When I was a senior in high school, I spent a week abroad, staying with a family in Nantes, at the mouth of the Loire River on the Western shore of France. It was a world-expanding trip on many levels, but one of the things that surprised me the most was that the food was nothing at all like I expected. Somehow, I figured that in every French household, dinner was a multi-course affair of meats bathed in rich cream sauces, washed down with flagons of claret and followed by mighty towers of croquembouche.
In fact, of course, French home cooking is simple, straightforward and delicious. Humble fare like roast chicken and potatoes is the norm. One evening we had a meal of sausages, poached and then seared, accompanied by tart gherkins and a healthy dollop of grainy Dijon mustard. Previously, my idea of Dijon mustard was Grey Poupon. This was no such thing. It unleashed a chemical blast that crept up the sinuses and seared the backs of the eyeballs, causing involuntary deluges of tears to well forth.
I was hooked.
For years thereafter, every time a friend would go to France, I would beg that they bring me back tubs, as big as they could manage, of mustard. Invariably, even if it was the same label as you could buy stateside, the stuff that came directly from the homeland was sharper, brighter and far more interesting.
I assumed that the producers of Dijon mustard were developing different, blander recipes for the less-adventurous American palates. And yet, inspection revealed that there was no difference in the ingredients listed. It wasn’t until I made my own mustard that I learned the truth: The main thing that differed between the stuff you bought in France and here was freshness. When mustard seeds are soaked and ground, they release pungent compounds that cause that horseradish-like reaction. Over time, they dissipate and become milder.
Since I can’t rely on my friends to constantly travel to France for my condimental needs, I’ve taken to making my own mustard on a more regular basis. It starts out sharp — really sharp — and settles into a slightly less incendiary pungency, delivering that familiar skull-searing burn and the inevitable tear. Or is it nostalgia?
Dijon-Style Mustard Recipe
Grace note: When freshly blended and cooked, mustard has an acute bitterness and sharpness. This will fade within a few days of making the mustard, as the compounds that create this flavor dissipate.
Total time: About a day
Prep: 10 minutes
Inactive: up to 24 hours
Cook: 10 minutes
Yield: About two pints
1 cup yellow or brown mustard seeds, or a blend of the two
1 1/2 cups dry white wine
1 cup water
1/2 cup white wine vinegar
1/4 cup dry mustard
1 tablespoon onion powder
1 teaspoon salt
Soak the mustard seeds. Combine all ingredients in a quart jar or other sealable nonreactive container. Seal and refrigerate overnight, or up to 24 hours, shaking occasionally to distribute.
Prepare the jars and lids. Wash all jars and lids thoroughly with soap and water and rinse well. Fill your canner with enough water to cover the jars by at least 1 inch and bring to a simmer. Using a pair of canning tongs, lower the jars in gently, tilting them to fill with the hot water. In a small saucepan, keep some water warm but not boiling; place the lids in the water. Have an additional kettle of water on to boil.
Blend the mustard. Use an immersion blender directly in the jar, or transfer the mix to a blender. Blend until desired level of smoothness.
Cook down the mustard. Transfer the blended mustard to a saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook, stirring frequently, until reduced by about a third, thick but still thin enough to pour easily. If the mustard becomes too thick, add water or wine a tablespoon at a time until thin enough to pour.
Fill and close the jars. Using canning tongs, remove the jars from the canner, carefully pouring the water back into the canner. Set next to the mustard in the saucepan. Turn the heat under the canner to high. Use a ladle to pour the mustard into the jars through a canning funnel, leaving 1/2 inch of headspace at the top. Run a clean chopstick around the inside of the jar to dislodge any trapped air. Wipe the rims of the jars with a damp paper towel. Place the lids on, and screw on the rings until just finger-tight.
Seal the jars. Using canning tongs, gently transfer the jars to the canner, taking care to keep them vertical. When all the jars are in the canner, there should be at least 1 inch of water covering them; if you need more, add water from the kettle until the jars are sufficiently covered. Bring the water to a full rolling boil, then process for 10 minutes.
Remove and cool. Using canning tongs, gently remove the jars from the canner and transfer them to a kitchen towel or cooling rack, again keeping them vertical. Do not set hot jars directly onto cool counter surfaces. Leave to cool, undisturbed, for at least 12 hours. If any of the jars do not seal when cool, reprocess using the method above, or refrigerate and use immediately.
Label and store. Add a label to the lid or side of your jar, noting the date it was canned. Remove the rings and store jars in a cool, dark place for up to one year. Refrigerate after opening.
Check back tomorrow for an easy ketchup recipe.
Sean Timberlake is a professional writer, amateur foodie, avid traveler and all-around bon vivant. He is the founder of Punk Domestics, a content and community site for DIY food enthusiasts, and has penned the blog Hedonia since 2006. He lives in San Francisco with his husband, DPaul Brown, and their hyperactive terrier, Reese.