Cutting the Mustard
Two things I wish I had known when I was seventeen; one was simple, if you chase girls they tend to run away but that’s another story. The other is a bit more mundane but makes a lot of difference if you are intent on making cooking your career, and that is the culinary properties of mustard. A lot of people think that mustard is just hot stuff for going on pork pies and roast beef but it is so much more.
When I started working in restaurants there were two sorts of mustard, English and French. English was bright yellow and if taken with less than moderate care it was capable of making your eyes water and the back of your head sting as if someone had just whacked you with a spatula. The French stuff was a dubious brown colour and nobody ate it – not even the French.
Mustard is one spice or condiment that didn’t have to find its way here from the East. There are several varieties of mustard seeds but the ones used mainly in cooking are the black and the yellow. As it grows on nearly every continent in the world it can be found in many culinary cultures. The Romans were very fond of it. In India the whole seeds are often added to a hot pan at the beginning of cooking until they start to pop. English mustard is sold as a fine powder ground from the yellow variety with added black mustard seeds to increase the heat and is often sold as a paste. Dijon mustard is milder and made with added herbs and verjuice – a vinegary liquid made from green grapes.
The stalks of the mustard plant are extremely tough and in the days when it had to be cut manually with a scythe it took a lot of strength and energy to do the job hence the phrase ‘can he cut the mustard?’
Although English mustard is great as a condiment the mustard of choice for cooking is Dijon, the pale yellow ochre variety that has a well-balanced flavour and is mild compared to English. It adds flavour without overpowering. You can paint it on lamb racks and beef joints prior to roasting. You can use it in marinades, dressings and sauces. But its other great property is as a surfactant. I am no Einstein but a little knowledge of chemistry can help enormously in the kitchen. A surfactant is something that helps molecules of water and fat bind together. Washing up liquid is the best surfactant getting the grease off your pans and into the washing up water but you wouldn’t want to put it in your mayonnaise. Luckily that is where Dijon mustard comes in. Making mayonnaise is one of the trickier skills of cooking as it can curdle easily leaving you with a mess of oil with globules of egg and vinegar in it. A little Dijon mustard helps the sauce to emulsify without making it taste of mustard.
Heating mustard actually removes the spicy heat from it. I used to make a mustard sauce using three types of mustard – English, Dijon and grain and wondered why with all that mustard it wasn’t hot so I used to add a bit of Tabasco to make it zing.
Similarly a good salad dressing can be made to emulsify using Dijon mustard by whisking it together with white wine vinegar, salt and pepper and perhaps a little honey and adding the oil to it slowly. An electric stick blender comes in handy for this job. When it comes to sauces made with cream it is again king. Making a buerre blanc or similar type butter and cream sauce the mustard has a property that helps thicken the sauce without reducing the cream too much and again helping those pesky molecules to bind together. For years I struggled with mayonnaise, bearnaise, hollandaise and cream and egg sauces until I discovered this magic ingredient. If only the girl thing could have been that easy.