Because it’s so small—about 1/10 inch in diameter—the mustard seed has played a big role in religion. Jesus Christ said that those with faith even as small as a mustard seed could move mountains. Gautama the Buddha used the mustard seed as a measure of eternity, comparing the endless time in a “world cycle” to the time it would take to move an enormous pile of mustard seeds if one seed were moved every one hundred years. The Koran says that even the equivalent of a mustard seed will be accounted for on the Day of Judgment.
Well, nowadays even scientists are starting to have faith in the tiny mustard seed. The source of the seed—the mustard plant—is a crucifer, the cancer-fighting plant family that includes broccoli, brussels sprouts, kale, and cabbage. The mustard seed, it turns out, contains concentrated amounts of the same anti-cancer compounds found in those greens.
The Anti-Cancer Connection
The main compounds: glucosinolates, released from crucifers when they’re chewed and from mustard seed when it’s broken or soaked. An oily, fiery byproduct of the glucosinolates—allyl isothiocyanates(AITC)—gives mustard seeds (and its cruciferous cousins, horseradish and wasabi) their distinctive bite and a lot of their healing power.
The mustard seeds we’re talking about, however, are not from the mustard greens you’ll find in a supermarket. They’re seeds from three mustard plants venerable enough to have made it into ancient religious texts. The seeds are:
• White, or yellow, mustard seeds. Popular in the United States for the American-style yellow mustard they produce, they are the largest of the three seeds, with the mildest flavor.
• Brown mustard seeds. Popular in Europe and Asia, they also go by the name Chinese mustard and are medium-sized and pungent.
• Black mustard seeds. Indigenous to India, they are the smallest and most potent of the three—about 30 percent hotter than brown.
More than two hundred test tube and animal studies show that the AITC in cruciferous vegetables and plants can help prevent and slow the growth of a number of cancers, including colon, lung, prostate, bladder, and ovarian. A recent scientific review of research on AITC, from the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, New York, concluded that the compound shows “anti-cancer activity” and “exhibits many desirable attributes of a cancer chemopreventive agent” (a natural substance that fights cancer).
A few of those studies have tested AITC and other anti-cancer compounds in mustard seeds:
The omega-3 fatty acids found in fatty fish such as salmon can protect against the development of colon cancer. Researchers at South Dakota State University found that mustard seed oil—rich in alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), a plant-based omega-3—was more protective against colon cancer in experimental animals than fish oil.
Indian researchers found that brown mustard seeds reduced the level of tumors in animals with chemically induced colon cancer. The inclusion of mustard seeds “in a daily diet plays a significant role in the protection of the colon against chemical carcinogenesis,” concluded the researchers.
Canadian researchers found that an extract of white or yellow mustard seeds reduced colon cancer up to 50 percent in experimental animals fed a high-fat diet, and that the extract might help defeat “obesity-associated colon cancer” in people.
Another team of Indian researchers (noting that mustard seed oil “is extensively used as a cooking medium in several countries because of a characteristic pungent and acrid flavor, and as a condiment” and that mustard seeds are “widely utilized in the preparation of edible sauces, pastes and pickles”) found that mustard seed oils protected laboratory animals against chemically induced cancer. They theorized it works by detoxifying cancer-causing chemicals and as an antioxidant that protects cells from damaging oxidation. The findings were in Cancer Letter.
In Healing, Mustard Cuts the Mustard
Researchers have found many other ways mustard seed might protect health:
Heart disease. Researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health analyzed data on diet and heart disease from more than 1,000 people living in India and found those who cooked with mustard seed oil—rich in heart-protecting ALA—had a 51 percent lower risk of heart disease than those who cooked with sunflower seed oil. The findings were in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
Researchers in India fed experimental animals brown mustard seeds, lowering their total and “bad” LDL cholesterol, and increasing “good” HDL cholesterol. The findings were in the journal Plant Foods for Human Nutrition.
Prediabetes. More than 50 million Americans suffer from this health-defeating condition, in which cells no longer respond to the glucose-controlling hormone insulin (a condition also called insulin resistance), and glucose (blood sugar) levels stay high. Uncontrolled, prediabetes can turn into type 2 diabetes—and type 2 diabetes can turn into heart disease, stroke, blindness, nerve pain, and kidney failure.
Indian researchers fed animals a high-sugar diet and their glucose and insulin levels skyrocketed. But when they also fed the animals brown mustard seeds, glucose and insulin levels normalized. Mustard seed “can play a role in the management of the prediabetes state of insulin resistance and should be promoted for use in patients prone to diabetes,” concluded the researchers in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology.
Prostate problems. An enlarged prostate—the medical condition called benign prostatic hypertrophy (BPH)—is a common problem in older men, causing urinary difficulties. Chinese researchers found that two compounds in white mustard seeds helped prevent induced BPH in experimental animals.
