Originally, mustard was the name for the pungent sauce made by grinding the seeds of the senvy plant into a paste and mixing it with “must” (unfermented wine). The condiment was so popular that, inevitably, it just became easier to call the whole thing “mustard” ‘ seeds and all! The English name, mustard, comes from the Latin mustum ardens meaning burning must.
The mustard plant is a crucifer, the cancer-fighting plant family that includes broccoli, Brussels sprouts, arugula, kale, cabbage. The seeds contain concentrated amounts of the same anti-cancer compounds found in those greens. When the seed is broken or soaked, it releases an oily, fiery compound, allyl isothiocyanates (AITC) that gives mustard its distinctive bite and a lot of its healing power.
Mustard, one of the oldest spices, was and is one of the most widely used. The Chinese were adding it to foods 3,000 years ago. The ancient Greeks and Romans considered it an essential culinary as well as medicinal spice, applied externally for the relief of various aches and pains. Pope John XII (14th Century) was so fond of mustard that he created a new Vatican position ‘ grand moutardier du pape (mustard-maker to the pope). In 15th Century France, up to 70 gallons of the stuff could be consumed at royal dinners. Nevertheless, King Louis XI always traveled with his royal mustard pot, just in case his hosts didn’t serve it. Mustard, however, didn’t hit the American scene until late 19th century when brothers Robert and George French bought a mill in New York and produced bright yellow French’s mustard which debuted on a hot dog at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.
There are 3 types of mustard seeds grown from different species of mustard greens:
- White or yellow seeds (Brassica alba), the largest, have a relatively mild flavor. Colored with turmeric, these are most commonly used on ballpark hot dogs and on American family tables.
- Brown seeds (Brassica juncea), medium size and much more pungent than the white, are popular in Europe and Asia.
- Black seeds (Brassica nigra), the smallest and most potent (about 30% hotter than brown) are indigenous to India, but found in German mustard (weisswurstsenf), French blends, such as Dijon.
Preparation and Storage
There is no pungency to mustard until the seed cells are broken and liquid is added. To make mustard, the seeds are ground, then mixed with cool water for about 10 minutes to release the oils containing the potent AITC enzymes. Vinegar is then added to stop the reaction so that the full flavor is preserved. Other ingredients can be added to enhance the taste, such as grape juice, lemon or lime juice, beer, cider or wine, salt, honey, herbs, etc. ‘ in short, pretty much whatever the cook dares to throw in!
Whole mustard seeds will keep for 3 years, if stored in a dry place, not necessarily away from heat. Powdered mustard will loose its bite far sooner. Prepared mustard will not last as long as seeds or powder and should be refrigerated.
- Muscle relief: In his writings, Hippocrates prescribed mustard for general muscular relief for which it is still used today. Although the volatile oil of mustard is a powerful irritant capable of blistering skin, in dilution as a liniment or poultice it soothes, creating a warm sensation. Mustard plasters are useful as counter-irritants, prescribed for scorpion stings and snake bites, epilepsy, toothache, bruises, stiff neck, rheumatism, colic and respiratory troubles.
- Cancer: Currently, the most exciting mustard seed research is showing that AITC can help prevent and slow the growth of some cancers, including colon, lung, prostate, bladder, ovarian. A recent scientific review of research from Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, NY concluded that AITC “exhibits many desirable attributes of a cancer chemopreventive agent” (a natural substance that fights cancer).Indians researchers found that the inclusion of mustard seeds “in a daily diet plays a significant role in the protection of the colon against chemical carcinogenesis.”
Canadian studies found that an extract of white or yellow mustard seeds reduced colon cancer up to 50% in experimental animals fed a high-fat diet, and that the extract might help defeat “obesity-associated colon cancer” in people.
- Heart disease: Harvard School of Public Health analyzed data on heart disease and diet from over 1,000 people in India and found that those who cooked with mustard seed oil ‘ an excellent source of heart-protecting Alpha Lipoic Acid ( ALA), similar to omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil ‘ had 51% lower risk of heart disease than those who cooked with sunflower seed oil. (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.)
- Cholesterol problems: Indian research found brown mustard seeds fed to experimental animals lowered total and “bad” (LDL) cholesterol), increased good “HDL”. (Plant Foods for Human Nutrition)
- Prediabetes: Indian researchers fed animals a high-suger diet and their glucose and insulin levels skyrocketed. But when fed brown mustard seeds, the levels normalized. Use with patients prone to diabetes was promoted. (Journal of Ethnopharmacology)
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD): Chinese doctors using a plaster (cloth or poultice, saturated with mustard seed powder, in protective dressing, applied to chest), found higher improvement rate in chronic bronchitis than in patients who didn’t apply the plasters. This included reduced symptoms, such as coughing and breathlessness, and higher levels of disease-fighting immune factors.
- Brain function: Mustard seed oil, rich in ALA, “was more effective than other oils” in sparking growth and development of astrocyte cells which help control healthy blood flow to brain, repair nerve cells, improve nerve function. (Cell Molecular Neurobiology)
In the Kitchen
Mustard stimulates the appetite by increasing salivation up to 8 times, so no wonder it’s been used through the ages to give a kick to a whole range of foods that otherwise might not be so tantalizing. Whole white mustard seed is used in pickling spice and in spice mixtures for cooking meats and seafood. Powdered mustard acts as an emulsifier in the preparation of mayonnaise and salad dressings. It’s also useful for flavoring baked beans, many meat dishes, deviled eggs, beets and succotash. Heat diminishes the mustard’s bite, so it’s generally added to a dish toward the end of cooking.
There are many ready-made mustards, from mild and sweet to sharp and strong. They can be smooth or coarse and flavored with a wide variety of herbs, spices and liquids. Why not make your own? See recipe: Basic Mustard and Beyond.