you usually associate with apple pie (allspice, cinnamon and ginger) and you have a mustard strong enough to stand up against all sorts of meat.

  • Sweet-and-Sour Mustard, a completely different taste that comes from combining ground yellow mustard (I use a high-end brand from the same company that makes my expensive cocoa powder), apple cider vinegar and brown sugar in a saucepan and using eggs to thicken the result. Perfect as a marinade or dipping sauce!

Ken is perplexed about my mission to produce mustard. He still prefers French’s. But I’m hoping there are mustard fans out there who will see our offerings as a chance to try something new, or as an unusual gift to share with friends. If I’m wrong, I guess I’ll have plenty of stocking stuffers for my foodie friends next Christmas!


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