I like to know what professional eaters truly love to eat. I’ll gladly watch Padma Lakshmi eat her way across America or Anthony Bourdain explain the world through food, but it’s when I learn what those people eat away from the camera that I tend to focus on an item and associate it with them. Bourdain went to a lot of places, but there’s something about his childhood hot dog stand in New Jersey, Hiram’s, that sticks out to me most of all his journeys. One day I’d like to make sole meunière because Julia Child was obsessed with it. David Chang literally weeps trying the chicken at Tokyo’s Masakichi, so when I visited Japan, I had to go there. I didn’t weep, but I was close. The chicken was excellent.
The point is that I really love to understand what it is about certain dishes that make our nation’s food cognoscenti freak out. But I’d never considered taking it to lengths I consider irrational until I saw James Beard’s best mustards list.
“I recently sampled thirty or so of the best mustards now on the American market and have reported on them at right,” starts Beard’s May, 1975 Esquire article “I Love Mustard.”
As somebody who has at least five jars of mustard in his fridge at all times, I was intrigued by the idea of even more mustard. I always have mustard, but I’ve traditionally stuck to the ones I know because, well, it’s a condiment. How much could I need?
According to Beard biographer John Birdsall, the mustard story was originally pitched to him by Esquire as a piece on ketchup, but Beard preferred mustard. “I think the pay was good, and Beard wanted to be more accessible, more populist too. It was right up his alley.” Birdsall also points out that the chef and writer was, indeed, a big fan of mustard. “Alsatian choucroute was one of his favorite dishes (especially at Brasserie Lipp in Paris), for which mustard(s) is essential. In American Cookery (1972), he calls for buttering a corned beef sandwich and serving mustard on the side, which I think is genius, but for which New York Times reviewer Ray Sokolov dragged him over the coals.”
After I read Beard’s piece, I was convinced I’d really been underdoing it with my mustard consumption. Sure, I know about English and German, Chinese and even Italy’s Mostarda di Cremona, but I didn’t go out of my way to mix it up in my day-to-day consumption. I noticed while looking through my stock that I’d even forsaken the spicy Russian mustard I remember seeing around my house growing up. So I decided to go on a quest, one that would take me nearly an entire summer and alienate me from my wife and loved ones for a period of the day because, well, mustard smells. I wanted to not only try every mustard on Beard’s list, but also build my own similar one.
The first problem with sampling a lot of mustard is you can’t do it all at once. You probably shouldn’t do it over a week or a month, even. You need to spread things out (ha!) and take a lot of notes. For this particular assignment, I had to keep asking my editor for extension after extension; the article was slated for around Memorial Day, then 4th of July, Labor Day and, finally, my editor said “Oktoberfest is a fine time for a mustard story.” So here we are.
I tried 30 of the best mustards, and it all started with Beard’s blueprint. The best way to tackle all of these jars of mustard I accumulated was to break them up: try as many out as possible with a number of specific meals that tend to require the stuff.
The other issue was that some of the best mustards on Beard’s nearly 50-year-old list don’t exist any longer, including number six on his list, Pikarome Dijon, which he called “Very hot and smooth. Excellent quality” and said was best for cold meats; or number 12, Bocquet Yvetot, a “smooth” mustard from Dijon in a cool little white jar; or Roland Champagne, which came in a tiny Champagne bottle and Beard described as not tasting like mustard at all and packed full of too many additives. I don’t know why some mustard brands go out of business, but I assume there’s some joke in there about how they couldn’t cut it — it being the mustard.
All awful, truly bad jokes aside, back in the spring, I stopped in at Katz’s in Manhattan and ordered myself up a pastrami sandwich. I was trying to figure out the best way to tackle this mustard list, because copying the format from a Nixon-era print magazine article probably wouldn’t work well on the internet, but I also didn’t want to turn this weird little quest into a slideshow. When I opened up the white, grease-stained deli paper, I found my inspiration. It wasn’t the first time I’d been inspired by a deli, and I hope it won’t be the last. I decided the best way to both understand and pay tribute to Beard’s incredible love of mustard was to just make sure every meal I ate that called for mustard included not one, but multiple mustards. And so that’s where we start. With a pastrami sandwich.
The smoked meat test
Anybody that has been to the Lower East Side institution knows the name of the game is spicy brown mustard, and as a lifetime fan of following deli etiquette, I wasn’t going to stray too far off the path. I brought my sandwich home, laid it on my kitchen counter and pulled out a bottle of Gulden’s spicy brown (1) to start. Beard called the Gulden’s spicy brown an “excellent example of ball-park mustard,” and I won’t disagree with him. The widely available brand has made appearances in my fridge on and off for years, and the reason is simply because it’s a fine mustard. It’s got some oomph. It’s not too spicy, but you can easily doctor it up by tossing a little hot sauce or horseradish in there if you really need a kick. For a pastrami sandwich, it works just fine.
