Mustard Makes A Hot Topic!

Mustard plays an integral part in many cuisines around the world. It has been used for thousands of years and is much appreciated as a seasoning and for its characteristic sharpness. Interestingly, mustard seeds alone are not spicy at all. If this is true, where does the classic spicy flavor come from?

The mustard we know  today is mostly served as a mustard paste. The main ingredients used are the ground seeds of the white, brown and black mustard seeds. These plants belong to the family Brassicaceae and are originally from Asia. 

As early as 3000 years ago, mustard was used as a spice in ancient China. Traveling over Asia Minor, it arrived in Greece, where it was used as a cure during the 4th century BC. In Central Europe, mustard was first mentioned in writing in the 8th century. Here it Europe it had a huge significance because it was the only hot spice available besides horseradish. Only with the increasing availability of pepper did that change.


Mustard seeds contain about 20-36 percent mustard oil that tastes nutty and mild. About 28 percent of the seeds consists of protein, and the glycoside sinalbin (white mustard) or Sinigrin (brown and black mustard). These glycosides are, simply put, alcohol-sugar compounds are responsible for the pungent taste and the associated appetizing and digestive properties. Here are glycosides alone are not spicy, per se. 

The explanation for the flavor is the fact that an enzyme is also included in the mustard seeds. Upon contact with liquid, this enzyme is activated and converts the glycosides into sulfuric acid, dextrose and Isothiocyanate. The latter gives the mustard the sharp taste. You can test this fact yourself. A grain of mustard seed when chewed, tastes initially mildly nutty. The sharp taste comes later. Therefore, mustard seeds are best used as a paste as the sharpness has already developed. In addition, the flavors unfold perfectly in a paste.

Ingredients & Severity

The basic ingredients for these pastes are usually just mustard seeds, vinegar, salt, water and depending on the variety, other things such as spices or sugars. There are countless varieties and flavors of mustard, from sweet and mild to spicy or very spicy. The degree that the mustard seed is ground, the origin of the vinegar and the other ingredients make an impact on the flavor. Additionally, the relationship between the white and brown mustard is important because it determines the degree of severity. The sinalbin contained in the white mustard seeds is much milder than the sinigrin in the brown mustard. Due to the fact that black mustard can only be hand harvested, it is rarely used today.


In the modern production of mustard, the mustard seeds are first broken, then usually de-oiled. The mustard meal is then mixed with the remaining ingredients and the resulting mash is fermented. This is where the flavor truly unfolds. Finally, this paste is ground to a pulp. Here the temperature must not exceed 50 degrees, otherwise the essential oils are lost. Last, the mustard is stored in glass. Over the course of a few weeks the spiciness begins to lessen. This is necessary because in the beginning, the mustards are very spicy! The mustards go on sale only when they are ready to be eaten.