I love the bracing, tingly bite of horseradish - in Bloody Marys, on top of roast beef and as a topper for roasted veggies: nothing quite beats the nasal-passage clearing, palate-zinging flavor of the knobby brown root. My community garden in Brooklyn has an old horseradish patch, and one of my New Year's resolutions this year is to finally pull one of those bad boys out and grate myself some fresh horseradish sauce.
A Brief History
Horseradish is a perennial plant, native to Eastern and Central Europe and possibly Western Asia. It has been grown for its roots for over 2,000 years. The Oxford Companion to Food notes that the first written mention of the root was probably in the 13th century, when a root meeting the description of horseradish was mentioned in a text describing medicinal cures. Its use as a condiment likely came later - the earliest known written documentation is from the15th century.
- An enzyme found in horseradish, called horseradish peroxidase, is widely used in biochemical research.
- The 16th century English word "horseradish" has nothing to do with horses or radishes. The word "horse" formerly meant "coarse" or "rough." "Radish" comes from the Latin "radix," meaning "root." (Horseradish is not a type of radish, although they are in the same family.) Horseradish is toxic to horses.
- Check out the Horseradish Information Council's creepy homepage animation.
- Don't put your horseradish sauce in a fancy silver serving dish: the grated root can tarnish the metal.
- Horseradish is commonly used as one of the "bitter herbs" required at Passover Seder.
Horseradish is in the fun Brassica family, which includes many of our favorite vegetables,including broccoli, radishes, kohlrabi, cauliflower and kale. It is a perennial in most locations in the US, and indeed will spread rapidly in the garden from season to season if not contained properly. Horseradish plants have large, deep green, spoon-shaped leaves (which are edible), large, deep-growing roots and very fragrant white flowers. (All Brassica species have four-petal flowers; their alternative name, Cruciferae, refers to their cross-like flowers.)
The bulk of US horseradish cultivation is in southwestern Illinois, near the banks of the Mississippi River (near St. Louis), where the root has been grown commercially for over 150 years.
Cool weather helps give horseradish its pungency, so it is generally harvested from mid-fall right through to early spring.
Horseradish growers employ a wide range of herbicides, including glyphosate (aka RoundUp) to control both weeds and volunteer horseradish plants (because horseradish spreads so easily, controlling volunteers, or plants that grow without being planted, is an issue). Other pesticides are used to control insect infestations and disease. If you are concerned about pesticide use in horseradish cultivation, look for organic horseradish at your local farmers' market. (*And check out our Real Food rule of thumb, below.)
Horseradish roots are large, tapering to a point, with a dark brown peel and a creamy white interior. The roots are generally grated and used for a pungent kick in sauces and condiments. Horseradish's bite comes from the release of volatile compounds when the root is grated (without grating and exposure to air, horseradish roots really don't smell like much of anything). Vinegar stops this chemical process, which is why most commercial horseradish preparations contain vinegar. For really hot horseradish, leave the grated root exposed to air for a few minutes (longer than that, and it starts to discolor and dry out). For milder horseradish, add vinegar right away.
What to look for
Look for firm roots with no mushy or black spots. Steer clear of roots that are floppy or dried out. You can find horseradish root in the produce section of some grocery stores, and at farmers' markets.
Nutrition and Effects on the Body
Although it is unlikely that you'll ingest enough horseradish in one sitting to make much of a nutritional dent, the root is super high in Vitamin C (and indeed was once used as a cure for scurvy). It also contains decent amounts of folate, potassium, calcium and manganese, and is high in fiber. In herbal medicine, horseradish is used for sinus remedies and other mucus-y ailments, like colds and flu, because its pungency helps to relieve nasal discharge and lung congestion. It is also used as a natural remedy for urinary infections and for intestinal worms. It is worth noting that consumption of a large amount of either the root or leaves of the horseradish plant could cause "profuse sweating, irritation of the stomach and intestines, loss of strength [and] disorientation," according to the agriculture folks at North Carolina State University.
What to Do with It
Grated horseradish root makes for amazing condiments and delicious sauces. It is perfect paired with beef, seafood and roasted vegetables. You can stir freshly grated root (or prepared horseradish in vinegar; either homemade or store-bought) into commercial mustard for a kick, or, of course, mix it with ketchup to make cocktail sauce for seafood.
