2011 Herb of the Year: Horseradish (Armoracia rusticana)

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Photo by ©2011 Steven Foster
Grow harvest horseradish, and reap the benefits of this pretty plant's peppery roots. Horseradish can bring out the flavor in even sweet dishes, and allyl isothiocyanate, a chemical in the root, is a natural decongestant.

Horseradish (Armoracia rusticana) is a botanical superhero, able to clear sinuses, boost the flavor of sauces and provide lush vegetation in a single bound. Its versatility and under-appreciated ubiquity make the horseradish plant a perfect candidate for the International Herb Association’s Herb of the Year.

Horseradish-Infused Recipes:

Aïoli with Horseradish
Asparagus with Horseradish Sauce
Mashed Potatoes with Horseradish
Beet Gratin with Horseradish
Pimento Cheese with Horseradish
Individual Pear Crisps with Horseradish
Shrimp Salad with Creamy Horseradish Dressing
Basic Coleslaw
Baked Carrots with Horseradish
Leek and Celery Root Gratin with Horseradish
Online Exclusive Recipe: Simple Mayonnaise with Horseradish Sauce

In Herbs, Spices and Flavorings (Overlook, 2000), Tom Stobart describes the flavor of horseradish as exceedingly pungent and “apt to run up the nose,”  a description that fairly well describes its path. The direct opposite of “slow burn,” horseradish races up your sinuses and instantly makes its presence known. This quality probably accounts for one of its folk names, “stingnose.”

Regardless of what it’s called, Armoracia rusticana is an herbal root with a deep history. Horseradish was well- known to the Egyptians by 1500 b.c. Early Europeans primarily used horseradish as a medicine. 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. By the Renaissance, the root of horseradish achieved renown as a savory meat relish in Germany, and its popularity spread from there.

The first sales of prepared horseradish were recorded in the 1860s, making it a forerunner of convenience foods.

Horseradish in the Kitchen

This pungent root adds assertive flavor to all types of dishes, from cocktails to desserts. An essential ingredient for a proper Bloody Mary, horseradish adds a kick to this favorite savory libation or to simple tomato juice. One of the most popular uses of horseradish, commercially and in the home kitchen, is in cocktail sauce. Made from ketchup and grated prepared horseradish, sometimes with a squeeze of lemon juice, this sauce is used as an accompaniment for shrimp, clams, oysters and mussels, and with breaded or battered fried fish. You can also try folding freshly grated horseradish into whipped cream for a royal accompaniment to roast beef. Horseradish has been used since biblical times to represent bitter herbs on the Seder plate for Jewish Passover. That bitter note has a curious effect on other flavors, sometimes creating an unexpected sweetness in cooked dishes.

Early, tender horseradish leaves have a pleasant flavor with just a touch of pungency and can be added to salads. The grated root enlivens salads, soups and sauces, and is often added to mayonnaise and mustard to make them more piquant. I use horseradish mayonnaise in coleslaw and potato salad, on sandwiches, with seafood and as a dipping sauce for artichokes.

You can mix fresh-grated or prepared horseradish with mayonnaise, sour cream, yogurt, cream cheese or a combination thereof, embellish with chopped herbs such as garlic, parsley, chives, tarragon, basil, perhaps a little mustard, paprika, or a pinch of sugar, a dash of lemon juice or vinegar, and salt and pepper. Use this as a sauce for virtually anything–sandwiches, beef, fish, slaw, vegetables, potatoes–or use it as a dip with vegetable crudités, crackers or chips.

Horseradish plays well with potatoes in any form; mixed with sour cream and chives it’s great on baked, steamed or oven-roasted potatoes. Combined with garlic mashed potatoes, this mixture makes for a seriously scrumptious dish. I often make “mashies” with turnips, sweet potatoes, rutabagas and/or parsnips, which all combine well with horseradish.

In Eastern Europe, horseradish is popular in cream sauces and, mixed with grated apples or beets, as a condiment with poultry, fish and eggs. Horseradish tastes great in deviled eggs, egg salad and even scrambled eggs. Heat destroys the mustard oils that give horseradish its heat, and it becomes rather earthy, sweet and nutty, though a slight pungency remains. Add it to root vegetable soups, stews and chilies. It is unbeatable baked in all sorts of vegetable casseroles with root vegetables, winter squashes and members of the Brassica family.

If it’s simplicity you’re after, a simple butter with horseradish and a minced herb or two is great on warm rolls or bread, veggies, potatoes, or grilled or broiled fish–some flavor-loving cooks even put it on top of steak.

