From mild to spicy, mustard’s zing depends as much on precise chemistry as on the seed itself.
Mustard, the ubiquitous condiment we dollop on hot dogs and other tasty treats, begins with the crushed seeds of a mustard plant. But there are several types of mustard seeds and each produces a different flavor: from mild white mustard, to pungent brown mustard, to the strongest black mustard. To make a mustard sauce, cooks first crush the desired seeds to a powder then mix in a liquid such as water, lemon juice, or vinegar to get the appropriate texture and consistency.
But the zing, or spice, of mustard depends as much on careful preparation. Controlling the temperature of the ingredients as they are combined greatly affects the heat of the resulting product. The higher the preparation temperature, the milder the mustard sauce will be. Indeed, many mustards lose quite a bit of their punch when cooked. The converse is also true: hotter, spicier mustards are prepared at lower temperatures. Mustard’s spice is carried – and preserved – by the oil contained in the seed. In fact, powdered mustard retains the oil more completely, and stores for longer periods of time without losing flavor than mustard sauces.
But sauces are so convenient and offer many culinary options, so mustard makers have devised a variety of clever ways to preserve mustard’s spice. Jeremiah Colman developed some of the techniques for grinding mustard seeds into a fine powder without generating too much heat. Colman, founder of Colman’s Mustard Company in England, eventually became the mustard-maker to Queen Victoria.
Mustard makers accentuate flavor and color through other means as well. The mild yellow mustard sauce found extensively in the United States contains vinegar, which contributes substantially to the flavor. The bright yellow color actually comes from the spice, turmeric, instead of the mustard itself. Dijon mustard substitutes red wine or white wine for the vinegar in its preparation, though most Dijon-style mustards are not made in their origin of Dijon, France.
Although hot mustards may include various hot peppers or horseradish, most of these specialty mustards are simply mixed under cool conditions, which prevent the escape of the volatile, flavor-producing oils.
Thanks to chemistry, we can all cut the mustard.
More information about mustard crops is available at http://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/afcm/mustard.html