by Michele Anna Jordan
Photograph by John Wagner
Mustard in the kitchen has three main functions: a condiment, a flavoring agent or spice, and a vegetable. Mustard also has good emulsifying ability. It can help bind a sauce, and is used commercially to create the proper texture in sausages and prepared meat products.
As condiments, prepared commercial or homemade mustards are used just as they are, out of the jar or bottle to enhance sandwiches and other prepared foods. A simple piece of grilled fish is enlivened by a spoonful of your favorite mustard, and certain foods-roast beef in England, for example, and sausages in Germany-are rarely served without a spoonful of mustard on the side. It takes no particular skill to use mustard in this way, simply access to a good selection of condiments and a lively palate that appreciates mustard's good flavor.
The use of mustard flour as a condiment is most common in Asian cuisine, where the flour made from brown seeds is mixed with water or rice vinegar to form the hot spicy sauce we all recognize when we order, say, egg rolls. Mustard in this form is hot and sharp, a bright palate cleanser with a strong punch.
Mustard as a flavoring agent must be used more skillfully, beginning with the choice of mustard. Among the several hundred prepared mustards available today, just a few should be considered for use in this way. It is not necessary to use expensive flavored mustards in most cooking. I keep three or four Dijon mustards and two or three coarse grain mustards in my pantry for general cooking purposes. Add herbs, spices, and other elements separately, and save flavored mustards to use as condiments.
To maintain maximum flavor, mustard should be added late in the cooking process because heat destroys much of mustard's distinctive taste. Mustard should also be added with a keen sense of balance. A delicate beurre blanc is delightful with a small amount of Dijon-style mustard added, but more would overwhelm the sauce. On the other other hand, a substantial quantity will be necessary to flavor a marinade.
Mustard flour is part of many traditional recipes, such as gingerbread and chocolate cake. Use mustard flour as you use other spices; it contributes a richness and a depth of flavor that is not necessarily identified as mustard, but is essential nonetheless. Some claim mustard flour heightens the flavors of all foods, much as monosodium glutamate does. Although this has never been scientifically verified, mustard frequently appears in unlikely recipes and perhaps this is why.
In salad dressings and other emulsified sauces, mustard contributes not only its flavor and heat, but its ability to hold an oil and water mixture in suspension, as well. It can help keep a hollandaise sauce or a homemade mayonnaise from separating, and a vinaigrette with a substantial amount of mustard-either dry or prepared-will stay blended longer than a sauce without mustard.
Copyright 1996 by Michele Anna Jordan, author of The Good Cook's Book of Mustard. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.
Check out Michele Anna Jordan's latest book: The World Is a Kitchen: Cooking Your Way Through Culture
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