Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Homemade Mustard - Powerful Stuff

Way back when, I used to work in a movie theater. In the quiet time between shows, my co-workers and I used to talk and a frequent topic was trying to solve life's little mysteries such as:

Why do boys' bikes have that bar across the top of the frame but girls' bikes don't? I actually figured this one out - it's because back in the early days of bicycles, when it was a common means of transportation, women wore long skirts, and the bar across the top would require them to expose themselves.

Exactly what is the purpose of a necktie? I don't know the definitive answer to this one, but my theory is that it was originally intended to hide the buttons. This theory is based on the observations that formal mens clothing (like tuxedoes) use double fronted shirts and/or stud, and cuff-links. Apparently, there was something unseemly about buttons in the old days, and they weren't supposed to show.

Why does mustard come in much smaller jars than mayonaise? I never figured this one out, and for thirty years or so it's been a mystery. One of my co-workers suggested that since mustard gas is poisonous, maybe large quantities of mustard are toxic. I never bought into that theory, but finally, I'm pretty sure I've solved the mystery - it's because real mustard is powerful stuff, and a little bit goes a long way. It comes in smaller containers because it's used in smaller quantities due to its strength, and the small container of mustard will last approximately the same amount of time as the big jar of mayo.

I figured this out, of course, by trying my hand at making homemade mustard. I did a fair amount of reading before I started, and it seemed pretty simple and straight forward. Mustard, the condiment, is made from Mustard, the seeds. The seeds come in three basic varieties: white (or yellow) which it the mildest; brown, which is hotter; and black, which is supposed to kind of rare and extremely hot. The seeds are soaked in liquid - water, wine, vinegar, juice, for a period of time, other spices are added, then everything is ground in to a paste.

Everyone knows there are some basic variations on mustard - American mustard is tangy but not hot, and is distinctively yellow. European mustards are more brownish, and may be hot, sweet, and frequently have wine and whole seeds in them; Asian mustard are yellow or brown, and tend to be very hot. As a kid, I just plain disliked mustard and only ate it if forced to. As I got older, I learned that mustard actually enhanced some foods, especially sausages, and I slowly grew to appreciate the palatte of available mustards and to seek out and try new ones. Although I really groove to hot peppers, I still don't like the hot Asian mustards.

What really got me interested in making mustard at home though, is my daughter. Although she doesn't like anything even remotely spicy as a rule, she LOVES mustard on her sandwiches. She started out with honey-mustard, but now loves plain American mustard. My standard mustard these days is the spicy brown kind, which she's still not really sure about though, mostly because the word 'spicy' in the name. When I told her I was going to try and make mustard, she was really intrigued, so I decided that my first mustard would be American style.

American mustard gets its distinctive yellow color from the addition of turmeric, which turns the pale yellow of yellow mustard paste nearly flourescent. You can of course make a pretty good mustard by mixing dry mustard powder with water, and adding whatever else you want to the mix, but that just wouldn't be the Luddite way, would it? No, I started with the seeds.

I got to work, adding a quarter cup of yellow mustard seeds to a canning jar along with a quarter cup of vinegar. I added a teaspoon of turmeric, salt, and pepper, closed the jar up, and shook it well. Then I put it on the shelf for a couple days, until I could get back to it.

As would be expected, when I got back to it last night, the seeds had soaked up nearly all of the liquid, and had swelled accordingly. I dumped the whole mixture into my blender, added a little water, and set my controls for 'liquefy'. I turned it off less than a minute later because there wasn't enough liquid, and the blender couldn't really do it's thing. It definitely was starting to look like mustard though - so I tasted it. Man, that was extreme! Besides adding some more water, I added a little more salt, and a teaspoon of sugar. The blender did it's thing, and turned the conglomeration into a nice, thick, mustard-looking paste. It was still super strong though, so I added a little more salt, some more sugar, and blended it again. The result was better, but still not right, and only marginally appealing. I was considering dumping the batch and starting over, when I noticed the open bottle of wine I had on the counter. What the heck? I thought, and added about a quarter cup. The result was still very strong, more runny than I like, but tasty enough to actually use, so I jarred it back up and stuck it in the fridge. I've got a couple pounds of Kielbasa waiting for it's date night with that mustard.

So, I've actually made mustard, but I don't really consider myself a mustard-maker at this point. The process definitely needs some work. I'm thinking that the next time I'm not going to soak the seeds in vinegar, but in either wine or water and see if that helps. I've also read that longer soaking or aging the mustard before putting in the fridge can mellow out the flavor. I'll work on this until I get it right, and post the results here. I will conquer mustard.

Next on the condiment trail is ketchup.

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