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Doctors in China used the traditional folk remedy of a “mustard plaster”—a cloth (poultice) saturated with mustard seed powder, put inside a protective dressing, and applied to the chest—to treat 59 people with chronic bronchitis (a form of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD). Twenty-five other people with COPD didn’t receive the treatment. After one year, those using the mustard plaster had a higher improvement rate—in symptoms of the disease (such as coughing and breathlessness) and in levels of disease-fighting immune factors.
Brain health. Astrocytes are star-shaped cells in the brain and spinal cord with many important functions: they help neurotransmitters relay signals from neuron to neuron; they help control healthy blood flow in the brain; they supply neurons with key nutrients; they regulate potassium in the brain, a nutrient critical to normal neural functioning; and when nerve cells are injured (such as in spinal cord injury), they remove debris and help repair the area. Essential fatty acids are crucial to the health of brain cells, and researchers in India conducted laboratory studies on the fatty acids from several cooking oils, to see how they affected astrocyte growth and development. They found the ALA in mustard seed oil “was more effective than other oils” in sparking the growth and development of the cells. The role of mustard seed oil in “facilitating astrocyte development . . . can have potential impact on human health,” concluded the researchers in the journal Cell Molecular Neurobiology.
The mustard plant is a crucifer, in the same family as broccoli, brussels sprouts, kale, and cabbage.
Getting to Know Mustard Seed
Mustard seeds have no aroma or flavor. But when the seed coat is broken and comes into contact with cold (not hot!) water, an enzyme called myrosinase goes into action, setting off the process that produces the distinctive flavor of the condiment mustard.
It takes 10 minutes for the seeds to reach their full flavor, after which it starts to dissipate. And that’s the secret to good mustard-making: bring the seeds to the flavor level you desire, then add an acid such as vinegar to kill the enzyme, then add your favorite combination of flavorings.
The ancient Romans were the first to develop the technique of mustard-making. They spread the practice throughout their empire, introducing white and black mustard seeds to England, where the condiment is now a favorite (perhaps because the sharp taste gives a heady lift to the country’s notoriously bland food).
The Romans also took mustard seeds to Dijon, France, and in the 14th century that city became home to the first commercial mustard business. (If you find yourself in Dijon, consider a visit to the Mustard Museum.) Today, the French produce more than 3,500 varieties of prepared mustard.
In the 18th century, the English invented a way to mill the oily seeds into a dry powder. In the 19th century Colman’s Mustard was founded, now the world’s most famous dry mustard. Initially, dry mustard was manufactured by mixing white and black mustard seeds with turmeric, the bright yellow Indian spice, to give the mustard color and with wheat flour to give it texture. Today, only white mustard seeds are used.
Mustard didn’t hit the American culinary scene until the late 19th century, when the brothers Robert and George French bought a processing mill in Fairport, New York. Robert invented the bright yellow French’s mustard, which made its debut in 1904 on a hotdog at the St. Louis World’s Fair.
Today, mustard powder and seeds are among the world’s most popular spices. Both the powder and seeds are used to make prepared mustards, which come in a wide range of temperatures, from mild to tongue-scorching, with a seemingly infinite number of flavorings.
Mustard seed may help prevent and/or treat:
Cholesterol problems (high total cholesterol, high “bad” LDL cholesterol, low “good” HDL cholesterol)
pulmonary disease (COPD)
Diabetes, type 2
Insulin resistance (prediabetes)
Mustard seed pairs well with these spices:
and complements recipes featuring:
Ale and beer
Meats, especially cold
The English favor strong mustards made from brown seeds or a combination of brown and white. Germany boasts a vast array of mustards, and bottles of both mild and strong mustards are a mainstay on tables in German households and restaurants. Dusseldorf, made from black seeds, is Germany’s most famous brand. Both the English and Germans use prepared mustard generously on meats, sausages, and cold cuts.
Derby Day Mustard
This mustard can be served with grilled sausages, meats, and cold cuts, on sandwiches, or as a spread for smoked fish. Or combine equal parts of mustard and mayonnaise to making a dipping sauce for vegetables. The recipe gets its name in honor of the annual Radnor Hunt Races in Radnor, Pennsylvania.
1 cup dry mustard
1 cup cider vinegar
cup yellow mustard seeds
2 eggs, beaten
1 cup sugar
1. Blend the dry mustard and vinegar together in a small bowl. Cover and let stand overnight at room temperature.
2. The next day, soak the mustard seeds in enough cold water to cover, for 10 minutes. Strain. Combine the mustard seeds, beaten eggs, and sugar in the top of a double boiler. Scrape in the mustard and vinegar mixture. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes, or until it thickens. Store in a sealed container.
Makes about 2 cups.
Dijon mustard is also made from black seeds, and it is an ingredient in two famous French sauces—sauce Robert and sauce verte—which are used on grilled meats.
World-famous Chinese mustard is made from powdered brown mustard seeds and water. The Chinese make a dipping sauce by combining dry mustard with sesame oil and chile oil.
Mustard is considered indispensible to Argentina’s famed beef.
