What traits guarantee a Dijon mustard that packs a wallop of clean heat and balanced acidity? Youth and, surprisingly, a little fat.
Published Mar. 1, 2015. Appears in America's Test Kitchen TV Season 16: A Hearty Fall Feast
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...
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