Not to spoil anything, but one of the big winners of my mustard quest was Beaver mustards. I had a few friends from the Pacific Northwest extol the virtues of the mustard with a chipper cartoon rodent on the bottle, and although I’m not sure what people in Oregon know about deli, I gave the Beaver deli mustard (2) a try and it was heaven. The meeting of the coasts! The texture of the mustard and the right amount of kick cut deep into the fatty meat and really changed a lot of what I thought I knew about the iconic sandwich. It unlocked a whole new level of goodness.
Kosciusko spicy brown (3) also got a workout with the pastrami. Beard said the flavor was “bland,” but I’ve always kept a bottle handy. It’s nothing special, but I appreciate the creamy texture. That said, with pastrami, it was a bit of a letdown. One mustard that Beard didn’t have on his list but that I had in my personal collection was Löwensenf (4), Germany’s most famous mustard. I was a little apprehensive to add a grainy mustard to the party, but it really helped the sandwich on a similar level as the Beaver did. I was so impressed that I thought maybe it wouldn’t hurt to break out the big guns. I cracked open my little pot of Pommery (5), which Beard described as “Coarse,” and, nope. That wasn’t a good idea. Didn’t work with the texture of the meat. I flew too close to the sun.
The pretzel test
Something the Pommery was really nice with was a pretzel from a cart I found in Midtown Manhattan. To the tourists who passed by, I’m sure I looked like a complete psycho with my pretzel and several jars of mustard in various states of undress, but I felt like this was a very important test. I sometimes see people buy pretzels and then skip the mustard and I just can’t understand why. A pretzel is great, but the mustard is a … must. And the pretzel that costs a couple of bucks also reminded me of what Birdsall said about Beard’s attempt to be more of an everyman by writing about mustards. Pretzels, especially the kind you get from a vendor on nearly any corner in Manhattan, are the ultimate example of that sort of food to me. I love a good pretzel, and so I tried once again to see how the Pommery worked. I enjoyed the idea of using a mustard that costs three times as much as the pretzel. You can get jars of Pommery in the States, and it’s well worth the 12 to 14 bucks you’ll shell out. If you want to feel classy and upgrade your pretzel experience, use it. I felt like the Monopoly guy sitting there enjoying my pauper’s pretzel with a prince’s mustard.
And since I’m talking about class, of course I brought a bottle of Grey Poupon (6). Anybody who grew up in the 1980s or ‘90s probably remembers the commercials where one rich guy would roll down the window of his Rolls Royce and ask the other rich guy in his Rolls Royce if he had any Grey Poupon, which helped make the mustard that has a French name but is actually made in America seem extra fancy. And I will say, even as I watched a rat scurry off with a piece of my pretzel in one of those disgusting “Only in New York” moments, that little hit of white wine in the Grey Poupon really made me feel like a fancy man.
The real banger, though, was the Maille honey mustard (7) I brought with me. It was cheating, and I generally don’t use honey mustard, but I love the stuff, and on a pretzel, it’s incredible. A nice can of cold seltzer and you’ve got yourself the perfect snack.
The chicken with mustard test
There’s this one recipe from David Lebovitz’s My Paris Kitchen I love to whip up when I’m feeling lazy: the simple but effective poulet à la moutarde. The recipe calls for a Dijon, and the page that precedes the dish shows off a bottle of Maille dijon (8), so I’ve always just used that and loved it. But when I looked to find a Dijon off of Beard’s list, I noticed that almost every single one on the list has either been discontinued or isn’t available for Americans. I was able to track down a bottle of Devos & Lemmens Dijon (9) from a site that sold stuff from Belgium, but wasn’t a fan. The chicken came out with a bitter taste. I’ve been making the dish the same way for years and never had it come out that way, so I think I’m sticking with Maille.
The Chinese food test
I was a vegan once upon a time, and as you have probably heard, vegans often like spicy food. I think there’s a scientific reason for this, but I’m too lazy to look it up. All I know is I got obsessed with Chinese mustard, and the obsession has never gone away. I always have a couple packets of WY mustard (10) that you can get at just about every Chinese restaurant in America. I’ve tried a bunch of other jarred kinds and haven’t found one I love more than the little plastic packets that I scoop up by the handful whenever I get takeout. I’m a WY guy.
