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DIY Mustard


An average of 1½ cups of mustard is consumed by each American per year.   It not only accompanies sandwiches, but also appears in salad dressings, sauces, and numerous other dishes.  In spite of this ubiquity, mustard is something that we leave for others to make – whether it be a factory or a craft-kitchen.  Yet, homemade mustard is easy to make and requires little in the way of fancy equipment, with the end product being as good (if not better) than store bought, at a fraction of the cost. 

So why not make your own?  We think the general reason is first a lack of knowledge about how simple mustard is to make, and second limited access to good, authentic recipes.  We wish to change that with this month’s blog entries, and will present fool-proof recipes for eleven different iconic mustards, ranging from Dijon to Ballpark Yellow, Horseradish, Spicy Deli, and Wholegrain. 

First some background.  The English word "mustard" derives from the Old French “mostarde”, which itself descended from the Latin “mustum ardens”.  This name translates to “burning wine”, which reflects the fact that the first mustard recipes were based on pounding together mustard seeds with young wine to make a hot paste that the Romans served with grilled meats and other dishes.  A recipe for mustard, not unlike some modern versions, appears in Apicus, the 4th-5th century Roman cookbook.  Mustard was taken abroad by the Roman Legions, where it was enjoyed throughout the empire.  Following the collapse of Rome, like many things the knowledge regarding mustard production was retained only within centers of higher learning, which at that time was generally centered on monastic settlements.  By the 10th Century the Benedictine monks of Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés outside of Paris had begun mustard production to help contribute to their finances.  Dijon, France, became a recognized center for mustard making by the 13th century, with the first appearance of mustard makers on the Parisian royal registers dating to 1292.  Mustard production and use crossed over to England with the Normans.  The chefs of King Richard II mention it in their 1390 cookbook “The Forme of Cury”.  At this time it was principally found as mustard balls, which were dried balls of coarse-ground mustard seed combined with flour, cinnamon, and horseradish.  Bits of these were then broken off and combined with vinegar or wine to make mustard paste. The mild yellow mustard so ubiquitous today across the USA is of much more recent origin, having been first introduced to the public barely a century ago at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis.

Mustard is generally made from the seeds of three different but related species:  black mustard (Brassica nigra) of the southern Mediterranean, brown mustard (Brassica juncea) of south Asia, and white mustard (Sinapis alba) of the Mediterranean.  Because the first two have seeds with a more complex and nutty flavor, they tend to be used for the production of ground mustard powder.  These remain a yellow color because the dark seed coats are removed during processing.  While you can grind your own mustard flour from the seeds of these species, the resulting product will not have the same clean color or flavor as commercial versions.  For this reason we recommend that you use a commercially ground product in the following recipes.  We’ve been very pleased by the results obtained by using Coleman’s mustard powder imported from England

By themselves mustard seeds are not actually very spicy.  Rather, the cells within these seeds need to be ruptured and wetted to allow the enzyme myrosinase to come into contact with various glucosinolates such as sinigrin, myrosin, and sinalbin.  This process creates isothiocyanate compounds which are generally termed “mustard oils”.   Among these are allyl isothiocyanate and 4-hydroxybenzyl isothiocyanate which are responsible for the sharp hot pungent flavor of not only mustard and horseradish but also garlic.   Because of these chemical reactions, it takes at least 15-20 minutes for moistened mustard powder to develop its heat.  The gradual chemical break-up of 4-hydroxybenzyl isothiocyanate with exposure to oxygen means that the heat of prepared mustards tends to dissipate at higher temperatures and over time.  The hotness of a given mustard is thus a product of the temperature at which it is made, with the hottest – such as the mustards found in Chinese restaurants – being simply made by mixing mustard powder with cold liquids and served within a few hours of production. 

The main process in making mustard is breaking apart mustard seeds in the presence of some liquid to which various seasonings may be added.  Even though mustard oils by themselves are antibiotic, the life of the product can be extended by using soaking liquids with high acidity or alcohol content, and by using spices with additional antimicrobial qualities.  The principle variables which we’ll be changing between the different mustard recipes are thus the type of soaking liquid (wine, beer, cider, water), acidity source (wine vinegar, malt vinegar, cider vinegar, lemon juice, lime juice), and spices (onion, garlic, tarragon, dill, peppercorns, allspice, cloves, cinnamon, turmeric, paprika, chipotle pepper, lime oil).  Also, for some of the mustards we’ll also add in sugar in the form of honey, brown sugar, or various dried fruits.  Remember that because all of the mustards below are gently simmered over steam to allow them to thicken, any alcohol present in the soaking liquid will have evaporated by the time the mustard is ready to use.

The other main difference is that type of mustard product we start with.  Wholegrain mustards are just that, and are made only from whole mustard seeds that have been allowed to soak in the liquids for a few days.  Smooth mustards are made from mustard powder and take only a few minutes to assemble.  Coarse mustards are made from a combination of both whole seeds and mustard powder, and generally require a few hours of pre-soaking. 

The only piece of specialized kitchen equipment that we used is a double boiler.  This is a nested set of pots in which water is boiled in the lower pot, and the mustard allowed to gently thicken in the steam-heated upper pot.  This is essential as you will not be able to evenly and gently cook the mustard to the desired consistency over direct heat, leading to scorching and other problems.  We found that a number of recipes attempt to avoid the use of a double boiler by adding in thickeners such as egg yolk or flour.  But these adjuncts are not appropriate for mustard, and will change the flavor and shorten storage life.  As long as you thicken the mustard over gentle steam heat there is no reason to use these unprofessional adjuncts.  If you don’t have a double boiler in your kitchen, it is easy to make one by finding a metal bowl that will set on top of a sauce pan without falling into it.  All you need to do is to heat water in the bottom pan to boiling, and then place the bowl on top.  Do be aware, however, that you’ll not want to pick up the upper bowl with your bare hands as it will be very hot.  Always use some type of potholder. 

We would be remiss if we didn’t credit a the 1979 “Better Than Store Bought” by Helen Witty and Elizabeth Schneider Colchie (Harper & Row; ISBN 0060146931) which we have found an absolutely indispensable resource for most of our DIY kitchen projects.  The section on mustard in this book provides the best single overview on how you can make them at home, and you really should try and track down a used copy if you can.

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