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Mustard: Mellow yellow or spicy brown

Mellow yellow or spicy brown, this reliable condiment dresses up a hot dog or adds spark to a sauce. Mustard is one of the oldest condiments in the culinary world and one of the first medicines used by ancient civilizations.The plant was cultivated in India as early as 3000 B.C.

The Romans, who used mustard to flavor their sauces, introduced it to continental Europe and England. By the time the Middle Ages dawned, mustard was in common use. Starting in the ninth century, French monasteries made a good livelihood from the condiment, and during the reign of Louis XIV in the 17th century, the mustard manufacturers of Dijon were awarded the exclusive right to make that famous version.

The name "mustard" is derived from must -- the freshly pressed grape juice that was commonly mixed with crushed seeds -- and ardens, Latin for burning -- a reference to mustard's potency. Mustard belongs to the brassica crucifarae family -- a large one that includes a number of common weeds as well as cabbage and broccoli. In fact, mustard greens, the dark green leaves of the plant, are cultivated as a vegetable.

Mustard seed is harvested from large shrubs, which produce bright yellow flowers. The most commonly used seeds are brown (Brassica juncea), yellow or white (Brassica hirta), and black (Brassica nigra); yellow seeds are larger than brown but less pungent; the black seeds are a specialty item today.

The seeds are cleaned of debris, sorted, and dried. Milling and sieving removes the outer husk. Whole seeds are then packaged for sale or ground into flour, which is also retailed. Much of the production, however, is processed into prepared mustard, the familiar jarred condiment.

Whole seeds are used for pickling, in sauerkraut, in chutney, and in flavoring dishes such as corned beef and cabbage.

Powdered mustard, or mustard flour, is a standard ingredient in vinaigrettes, dressings, and mayonnaise. Powdered mustard must be mixed with water or other liquids to activate the essential oils that give it its pungency. Let it stand for about 10 minutes to develop maximum flavor. Stirring in an acid such as vinegar keeps the mixture's sharp edge. Adding a starch, such as wheat flour or corn starch, tones down the pungency.

Prepared mustard is a popular condiment for yeasty soft pretzels, hot dogs, hamburgers, and deli sandwiches. In the back of the house, it's an often-used seasoning in sauces, dressings, and both hot and cold main dishes.

A wide assortment of prepared mustards is available, varied by the liquid used -- including wine, beer, champagne, spirits, cider, and citrus juices -- and the flavoring ingredients -- such as horseradish, dill, garlic, onion, chiles, and pepper. Honey or sugar is sometimes added for sweet variations. Some blends combine smooth mustard with coarsely crushed seeds for added texture.

Mustard has a long shelf life. Keep seeds and flour in sealed containers in a cool, dry spot. Whole seeds will keep up to a year; ground up to six months.

If unopened, prepared mustards will keep almost indefinitely. Essential mustard oils inhibit the growth of certain yeasts, molds, and bacteria, and the tocopherols present protect against rancidity. However, once opened, prepared mustards should be refrigerated to prolong shelf life.

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