Beard, probably making sure he had a diverse assortment of jars, included Beaver Chinese mustard (11) on his list, and while I did like dipping my eggroll from Mr. Wonton in it, the truth is, I’m going to stick to WY as my go-to.
A few weeks after my Mr. Wonton, and since all I could talk about was my mustard quest, I mentioned to a friend the Chinese food thing. He mentioned that he’s also a fan of spicy mustard on his eggroll, and wondered had I tried Colman’s (12). I had tried Colman’s in the past, and Beard had it at number 16 on his list, but I didn’t think to try the English mustard with an eggroll. I guess I was too focused on the idea that Chinese mustard is best for Chinese food, and that isn’t wrong, but the Colman’s was a killer choice. Not as hot, but enough kick to clear out your nostrils. Big fan.
The sausage test
This one was personally important because I lived in Chicago long enough that the idea of ketchup on a hot dog or any other encased meat makes me boil with anger. But the thing is that I’m a sucker for other toppings, so I don’t always want a mustard that does too much. The logical first bottle I reach for is number 28 on Beard’s list, the trusty French’s mustard (13) that Beard didn’t like much. He called it a “salad dressing mustard,” but on a Chicago-style hot dog, it works perfectly. It’s yellow mustard, that’s it. There’s a nice amount of vinegar and it does the trick, but the truth is I don’t need it for much else.
So when I grilled up other sausages over the summer and decided to go as close to naked as possible, I started pulling out more jars. Sausage is a perfect vehicle for mustard, and not many cultures do the sausage-and-mustard thing as well as the Germans. The problem is Beard’s list doesn’t have a ton of mustards from Germany. But the first sausage I grilled up wasn’t a real sausage; it was a Beyond “sausage.” A brat, to be exact. I dipped a little of it in Mister Mustard (14) and was immediately in heaven. This is a world-class mustard that Beard called “only fair,” so this was the first time I realized I disagree with a lot of Beard’s assessments or, at the very least, the way he went about testing each. He also called Hengstenberg’s sweet Bavarian style (15) “grainy” and “Too salty.” It is a little grainy, but … it’s mustard. That’s fine. It worked great in this case and it worked two weeks later when I fired up a few (meat) brats on the grill. The big surprise, however, was the Pommery mustard with green peppercorns (16). No bun, no toppings, just the sausage dipped in French mustard. Delicious.
I tried about 30 different kinds of mustard over the summer. I started with Beard’s list as my guide. What was I trying to get? Originally it was enlightenment. I wanted to really understand what it was about mustard that would drive one of the most famous people in American food history to try dozens of them. Obviously, as his biographer John Birdsall pointed out, the pay was good. But nobody goes, “You know what? I want to eat a lot of mustard” unless they truly care about it. You keep eating mustard day after day and you can’t stop thinking about it. It’s a taste that’s difficult to get out of your mind. I would never suggest going as far as Beard or, in this case, me, but I would say that trying out different mustards, if you’re a fan, is something everybody should do. There’s a ton of mustard out there; don’t settle on just one. If anything, keep a small variety, but be open to change. Some mustards are better than others for certain foods. That’s often overlooked.
Given all that, ranking the best mustards is useless. I know we love ranking things these days, but there’s no ranking here. Instead, I present you the whittled-down version of James Beard’s mustard list. The five mustards that stand out and that I will always keep on hand after my mustard journey.
- Pommery moutarde de meaux: Truly excellent. You can put it on something as simple as a sandwich and elevate it, or you can put it on grilled meats like lamb or veal. This is the Rolls Royce of mustard.
- Grey Poupon: I was surprised how well this one held up given how far removed it is from the source. It’s an American mustard, not a French one. It was a French mustard, but in the same way you might say you’re French even though your ancestors came to America in the 1800s. Still, it’s a great mustard. One of my favorite Dijons for the taste, but also the availability.
- All Beaver mustards, but specifically the hot Olde English (17) mustard: The finest spicy English mustard style I tried.
- Maille Dijon and Maille honey mustard: The honey mustard was the outlier here. Honey mustard is usually horrible, but Maille’s is sophisticated with just the right amount of sweetness and tang.
- Gulden’s mustards, but mostly the yellow (18) and spicy brown: Perfect all-around mustards and you can’t beat the price and availability.
And two personal favorites:
- Zakuson Gourmet Mustard (19): Unbeatable but not for the weak of heart.
- Inglehoffer Bread & Butter Pickle Mustard (20): Freakishly good, but for special occasions like burger night.
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