There are over forty different varieties of mustard plants, but three are the most popular for culinary use. All mustard seeds have Jekyll and Hyde characteristics. When crushed, they are nose-tinglingly pungent. However, if they are roasted they turn quite nutty and sweet.
There are four colours and three main varieties of mustard seeds. They can be yellow or white, black or brown. True black is rare and brown tends to be used whenever black or brown mustard seed is required in a recipe. Likewise, yellow and white are often used interchangeably. Black and brown seeds have greater potency of flavours than the lighter mustard seeds.
An archaic name for the seed is eye of newt. Often misunderstood for an actual eye of a newt, this name has been popularly associated with witchcraft ever since it was mentioned as an ingredient to a witch’s brew in Shakespeare’s famous play Macbeth.
Mustard seeds can be traced to different areas of Europe and Asia with the white variety originating in the eastern Mediterranean regions, the brown from the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains, and the black from the Middle East. At one time in Britain, whole swathes of Lincolnshire and Yorkshire grew black mustard seeds, and acres of Cambridge and Essex grew yellow. Major producers today include Hungary, Britain, India, Canada (90%) and the United States.
Mustard is anti-microbial, so it is often included in pickles, chutneys and other preserved foods from a range of countries.
Mustard seeds are mentioned in ancient Sanskrit writings dating back about 5,000 years ago.
Brown Mustard Seeds
The reddish-brown Brown Mustard Seed has also been grown and used in India since ancient times. Although these are often referred to as Black Mustard Seeds, but are a different variety. Brown mustard seeds are similar in size to the black variety and can vary in colour from light to dark brown. They are more pungent than the white, less than the black. Brown mustard is often favoured over black mustard in European production due to the ability to mechanise harvesting.
It is grown widely in India and is particularly suited to spice mixes. In India it is very common to temper mustard seeds in hot oil to bring out their nutty flavour. They are sauteed in hot ghee or oil until they pop and release their flavours – about 30 seconds, depending on the temperature of the oil. They are also planted to grow saag (greens) which are stir-fried and eaten in vegetable preparations.
In China, the brown mustard plant is used as a vegetable. The plant has swollen, fleshy stems and leaf bases, and it is cured with salt and chilli paste and left to ferment.
Black Mustard Seeds
Black mustard seed is a round, hard seed, slightly larger and slightly stronger in flavour than the Brown Mustard Seeds, with a brownish-black colour. The black mustard seed has been replaced for most purposes by the brown species because the latter can be grown and harvested more economically.
They have little fragrance, but have a pungent taste after chewing and a nutty odour after roasting. They are native to Southern Europe and western Asia. It is endemic in the Southern Mediterranean, India and Middle East. It is little planted in Europe anymore.
Bengali’s use black mustard seeds in panch phoron, and in South India it is used in cambaar podi. In South India the seeds are fried or roasted until grey before use and this changes their character to a nutty taste. As black mustard seeds pungency is destroyed by other methods of cooking, it is added as late as possible to any dishes.
A mustard paste was made from black mustard, vinegar and wine by the Romans and introduced to central and Northern Europe. These days, white mustard is more commonly used due to its increased stability as a product.
In most recipes, black and brown mustard seeds are interchangeable.
Yellow Mustard Seeds and White Mustard Seeds
Yellow mustard seeds, sometimes called White Mustard Seeds are much larger than the brown variety, but a lot less pungent. Its light outer skin is removed before sale. It has a milder flavour and good preservative qualities. They are the European mustard seed, and grown across much of Europe and North America. This is the mustard seed mostly used in European cooking.
They are also grown in India and used in Indian cuisine when a milder flavour is desired.
This oil has the same characteristics as the seeds it comes from. When raw, it smells hot and pungent. When heated, the pungency goes into the air (you can smell it!) and it turns sweet. It is used in Bengali and Kashmiri cookery, and in most oil pickles. Drizzle it on salads, on top of soups, and over steamed vegetables. It is also good for a massage! It is often used for the relief of muscular pain and even sore throats because of its heat. External application in these cases.
Mustard oil is popular over Northern India and indispensable in Bengali cuisine. But it contains toxic isothiocyanates, and so must be strongly heated until smoking immediately before frying any food in it. It is best not to use it raw.
Make Your Own Mustard Seed Paste/Sauce
It is easy to make your own mustard once you have mustard seeds. For instructions, see our recipe here.
Explore our Indian Recipes – many of them will use Mustard Seeds. Feel free to also browse recipes from our Retro Recipes series – vegetarian recipes from our first blog from 1995 – 2006. You might also like our Spice information, or to browse our Indian Essentials series. Take some time to explore our Mid Autumn recipes.