Horseradish root is generally not cooked, but rather grated and mixed with vinegar or other condiments to make sauces. Cooking grated horseradish greatly diminishes the flavor and pungency of the root, so add horseradish at the end of cooking, off heat. But don't limit your culinary imagination to cocktail sauce and spicy mustard - horseradish root can be used in a lot of creative ways in the kitchen. The grated root is commonly mixed with dairy products (like cream, sour cream and crème fraiche) to tame its peppery bite. Also try stirring some horseradish into your next batch of vinaigrette, make yourself some horseradish dip (with veggie chips!) or fold some grated horseradish into your mashed potatoes. Creamy horseradish sauce is commonly served with roast beef, but is equally delicious with salmon, scallops and roasted veggies (especially potatoes and beets). Speaking of beets: fancy up your next dinner party with this borscht terrine, with a layer of horseradish cream. And really, where would brunch be without Bloody Marys - with extra horseradish to shake off the cobwebs from the night before?
Uncut horseradish roots will keep for several weeks in the crisper drawer of your fridge. Cut horseradish should be used right away. Grated fresh horseradish preserved in vinegar will keep for several months in the fridge.
Although some recipes call for fresh horseradish to be grated in a food processor (convenient if you have a large batch to grind), I find that a Microplane zester makes the best grated horseradish if all you need is a tablespoon or two. Its small teeth ensure a very fine texture, so no woody bits of horseradish end up in your finished sauce. Also: many recipes for grating your own horseradish recommend that you do outdoors or in a very well ventilated place, and wear gloves and eye protection (!) to boot. The volatile oils that are release upon grating are very pungent. Here's a fun video that shows you how to both harvest and prepare horseradish.
Stretching your fresh food dollar though preservation
Prepared horseradish (i.e., grated, fresh horseradish preserved in vinegar) will keep for several weeks in the fridge. You can also grate fresh horseradish and freeze it; here are some tips. But my favorite idea to preserve fresh horseradish root is in this recipe for horseradish vodka.
Roasted Beets with Horseradish-Dill Cream
I love roasted beets of any iteration, but you can't get much better than the beet-horseradish-dill combination. A scattering of toasted walnuts, sunflower seeds or coarsely chopped almonds would be extra delicious on top.
4 medium beets (any kind), washed and trimmed
1⁄4 cup sour cream
1⁄4 cup Greek yogurt
1⁄2 clove garlic, grated on a Microplane grater (or chopped very fine)
1 tablespoon (or more, to taste) freshly grated horseradish (see Pro Tips, above)
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
3 tablespoons fresh dill, chopped
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
- Roast the beets: Preheat oven to 400°. Wrap the beets, two at a time, in aluminum foil. Place the beets in the preheated oven and roast until tender. The amount of time will vary by the size and even variety of beet; I start checking around 45 minutes, but it could take as long as 90 minutes. Use the tip of a sharp knife to test; if the knife goes into the beet with little resistance, it's done.
- Meanwhile, make the Horseradish-Dill Cream: whisk together the sour cream, Greek yogurt, garlic, horseradish, lemon juice, cayenne and salt (to taste). Gently fold in the chopped dill. Cover and refrigerate while the beets are roasting, to let the flavors come together.
- When the beets are done, let cool slightly, then peel with a sharp knife (or rub the skins off with a paper towel). Slice into 1⁄4 inch wide slices, gently toss with the extra virgin olive oil and a pinch of salt, and arrange on a platter. Drizzle with the horseradish-dill cream. (Serve extra cream on the side.)
(*Real Food rule of thumb: We think that first and foremost, in terms of nutrition, people should eat lots of fruits and vegetables whether they are organic or not. The EWG's guide is a handy list, but we will point out here that the impacts of pesticides are not limited to your ingestion of them - agricultural chemicals also affect farmworkers and local waterways, both good reasons to buy organic, even those vegetables that carry a light pesticide load. Also, it has been demonstrated that produce grown by small-scale farmers, even those who are not certified organic, tends to have a lighter pesticide load than its industrially-produced counterpart, owing to industry's tendency toward large monocrops.)
This post was originally published in February 2014.