Real Food Encyclopedia | Horseradish
The bracing, tingly bite of horseradish is a classic — 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.
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 the 15th century.
Fun Facts about Horseradish:
- 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.)
- 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 the Jewish Passover Seder.
What to Look for When Buying Horseradish
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.
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.
Sustainability of Horseradish
Pesticides and Horseradish
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.
Cool weather helps give horseradish its pungency, so it is generally harvested from mid-fall right through to early spring.
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.
Cooking with Horseradish
Pro tips: Although some recipes call for fresh horseradish to be grated in a food processor (convenient if you have a large batch to grind), 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.
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 fraîche) 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?
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.