What Is Mustard?

A Guide to Buying, Using, and Storing Mustard

Two kinds of mustards: one bright yellow and the other grainy
Jean Cazals / Getty Images

Mustard, the condiment, is made from the tiny round seeds of the mustard plant, a member of the Brassicaceae family. In order to release their flavor, the seeds must be broken—coarsely cracked, crushed, or finely ground—then mixed with enough liquid to make a spreadable paste, which can then be used as a condiment or as an ingredient in many culinary preparations.

Fast Facts

  • Long Shelf Life: One to two years
  • Many Varieties: Yellow, brown, coarse, extra spicy, flavored
  • Condiment Origin: Ancient Rome
  • Name: Latin for "burning must"
  • Use: Mostly as a condiment but used as an ingredient too

What Is Mustard?

Its name—mustard in English, moutarde in French, mostarda in Italian—is thought to come from a contraction of the Latin mustum ardens meaning "burning must." This is a reference to the spicy heat of mustard seeds and the ancient practice of mixing the ground seeds with must, the fresh, unfermented juice of wine grapes.

Mustard is one of the earliest spices on record, appearing in Sanskrit manuscripts around 3000 BC. It is thought to be one of the first crops to be domesticated, and mustard was used throughout ancient Egypt, India, and China.

The history of mustard as a condiment dates back thousands of years to the early Romans, who ground mustard seeds and mixed them with wine to create a paste, which was probably not very different from the prepared mustard we know today.


While there are about 40 species of mustard plants, only three of them are used to make mustard: black (Brassica nigra), brown (B. juncea), and white or yellow (Sinapis alba). Mustard, however, takes many different forms depending on how the seeds are ground, what liquid is used (vinegar, wine, juice, or water), and what other flavoring ingredients are added. White mustard, which originated in the Mediterranean, is the antecedent of the bright yellow hot dog mustard we are all familiar with. Brown mustard from the Himalayas is familiar to many as Chinese restaurant mustard, and it serves as the base for most European and American mustards as well. Black mustard originated in the Middle East and in Asia Minor, where it is still popular, primarily as a spice in seed and powder form.

Different types of mustard seeds can be—and often are—blended to combine their different characteristics and make a kind of hybrid mustard.

Among the most popular types of mustard are Pommery (coarse), Dijon (containing wine or grape juice), English (hot), Chinese (spicy), German (coarse and slightly sweet), and American (bright yellow and slightly sweet).

Mustard Uses

Mustard comes in four basic forms—seeds, powder, oil, and prepared mustard—and each can be used in different ways:

  • Seeds can be cracked and used as a seasoning before or after cooking, as they are in many Middle Eastern cuisines. Seeds are also often used as a pickling spice.
  • Mustard powder, either on its own or in a blend of powdered spices, can be used as a dry rub or sprinkled on food as a seasoning agent before grilling, roasting, or sautéing. Ground mustard can also be used to make your own prepared mustard.
  • Oil extracted from mustard seeds can be used for cooking. High-quality mustard oils can be drizzled over finished food like olive oil to add spice and flavor.
  • Prepared mustard is used widely as a condiment and goes especially well with charcuterie, classic dishes like choucroute garnie, baked ham, and, of course, hot dogs. Other flavorings—honey or garlic, for example—can be added to prepared mustard, and it is also frequently used as a cooking ingredient.

How to Cook With Mustard

While we usually think of mustard as a condiment to slather on hot dogs or just about anything else, it can also be used as a key ingredient in cooking. Prepared mustard can be used in sauces, dressings, and marinades, where spicy flavor and creamy viscosity is desired. And mustard seeds, powder, and oil can be used too.

The green or red leaves of mustard plants are edible, delicious, and widely used in many cuisines, but they come from other species in the Brassicaceae family.

What Does It Taste Like?

While there is great variation in taste from one kind of mustard to another, there are some basic flavor characteristics that you will find in just about every type and manifestation of mustard. There is always an element of spiciness, from very mild to burning hot. Hot or not, there is also an underlying sweetness from the plant itself, and there is usually a subtle but persistent aroma of yellow mustard flowers.

Mustard Substitute

If mustard is not available, horseradish or Japanese wasabi could be substituted. Alternatively, depending on what you intend to do with it, you could use a chile pepper-based hot sauce.

Mustard Recipes

Though mustard is primarily used as a condiment, it can also function as an excellent cooking ingredient in a variety of different ways to add flavor, spice, and texture to many preparations.

Where to Buy

Mustard can be found in the condiment aisle of almost every supermarket. High-quality, uniquely flavored artisan-level mustards can also be found in gourmet food shops and online sites.


Closed jars of prepared mustard kept in a cool, dark place, can last for years. Once the jar is opened, however, it should be closed tightly and kept in the refrigerator, where it can last for up to a year. The sooner you consume an open jar, however, the better, because the flavor and aroma lessen over time, especially when it is being frequently opened and closed.