Mother Earth Living

The Magic of Mustard


I don’t know exactly when my fascination with mustard began. Maybe it started with the Clue board game I played as a child. (Was the villain Colonel Mustard in the ballroom with the candlestick?)

Something about the word and the way mustard tasted on hot dogs and hamburgers held my interest and as I grew older, I found myself inextricably attracted to the pungent spice. I dabbed it on baked potatoes, spread it on fish and added it to marinades. Mustard powder found its way into my spice rubs, vegetable sautés, chicken and roasts.

A little mustard can work a lot of magic, I discovered. It enhances the flavor of so many foods in subtle ways while adding almost no calories. Just a few seeds or a bit of powder can transform a mundane meal into something extraordinary.

The Origins of Mustard

You might recognize mustard’s familiar zip in some of its relatives. Mustard is a member of the brassica clan, which makes it a kissing cousin to cabbage, broccoli and radishes. Three main species are used for cooking. White- or yellow-seeded Sinapis alba, formerly known as Brassica hirta, is believed to be native to the Meditteranean region. Brown-seeded B. juncea probably originated in northwest India, and black-seeded B. nigra is native to the Middle East and Asia Minor. All three have naturalized throughout most of North America.

Food historians think mustard was first cultivated in India around 3000 B.C., and ancient Romans brought the seeds to Gaul. The plant was highly valued in Biblical times: Matthew 13:31 compares a grain of mustard to the kingdom of heaven.

The early Romans allegedly were among the first to prepare the spicy paste by mixing crushed seeds with the young, unfermented juice of wine grapes, known as “must.” (“Mustard” comes from the Latin mustum ardens, which means “burning wine.”) Although mustard probably first was used primarily for medicinal purposes, cooks throughout France, England, China and later the United States soon discovered the value and versatility of mustard.

Today, this universally loved seed–which has been called the Spice of Nations–is grown and used all over the world.

More than a Condiment

Mustard’s use extends beyond that of a mere spread for bread, however. Indeed, the plant’s seeds, leaves and roots have been used as food, fertilizer, seasoning and medicine for millennia. Every part of the plant can be and has been used throughout history.

For centuries, people have eaten young mustard greens in salads. Loaded with vitamin A, mustard greens also are an excellent source of calcium and vitamin C. Most varieties grown for greens are of the spicy, brown-seeded type, B. juncea. Cooks subdue the bitter and pungent mature leaves by sautéing, stir-frying, braising, boiling and stewing them, the way you would prepare kale or turnip greens.

Grow It Yourself

Growing mustard is easy. You simply plant the seeds of this annual about 3 inches apart in a sunny garden site in either early spring or late summer. Like other brassicas, mustard thrives in cool weather. The tender young leaves will be ready to pick just a few weeks after the seeds sprout.

To harvest the seeds, allow some of the plants to mature and flower. Seed pods will follow, about three months after planting. Harvest the pods when the plants begin to yellow, but before the pods break open and spill the seeds onto the ground. Store the seeds in a dry location until you are ready to use them, either whole or ground.

Take care before you plant mustard in your garden, however, as this easy-to-grow plant has become a troublesome weed in many states, due to the proliferation of its seeds. Before you grow mustard for seed, check with your County Extension agent to find out if mustard is restricted in your state.

Reputation for Healing

As medicine, mustard musters up more than 40 restorative properties, from poultices and plasters to infusions, baths, liniments and antiseptic solutions. Ancient medical texts mention using mustard to treat pulmonary disease, congestion, bronchitis, weak appetite, constipation, digestive weakness, sore throats, toothaches, hiccups, snake and scorpion bites, skin rashes, rheumatism, arthritis and many other ailments.

Before the advent of aspirin, people made mustard plasters (also called poultices) and applied them to the body to relieve aches and pains. They also used mustard in baths (for the feet or the entire body) to increase blood flow to inflamed tissues.

More recently, James Duke, Ph.D., in his book The Green Pharmacy (Rodale, 1997) suggests using a mustard plaster, made by mixing 4 ounces of ground seed with warm water, for fingers affected with Raynaud’s disease, as well as for sciatica.

Over the last several centuries, mustard’s reputation for healing and cooking has found its way into everyday conversation. The 18th-century phrase “the proper mustard” meant the genuine article or real thing. In the 19th century, “keen as mustard” referred to someone who could add something–usually zest–to a situation. And in the 20th century, someone who could perform at the required level was “up to mustard,” while someone who failed to measure up was described as “unable to cut the mustard.”

Tantalizing, versatile and downright addictive, mustard continues to be an essential herb for every household. With so many blends and types to explore, you might not want to cut the mustard in your cooking. Here are three proper mustard recipes to get you started.

Meet Mr. Mustard

Next time you find yourself in Mount Horeb, Wisconsin, be sure to stop by the town’s brightest attraction, the Mount Horeb Mustard Museum. Open to the public since 1992, the museum displays 4,782 (at last count) jars of mustard, including historic tins and bottles that date to the 19th century.

“The idea came to me in 1986, after my Boston Red Sox lost the World Series,” museum curator and CMO (Chief Mustard Officer) Barry Levenson says. “I found myself walking the aisles of an all-night grocery store.

“When I got to the mustard aisle, I heard a voice saying, ‘if you collect us, they will come.'” Levenson swears it’s true.

Turns out, the mustard muse was right. The museum now receives about 30,000 visitors each year, including 3,000 attendees to the National Mustard Day celebration, held the first Saturday in August.

“People love mustard’s bright color and versatility,” Levenson says. “It goes well with so many different things. Plus, it’s good for you … did you know that ketchup is the leading cause of stupidity? Well, at least as far as we’re concerned, it is.”

Prepared mustard is a snap to make, he assures us. Check out the recipes for English Red Mustard and Grandma’s Sweet-Hot Mustard, adapted from the museum’s booklet, The Culinary Mustard, to get you started.

Fun Facts about Mustard

Toss out these spicy tidbits at your next cocktail party:

  • One pound of mustard contains about 250,000 seeds.
  • Most of the mustard seeds used in Dijon, France, are grown in the United States and Canada. Canada produces about 90 percent of the world’s supply of mustard seeds.

“A touch of these mustards brings out the flavor of Gruyère cheese, seasons a salad, gives a lift to white sauces, and gives style to a ragout. The hors d’oeuvre is the first dish to feel their good effect, which only ceases with the dessert.”
–Paul Reboux (Henri Amillet), French writer (1877-1963)

Sources of Mustard Seed and Powder

Mt. Horeb Mustard Museum
(800) 438-6878
Whole or cracked brown and yellow seeds, hot and mild mustard powder.

Monterey Bay Spice Co.
(800) 500-6148
Whole brown and yellow seeds and brown and yellow powder; some products are certified organic.

Penzeys Spices
(800) 741-7787
Whole brown and yellow mustard seeds, crushed brown seeds and mustard powder.

The above recipes are adapted from The Garden of Eating: A Produce-Dominated Diet & Cookbook by Rachel Albert-Matesz & Don Matesz (Planetary Press, 2004).
Rachel Albert-Matesz is a freelance food and health writer, cooking instructor and personal chef who lives in Phoenix. For more information about the book, classes and services,

  • Published on Oct 1, 2007
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