How to Grow and Cook With Horseradish

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Photo by Barbara Pleasant
Fresh grated horseradish is used to add heat to a recipe.

The peppery fire of horseradish (Armoracia rusticana) is no
slow burn. It’ll flash up your nose and curl your tongue
into submission in one swift sear. As a condiment for red
meat and shellfish, grated horseradish is legendary, but
the plant’s medicinal and ornamental qualities are
noteworthy, too.

Roots are the business end of horseradish plants,
traditionally they are grated and served as a fresh relish
or added as a seasoning to meat and seafood sauces.
Horseradish also enhances the flavors of salads and soups,
particularly those that feature seasonal fall vegetables
and fruits.

A native of southeastern Europe, horseradish was well known
to the Egyptians by 1500 B.C., and has been used to
represent bitter herbs on the Seder plate for the Jewish
Passover since Biblical times. It was used primarily as a
medicine by early Europeans; for centuries, the root was
rubbed on sore joints to relieve rheumatism, and pressed
upon foreheads to relieve headaches — a practice that
actually may have helped alleviate sinus-type pain.

It’s a natural decongestant — if you breathe in enough
allyl isothiocyanate, a chemical in the root. That quality
may account for one of the plant’s folk names, “stingnose.”
If you dare to try this for yourself, hold a spoonful of
grated or “prepared” horseradish about 4 inches from your
nose, take a deep sniff (be careful!), and then put a small
pinch on your tongue. You should be breathing easier within
seconds of the sniff.

Scientists also have found that compounds in horseradish
root can kill a range of bacteria, which makes it an even
more appropriate accompaniment to a roast beef sandwich in
this era of increased concerns about food pathogens.
Although horseradish’s strong taste precludes its use in
toothpaste, the volatile oils in the root also have been
found to block the growth of the bacteria that cause dental
plaque.

Sometime before the Renaissance, the peppery root became
popular as a savory meat relish in Germany. Word of its
tastiness spread from there into the Scandinavian countries
and Britain, where it quickly became the preferred
condiment for beef and oysters.

Brought to North America in colonial days, the hardy
European horseradish took root commercially by the
mid-1800s in the potash-rich bottomlands of the Mississippi
River near Collinsville, Illinois, which is close to St.
Louis. Today, more than half of the world’s horseradish is
grown in that area. The other major commercial growing area
is near Chicago.

A similar-tasting plant, wasabi (Wasabi japonica),
also called Japanese horseradish, is a much more recent
arrival in North America. Used as a condiment with
traditional Japanese dishes, wasabi is native to Asia and
has a slightly more complex and sweet taste than the
European plant. If you are cooking Asian foods and cannot
find true wasabi, though, you can use the European
horseradish with good results. (We’re working on a
wasabi report for an upcoming issue. — MOTHER)

Grow Your Own Horseradish

Learn how to grow and cook with horseradish with these helpful tips. Plants of the standard, European horseradish are so easy to
grow and so interesting to look at that, if you’re a
horseradish lover, there’s no reason not to have some in
your yard—even if you don’t have a garden. The plant
has ornamental green, strap-shaped leaves and small white
flowers that grow on long stems like the blooms of mustard,
to which horseradish is related. Purple-leafed and
variegated (leaves splashed with white) cultivars also have
been developed as ornamentals, but they are rare.

A tough perennial hardy to Zone 3, European horseradish can
persist for many years. Because it requires a period of
winter dormancy, though, it is not well-suited for tropical
and semi-tropical climates. Set out dormant roots in early
spring, planting them 3 inches deep and 12 inches apart;
the thick, nubby end is the section most eager to sprout.
Fertile soil in full sun is the best location, but
horseradish usually manages to adapt to less-than-ideal
growing sites.

The plants die back in late fall, which is the best time to
dig them. Allow the roots to dry for a few days before
storing them in the refrigerator. (Washed and placed in
polyethylene bags, they will keep for several months at 32
to 38 degrees). Leave at least one parent plant behind to
dig, divide and replant the following spring. Also, don’t
worry if you decide not to dig your horseradish every year.
It will keep coming back, although the roots become woody
with age (those from 1- to 2-year-old plants usually have
the best taste). As a garden plant, horseradish is
indestructible; keep your patch from spreading out of
bounds by using excess roots for relishes and sauces.

Preparing Fresh Horseradish

Horseradish roots do not give off their spicy punch until
they are grated or ground. As the tissues come into contact
with air, a chemical reaction takes place that creates the
volatile compounds. Adding vinegar stops this process: If
you want mild horseradish, add vinegar immediately after
you grind the root; for the spiciest horseradish, wait a
few minutes before adding the vinegar.

If you grate a large quantity of horseradish root, do it
outdoors or turn on a small fan. Otherwise, your eyes are
likely to water and burn, the same way they would if you
were chopping pungent onions. For home preparation, using a
blender to do the grating is practical and less “tearful.”
Also, use glassware for storing and serving horseradish; it
turns silver dishes black.

Prepared horseradish is grated raw root mixed with an equal
amount of vinegar (any vinegar works, but rice wine vinegar
brings out the clean zing of fresh horseradish well). The
mix will keep in the refrigerator for several months but as
it ages, it loses flavor and darkens, which is your clue to
make a fresh batch. Beet-based salads often include
horseradish, but crunchy slaw types, such as the fresh
carrot and apple salad featured in this issue, benefit from a
dollop, too.