Indian cooks use brown or black mustard seeds, frying them in hot oil at the beginning of cooking until they pop. The process takes away the heat and leaves behind a nutty flavor. In South Indian cooking, brown mustard seeds are fried in oil with cumin seeds, curry leaf, and asafoetida (a process called tempering), and added to food at the end of cooking.
Indians also add whole seeds to countless numbers of chutneys, curries, pickles, and legume dishes called dals. Mustards seeds are also used to flavor many curry blends, pastes, and spice blends.
Mustard oil, made from brown seeds, is a popular cooking oil in India. Though pungent smelling and bitter tasting in the raw, it takes on a sweet, pleasant aroma when it meets heat.
In the United States, a ballpark frank would be unthinkable without yellow mustard. It’s the perfect condiment for deviled eggs and potato salads, and on grilled meats, sausages, corned beef, and cold cuts. It is a custom in the Carolinas and other parts of the South to slather mustard-based “mop sauce” rather than red barbecue sauce on ribs and slow pit-roasted pork.
How to Buy Mustard Seed
Here’s the rule of thumb when it comes to mustard seeds: the smaller and darker, the hotter. Black seeds taste sharp with a nutty aftertaste. Brown seeds are sweeter and mellower than black. White seeds have a subtle flavor.
White mustard seeds and dry mustard are readily available in any well-stocked market. The seeds are sold whole, crushed, or ground.
Brown mustard seeds are harder to come by, but you can find them in Indian and Asian markets and online.
Black mustard seeds are hard to find because they’re not in wide-scale production. (Black seeds are difficult to harvest because they’re so small.)
Even culinary experts have trouble distinguishing black from brown seeds, because brown seeds are a very dark brown, with a subtle deep red tinge. But it doesn’t matter: brown seeds are a suitable substitute for black in any recipe.
Other recipes containing mustard seed:
Basic Barbecue Rub
Black Pepper Rice with Almonds
Brussels Sprouts Kulambu
Caribbean Curry Paste
Chesapeake Bay Seafood Seasoning
Ginger Carrot and Squash Soup
Hot Curry Powder
Madras Curry Paste
Madras Curry Powder
Onion and Tomato Chutney
Vindaloo Curry Paste
Whole mustard seeds are quite stable and will keep for three years. It’s not essential to keep them away from heat, but do keep them dry.
Prepared mustards come in a seemingly infinite variety, with a wide range of heat. When buying prepared mustard, avoid bottles that show signs of separation (a film of vinegar floating on top). For the best flavor, keep prepared mustard at room temperature.
In the Kitchen with Mustard Seed
Even though there are thousands of styles of prepared mustards, it’s also fun to make your own. (And it’s a great way to impress guests.)
Prepared mustard is made by first combining ground mustard seeds with water (or another liquid) to draw out the heat, then using vinegar or another acidic liquid to hold the heat in, and then adding flavorings to give it individuality. Almost anything goes when adding flavorings—exotic spices, edible flowers, wines, chiles, and honey are among the many options. Using dry mustard, of course, makes the whole process easier.
The acid doesn’t add flavor, but stops the action of the enzyme and extends the blend’s penetrating odor. When vinegar is added at the outset, it prevents the enzyme from acting, producing a mild flavor.
The initial soaking liquid is what develops the flavor. Cold water, milk, wine, and beer are among the popular choices. Water will give mustard a sharp taste, milk will give it a spicier and pungent flavor, and beer will make it very hot.
The seeds should sit in the liquid for 10 minutes to develop the full flavor. Vinegar or hot water can be added at any time within the 10 minutes to stop heat from developing. However, if you go over 10 minutes, the flavor will start to dissipate. White seeds produce the mildest mustard. Brown seeds produce a hot mustard. (If you’ve ever tasted Chinese mustard, you know how hot it can be!) Black seeds produce even more heat.
Making mustard is only one of the many uses for mustard seeds. Mustard seeds don’t have to be toasted like other seeds, but doing so will give your dishes more texture and flavor. Here are some ideas for using them:
• Add whole seeds to marinades for grilled food, barbecue sauces, and rubs.
• Toast mustard seeds and grated coconut, and sprinkle over steamed beans.
• Mustard seeds go naturally with all the cruciferous vegetables. Fry seeds in oil until they pop, and sprinkle them over cooked cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, brussels sprouts, collards, or mustard greens.
• Combine mustard seeds with 1 tablespoon each paprika and oregano for a coating on red meats.
• Mix ¼ cup ground mustard seeds with ¼ cup Worcestershire Sauce and the juice of one lime, and smear it over leg of lamb or other lamb roast about an hour before roasting.
• Make a Memphis mop sauce by combining ½ cup of ballpark-style mustard with 2 cups of cider vinegar and 1 teaspoon of salt. Use as you would barbecue sauce.
• Make mustard vinaigrette by combining 2 teaspoons of mustard seeds, 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard, 1 tablespoon of lemon juice, and 2 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar. Slowly whisk in 1/3 cup of extra-virgin olive oil.
• Add prepared mustard to potato salad and powdered mustard to chicken salad.