Horseradish is a perennial plant in the Brassicaceae family, along with mustard, broccoli, cabbage, and its fierce cousin, wasabi. This root vegetable is cultivated worldwide as a spice, condiment, herbal medicine as well as a religious symbol.
The name has nothing to do with horses, in fact it is poisonous to horses. The name was derived from the word “coarse” referring to its strong, hot flavor.
The Delphic Oracle told Apolo that horseradish is worth its weight in gold, according to Greek mythology. In 77 AD, Pliny the Elder wrote in his epic novel Natural History about its ability to heal sores, mange, and ulcers. During the Middle Ages, both the leaves and the roots were used to treat a variety of ailments such as kidney stones, cough, achy joints, gout, colic, and intestinal worms. In Judaism, horseradish represents the bitterness of slavery on the Passover Seder plate.
Horseradish was originally from Southeast Asia and found its way to North America with the European colonists. Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson mention growing it for culinary purposes. Today, Collinsville, Illinois supplies roughly 60% of the worlds’ supply. It is recognized as the Horseradish Capital of the World.
Horseradish is at its best harvested in the fall. It stores well in a cold cellar or cool, dry location and lasts into the spring so it can be enjoyed all winter long.
Homegrown horseradish has a fresh, clean taste with A LOT more zing than the store-bought stuff in a jar. Plus it is one of the easiest edible plants to grow in the Northeast since it thrives in almost any conditions. Horseradish requires a winter cold enough to force it into dormancy, so it does not do well below the Mason-Dixon line.
It is almost impossible to grow from seed, so I recommend purchasing a root or root cutting from a plant nursery or get it from a friend who is willing to share. In the spring, find a sunny, out of the way location, that has good drainage. It does not like to be waterlogged, nor will it thrive in the shade. Dig a 12-inch deep hole and toss in a scoop of compost. Cut your root at a 45 degree angle and set upright into the hole. It should be planted two inches below the soil surface. Stagger your plants every 30 inches. One plant is enough for an entire family.
Horseradish grows up to 4 1/2 feet tall. It has large, coarse, glossy green basal leaves that grow from a thick, white fleshy root. It sports white, four-petaled flowers when blooming. It’s best to cut these flower stalks off to keep the plants’ energy stored in the root. Once established, harvest the root in the fall after the foliage has died back. Dig carefully, and remove the root and all its side branches. Any little pieces broken off and left behind will continue growing, including those tossed into your compost. Choose one solid, healthy root to replant for next year.
My earliest memory of horseradish was at a Polish farmers market with my Grandfather. We walked past a booth where some men were stuffing a white, thick vegetable into what appeared to be a meat grinder. I noticed they had a fan blowing on them, so being a kid, I wanted to see what they were up to. Unfortunately, I walked behind the fan and got hit in the face with what seemed to be the breath of a dragon. Gasping for air, I ran to my grandfather’s side and vowed to never stray again.
What the men were doing, of course, was grinding a fresh root of horseradish. The root is very fibrous and woody, so it must be grated or ground finely in order to make it edible. But beware! When cut or ground, an oil called isothiocyanate is released in high amounts. This is a group of chemicals which are being studied as cancer-preventatives. These chemicals also help combat respiratory disorders like mucus and sinusitis. Horseradish tastes hot, yet unlike capsicum in peppers, the heat does not linger.
The best way to reign in all that combustion is to store the grated horseradish in vinegar. It neutralizes the oil.
How to Prepare Horseradish
8 to 10-inch long piece of horseradish root
2 Tbsp. water
1 Tbsp. white vinegar
Pinch of salt
Using a vegetable peeler, peel off the surface of the skin of the tuber. Chop into one inch size pieces.
Put the horseradish and the water into a food processor and grind until fine.
*At this point, be very careful when opening up the food processor. Keep at an arm’s length away and work in a well ventilated room. Strain out some of the water if it is too thin. Add the vinegar and pinch of salt and pulse to combine.
Transfer to a covered jar. It will keep for three to four weeks in the refrigerator.
Vegan Horseradish Cream
1/2 Cup raw unsalted cashews, soaked overnight
1/2 Cup full fat coconut milk
2 Tbsp. lemon juice
2 to 4 Tbsp. prepared horseradish paste (add gradually and taste for spice level)
1 Clove garlic
Dash of black pepper and salt
Combine all ingredients in a food processor and blend on high until smooth and creamy.
Drizzle this over roasted carrots and beets, or dip steamed asparagus spears. This can also be added to mashed potatoes for a spicy side dish.
Horseradish Infused Vodka
1 750ml bottle of vodka of your choice
3-inch piece of fresh, peeled horseradish
Pour the vodka into a clean quart sized mason jar. Chop up the horseradish into 1/2-inch pieces and add to the vodka. Cover and set in a dark cupboard. After three days, taste. You can infuse for up to a month, depending on your taste. Strain out the horseradish chunks into a clean mason jar. It’s best to store this vodka in your freezer.
Perfect to add to a bloody mary or to drink as a shot when you are feeling a cold coming on.