Real Food Encyclopedia | Horseradish

The bracing bite of horseradish, Armoracia rusticana, is a classic — whether layered over roast beef or mixed into Bloody Marys. Nothing quite beats this knobby brown root’s nasal-passage clearing, palate-tingling flavor.

Horseradish is a perennial plant, native to Eastern and Central Europe and possibly Western Asia. It has been grown for its roots for more than 2,000 years. “The Oxford Companion to Food” notes that the first written mention of the root may be a description of horseradish in a 13th-century text describing medicinal cures. Its use as a condiment likely came later — the earliest known written documentation is from the 15th century.

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Did you know?

  • 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 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


Horseradish growers employ a wide range of herbicides, including glyphosate (aka Roundup) to control both weeds and “volunteer” horseradish that has grown without being planted (because horseradish spreads so easily, controlling “volunteers” 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 through early spring.

Eating horseradish


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.


A pro tip: 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. Another tip: The volatile oils that are release upon grating are very pungent. Many recommend that you grate horseradish outdoors or in a very well-ventilated place and wear gloves and eye protection.

Grated horseradish root makes for amazing condiments and delicious sauces, and it pairs well with beef, seafood and roasted vegetables. You can stir it into commercial mustard for a kick or 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 its flavor and pungency, so add at the end of cooking, off the 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 or fold grated horseradish into your mashed potatoes. Creamy horseradish sauce is commonly served with roast beef, but is equally delicious with salmon, scallops and roasted vegetables (especially potatoes and beets). Speaking of beets: Fancy up your next dinner party with this borscht terrine, which has 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 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 cold 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 intestinal worms.

It is worth noting that consuming a large amount of either the root or leaves of the horseradish plant may cause “profuse sweating, irritation of the stomach and intestines, loss of strength [and] disorientation,” according to the agriculture folks at North Carolina State University.

Top photo by Jiri Hera/Adobe Stock.