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What traits guarantee a Dijon mustard that packs a wallop of clean heat and balanced acidity? Youth and, surprisingly, a little fat.
Trois Petits Cochons Moutarde de Dijon
What We Learned
When Grey Poupon first posed its famous question to American television audiences 34 years ago, the company’s sophisticated French-style mustard (which is actually made in the United States) wouldn’t necessarily have been a pantry staple in most households. But over the years our taste for (and sales of) this spicy, smooth condiment has grown—to the tune of more than $45 million worth of mustard sold by Grey Poupon in this country each year.
In the test kitchen, we understand the appeal. Good Dijon mustard is creamy, with more body than conventional yellow mustard, and packs a wallop of clean, nose-tingling heat. We slather it on sandwiches, squirt it on hot dogs and sausages, and add it to everything from salad dressings and dips to pan sauces and glazes for roasted meats, fish, and vegetables.
When we last tasted Dijon mustards in 2008, Grey Poupon was our favorite for its “bold” yet “balanced” heat, but lately we’ve wondered if any other producers could top it. To find out, we purchased 10 Dijons made in the smooth style developed in France in the 1300s (we ignored coarse- and whole-grain products), tasting them plain and, to see how they paired with savory food, on boiled hot dogs.
As expected, clean flavor, intense heat, and creamy body were exactly the qualities we liked in a Dijon. Those that were “sweet,” “too mild,” or seasoned with ingredients beyond the standard formula simply didn’t meet our expectations for what Dijon should be.
Some Like It Hot
The sources of those unexpected flavors became obvious when we scanned the package ingredient lists. All the bottom-ranking mustards contained “spices” or other seasonings. The worst offender—loaded with garlic, celery seed, paprika, sweeteners (including high fructose corn syrup), and thickeners—actually “ruined a hot dog” for some tasters. Our favorite mustards stuck closer to the minimalist traditional French recipe: just mustard seeds, water, vinegar, salt (we preferred those with at least 100 milligrams per serving), and a few preservatives.
And what gave a mustard a good dose—or not—of heat? The answer wasn’t quite as obvious as how high on the ingredient list mustard seeds appeared. It turns out that the acidity of the condiment, which comes from vinegar and sometimes from wine as well, can also affect its spiciness. That’s because too much acidity can kill heat-producing compounds in the mustard seed called isothiocyanates. Sure enough, when we had an independent lab measure the pH of each sample, the values tracked with our heat assessments: Tasters found the Dijons with lower pHs (and thus greater acidity) to be the least spicy—even “a bit bland” on a hot dog—whe...
Everything We Tested
Thanks to a high ratio of mustard seeds (it’s the only product we tasted to list them as the first ingredient), this pricey Dijon impressed tasters with “nasal-clearing” heat that “kicks in gradually” and “builds.” It was balanced, too, delivering just enough salt and “tangy,” “bright” flavor to even out its spiciness.
A good choice for those who prefer a more moderate heat level, this “well-rounded” Dijon was “fairly spicy but not too sharp” and boasted “bright flavor typical of Dijon.”
With “big, nasal-clearing heat” that reminded tasters of “wasabi” and “horseradish,” this mustard was rated the hottest in our lineup. That made it an especially appealing condiment on hot dogs, where it “cut through the saltiness” of the meat.
This mustard was fairly spicy, but some tasters lamented that its heat “doesn’t linger” as long as other products’. What they did pick up on was tanginess, noting its “kick from acid.”
Heat-seekers wanted more zip, depth, and bite from this “mellow” Dijon. But despite that, tasters found it “bright” and “pleasant” enough to recommend it. In sum: “It would do a grilled frank justice.”
The “familiar” flavor of our former winner combined “sharp vinegar tang” with a “creamy” texture, which one taster deemed “mustard heaven.” But the consensus among most tasters was that this Dijon “could use more heat.”
Recommended with reservations
With “more vinegar than heat” and spices, this Dijon reminded tasters of “yellow mustard.” Some also noticed a “slightly sweet” and “perfumey” flavor. As one taster summed up: “It’s not a bad mustard, but it’s not Dijon.”
Heavy on the vinegar and wine flavors and light on the spiciness, this Dijon was “tart” and “tangy”—a “middle-of-the-road” mustard, tasters said. But its bright flavor was overwhelmed by the hot dog, and it had a “slightly bitter” aftertaste.
Most tasters found this mustard “mellow.” On its own, it offered only a “mild” burn; on a hot dog, it tasted “a little weak.” Some even detected off-flavors in the form of a “weirdly fruity,” “slightly sweet aftertaste,” and even distracting hints of “garlic” and “clove.”
Loaded with spices, sweeteners, stabilizers, and acid—and lacking salt—this was anything but traditional Dijon. Tasters likened its flavor to a “dried spice packet” and complained that it “ruined” the hot dog.