You dip your Chicken McNuggets in it. You lather it on a spicy square knish fresh out of the oven. You drizzle a generous amount onto hot dogs at barbecues, tailgates, and baseball games. I can only be talking about one condiment — mustard. Known for its spicy or tangy taste, bright yellow coloring, and spot next to ketchup on tables everywhere, mustard is one the most recognizable condiments. Yet, nobody really knows what mustard is, let alone where it comes from. But that's where I come in. What is mustard? Today I'll be breaking it down based on its origins, ingredients, and varieties. 

What is Mustard?

mustard, beer
Rachel Serebrenik

Mustard, obviously, is a condiment — one of Europe's oldest, to be exact. Derived from the Latin "mustum ardens," meaning "burning must," the word makes note of both mustard's spicy flavor and processing. Mustard, in its squeezable condiment form, is made from mixing ground mustard plant seeds with honey, vinegar, and spices like turmeric and paprika. However, the hot tang we all associate with our chicken fingers isn't naturally occurring. Mustard derives its heat from synapic fermentation, or the mixing of ground mustard seeds with a liquid.

Where Does Mustard Come From?

Mustard is the product of mustard plant seeds, which are cultivated throughout Europe, North America, and the Middle East, making it one of the world's most accessible condiments.  

Spreadable mustard dates back to the age of gladiator battles and mythology, where ancient Romans mixed ground mustard seeds, known for curing toothaches, with wine to form a paste mimicked by contemporary condiments. This paste was a hot commodity (pun intended); prior to transcontinental trade and the proliferation of pepper, mustard was used to spice bland food. 

Surprisingly enough, French monasteries were early mustard supporters. Learning cultivation techniques in Gaul, branches of the church generated income through the sale of jarred mustards. Its success lead Pope John XXII of Avignon to appoint his nephew from Dijon as "mustard-maker to the pope," a job so ludicrous it almost doesn't sound real. However, this appointment proved crucial. Dijon became the mustard making capital of the western word, leading to the development of Dijon mustard, aka that mustard we eat to feel boujee.

How is Mustard Made?

Newsflash: the mustard manufacturing process is actually just one big chemistry lab. After mustard seeds are checked for quality, they're soaked in vinegar for several hours, softening them. The seeds are then ground into a thin, often yellow, flour that's mixed with specific proportions of white wine, vinegar, and honey to create a malleable paste. When the mustard seed is combined with large quantities of white wine and vinegar, an enzyme adds heat to the mustard seed and makes it taste spicy. This paste is then seasoned, heated, and shipped to the supermarket in time for barbecue season. 

#SpoonTip: Exact ingredients vary depending on what type of mustard you buy. 

Common Types of Mustard

Much like pickles, mustards come in a variety of flavors, each notorious for its own particular kick and color. Moreover, mustards are not interchangeable. You wouldn't wear a Red Sox jersey to a Yankee game, right? That same principle applies to condiments. Never put honey mustard on a hot a dog, and don't dip your McNuggets in Dijon.

Follow this basic guide to mustard varieties and never break unspoken condiment law again. 

Yellow Mustard

juice, mustard, mayonnaise, ketchup
Bernard Wen

Yellow mustard is the American standby. Known for its vibrant color and thick consistency, this variety is the mildest. While a good yellow mustard should taste slightly sharp, its gentle flavor makes it the unofficial condiment of summer. Drizzle it on hot dogs, mix it into your dressings, or even turn it into a face mask.

Honey Mustard

Honey mustard combines good ole yellow mustard with everyone's favorite natural sweetener — honey — in a one-to-one ratio, making it the perfect sweet combination for spicy chicken rubs. Most commonly enjoyed as a dipping sauce, honey mustard is more than just a fast food accoutrement. Try lightly glazing salmon with it for a fresh a take on fillets. 

Spicy Brown Mustard

Made with brown mustard seeds, spicy mustard is the product of stronger seed to vinegar ratio. Moreover, the bran is left on the seed, giving the mustard a coarser texture and an acidity that may just make your nose run. Known as the deli mustard, spicy brown mustard pairs well with anything available at Katz's: pastrami, corned beef, and knishes. 

Dijon Mustard

Basically, Dijon mustard is brown mustard for celebrities. It's fancy, swapping vinegar for white wine. Thus, Dijon has a complex flavor profile. It's one part spicy, one part sharp, and very pungent. A little goes a long way. It works well when paired with mayonnaise in sauces or salads, such as this show stopping potato salad. 

Whether you're at a ballgame, barbecue, or a babysitting gig requiring all the chicken tenders, grab the right mustard for the occasion (and maybe have a spare tissue on hand in case it makes your nose run).