Herb to Know: Horseradish

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Genus:Armoracia rusticana

Kick it up a notch with this pungent perennial plant.

If horseradish were growing in a garden, you probably wouldn’t give it a second look. It’s weedy and mundane, with slightly puckered oblong to ovate green leaves up to 2 feet long. It looks like comfrey’s less-attractive cousin, minus the fuzz and with pronounced horizontal veining and prominent vertical ribs. But while its looks alone aren’t likely to cause a stampede to the garden center, the herb’s bold flavor makes it a kitchen standout.

Horseradish wasn’t always appreciated as the spicy condiment so popular today. The Germans may have been the first to record its culinary use in 1542. But the large, powerfully flavorful root didn’t garner a strong following until it spread to England, where it was popularized in the late 1600s as a standard accompaniment for beef and oysters, enjoyed by commoners and aristocrats alike.

You also can credit the English for the name “horseradish,” which first appeared in Gerard’s Herbal of 1597. Before that, it was commonly called “red cole” or known by a handful of other spicy-sounding names, such as mountain radish, German mustard or stingnose.

Even before horseradish was used much in the kitchen, this spicy root was valued for its medicinal qualities. Historically, both leaves and root were used to treat everything from colds, congestion and coughs to inflammation, indigestion and even low back pain and sluggish libido. The root contains a mustard-type oil, called isothiocyanates, which exhibits mild antibacterial and antifungal properties. The chemicals in horseradish, however, may irritate the gastrointestinal tract in some people and it is best avoided by those with gastritis, kidney disease or ulcers.

Today, horseradish’s culinary virtues are better known. This eastern European and western Asian native has eagerly naturalized in many parts of the world, including North America, which indicates how easy it is to grow.

Plants grown in moist, humus-rich and deeply cultivated soil will produce the highest-quality roots. But it will thrive as a perennial just about anywhere in USDA Zones 5 through 9. In colder climates, it can be grown as an annual. The plant grows vigorously and spreads rapidly, so be sure to select a sunny, out-of-the-way corner. One plant easily supplies a family’s fresh horseradish needs. Horseradish can be difficult to eradicate from a garden because any little root piece left in the soil will sprout a new plant, so give some thought to its potential invasiveness before planting it in your garden; don’t put it, for example, in a vegetable bed that you plan to till at the end of the season.

Plant root cuttings in the early spring or fall. Straight, young finger-width roots 8 to 12 inches long are best. Plant the root horizontally — about 4 to 6 inches deep — with the larger end slightly elevated. If you plant it in spring, you can dig up some of the roots in late fall, winter or the following spring. Once harvested, the cleaned roots can be stored in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for several weeks until ready to use.

Young leaves are milder in flavor and can be harvested at any time for use in salads and rice dishes. However, the pungent root is what has earned horseradish its culinary fame. Be sure to peel the root and discard the inner core before use. The root itself has little odor until crushed, scraped or bruised. The experience is similar to chopping a strong onion, only more intense. And if you breathe in the fumes, the experience can be quite dramatic. Vinegar curtails its potency, especially if combined with the root immediately after grating.

The freshly grated root can be mixed with vinegar, salt and a pinch of sugar for a classic condiment, or blended with mayonnaise, sour cream or yogurt for a creamy sauce or dip. Add freshly grated root to soups, potato dishes or pickled foods for potent flavor. The added kick will certainly set your dish apart from the crowd.

Reading List

• The Green Pharmacy by James A. Duke (Rodale, 2000)
• The Ultimate Book of Herbs & Herb Gardening by Jessica Houdret (Hermes House, 2002)
• Herbal Renaissance by Steven Foster (Gibbs Smith, 1993)
• Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs (Rodale Press, 1987)
• PDR for Herbal Medicine, First Edition (Medical Economics Company, 1998)