How We Tested
In the condiment world, yellow mustard is often considered the Robin to ketchup's Batman, relegated to a supporting role on burgers and hot dogs. But it's much more than a sidekick. Yellow mustard's pungency and relatively low spice level make it highly versatile, ideal for adding tang and flavor to hot dogs, potato salad, barbecue sauce, marinades, salad dressings, and more.
When we heard that our favorite yellow mustard from our last tasting had been reformulated, we decided to retest. We selected seven top-selling, nationally available products, priced from $0.08 to $0.44 per ounce. We included a low-sodium mustard from Boar's Head since it was that brand's only yellow mustard. We tasted each mustard plain and on pigs in a blanket.
Mustard seeds are a cool-weather crop. Canada is the world's largest producer, so most mustard manufacturers use seeds grown in Canada. According to the Canadian Grain Commission, the regulatory agency tasked with grading mustard seeds, three seed types are grown in Canada: brown, oriental, and yellow (sometimes referred to as white). Brown and oriental seeds are used in spicier mustards, and yellow seeds—flavorful but with less heat—are used in yellow mustard. (Of note: This condiment's sunny color doesn't come from the seeds, which are a more muted hue—it's from the addition of turmeric.)
The seeds become prepared mustard through a straightforward mechanical process. The ingredients (typically mustard seeds, water, vinegar, salt, and spices) are stirred together and then milled between two large stones. According to Allen Sass, president of Wisconsin Spice, the largest miller of mustard seeds in the United States, milling serves two purposes: It extracts mucilage (a thick, gelatinous substance) from the seeds, and it combines all the ingredients. Once milled, the mixture is bottled.
Mustard is often paired with fatty meats, as its characteristic tang can help cut the richness. Some products tasted more acidic, while others were more subdued. We examined ingredient labels and noted that some of the mustards added relatively more water and others more vinegar, but this wasn't the full story. Experts told us that vinegar can have different concentrations, so quantity didn't necessarily explain why certain mustards were tangier than others. And while some tasters appreciated the tartness, the majority preferred mustards that were mellower, with a moderate acidity that didn't dominate other flavors.
Our two favorite mustards had sweet notes that nicely balanced their acidity. But there were no signs of sugar in their ingredient lists or nutritional information. These mustards did include “natural flavor,” whereas most others didn't. This is a catchall term used by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and food manufacturers don't have to specify which natural flavors they use. These mustards' ingredient lists also included “spices,” which don't have to be disclosed either. It's possible that these unspecified ingredients contributed to a mustard's perceived sweetness.
Among the products in our lineup, sodium levels ranged from 25 to 80 milligrams per serving, with the former being the low-sodium option from Boar's Head. While none of the mustards tasted strikingly salty or underseasoned, this low-sodium product fell to the bottom of our rankings, as tasters found it less flavorful, spicier, and sharper than a typical yellow mustard.
Flavor was most important to our tasters, but they considered texture, too. A mustard's texture is determined by the mill's grind settings: the distance between the two stones that crush and grind the mustard seeds. As Sass told us, “The further away the stones are, the less mucilage extracted (and coarser product); vice versa when stones are close together.”
One product's grainy, thick texture reminded us of whole-grain mustard; water wasn't listed as an ingredient. Sass told us that mustard without water (with only vinegar as the liquid) would be expected to have relatively more solids (mustard seeds), which could make it thicker. On the opposite end of the spectrum, an “ultrasmooth” mustard seemed aerated and foamy to some tasters, which might have been due to processing conditions. According to Sass, yellow mustard seeds contain approximately 30 percent protein, and processing them aggressively can lead to aeration.
The majority of tasters found all mustard textures acceptable, but our favorite products had a moderately creamy texture and enough body to cling nicely to pigs in a blanket. Our winner, Heinz Yellow Mustard ($0.14 per ounce), hit all the right notes for both texture and flavor. It was “smooth in texture and taste,” with “some zing” and a “hint of sweetness.” Its “good old-fashioned mustard flavor” conjured up images of ballparks. As one taster said, “It tastes like mustard should.”