Most folks wouldn’t think of adding horseradish to a dessert. However, it has an affinity with apples and pears, so be daring and try combining the grated root with fruit. It is delightful in applesauce and makes a tasty apple pie: I like the latter New England-style with a thin slice of sharp cheddar on top.

Horseradish is full of nutrients like vitamin C, iron, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium and zinc. It is a circulatory and digestive stimulant and has antidepressant, antibacterial, anti-cancer, antioxidant, detoxifying and expectorant properties. (Note: Avoid horseradish if you have an underactive thyroid.)

According to Richard Mabey, author of The New Age Herbalist (Fireside, 1988), “Horseradish is a powerful circulatory stimulant with antibiotic properties due to the mustard oil it contains. It is effective for lung and urinary infections because mustard oil is excreted through these channels.” Recently having tested many horseradish recipes for a number of days in succession, I can attest to the fact that horseradish is a diuretic.

If you have a cold and blocked sinuses, take about 1/4 teaspoon of horseradish and hold it in your mouth for a minute or so. This will clear your sinuses and help break up mucus. Herbal doyenne Rosemary Gladstar has taught many budding herbalists her recipe for Fire Cider Vinegar using grated horseradish, garlic, gingerroot and cayenne with a little honey–there is nothing better for the cold and flu season!

Preparation and Storage of Horseradish Root

If you are inspired to use horseradish but don’t have any in your garden, look in the grocery store or farmers’ market for long, thick, brown-skinned roots with gnarly knobs. They will be anywhere from 6 to 12 inches long and should be firm and free of soft spots; long-stored roots tend to become soft and rubbery. Roots with a greenish cast tend to have a bitter layer under the brown skin that should be trimmed away. Store roots in an open plastic bag in the refrigerator–as long as they are firm and free of mold, they are edible. If you have a cold room or root cellar, keep them in a bucket or box of sand.

In most recipes, prepared horseradish may be used in place of freshly grated horseradish, though fresh horseradish will be hotter and more pungent. A rule of thumb is to substitute 4 teaspoons of prepared horseradish for 1 tablespoon of freshly grated horseradish. Because prepared horseradish is preserved with vinegar, you will need to deduct some lemon juice or vinegar from the recipe.

Freshly grated horseradish turns brown after grating and tends to lose its bite after sitting a while, so it’s best to grate the root just before using unless it is to be mixed into a sauce or preserved with vinegar. The hot mustard oil in horseradish dissipates with exposure to air, so grate and use it fairly quickly. Fresh or bottled, horseradish should be kept refrigerated: heat is the main enemy of this root. Even when refrigerated, prepared horseradish gradually loses its pungency. Plan to replace it after three or four months.

To preserve horseradish roots, remove the tough, brown outer skin with a sharp paring knife. (Manufacturers say you don’t have to peel it–just scrub it well–but you will have brown flecks in your finished product if you leave the skin on.) Grate the roots or cut into cubes and process in a blender or food processor. Adding cold water and/or crushed ice will make the processing easier and also keep down the volatile fumes. Be sure the kitchen is adequately ventilated, and when you remove the top of the blender or processor, step back for a few minutes and do not inhale the fumes. Unless you want a mild version, let the roots sit for five to 10 minutes before combining with vinegar–processing with an acid such as vinegar or lemon juice right away will lessen the potency of the prepared horseradish.

Mix about 1/4 to 1/3 cup of white vinegar (I use rice or white wine vinegar; apple cider vinegar also works well except the color is a bit darker) for every 2 cups of freshly grated horseradish. Some commercially prepared horseradishes also contain a little soybean oil, lemon juice and/or sugar. Add salt to taste, about 1/2 to 1 teaspoon. If necessary, stir in a little more vinegar or water, to ensure that the mixture is well-moistened, yet not too liquid. Pack into sterilized jars, seal and refrigerate. It is best to process in small amounts, since the prepared horseradish only lasts for about three months in the fridge.

Growing Horseradish

For the commercial farmer, horseradish is a labor-intensive crop. The fields must be planted by hand. The plants “tie up” the ground year-round and are not always harvested all at once. For the most pungent flavor, the roots are left in the ground until after a killing frost.

For the home gardener, horseradish is easy to cultivate, and  handsome in the garden with its huge, bright-green leaves. Allow plenty of space, since plants get between 2½ to 3 feet tall, and at least that wide. The blooms, which appear in the second year, are edible–showy, big white spikes–and have a mild horseradish flavor.

A few plants will be more than adequate. Because the horseradish plant is invasive and nearly impossible to get rid of, plant in an isolated or contained area. Dig or till the ground 18 to 24 inches deep, working in some manure or compost. Young root cuttings, purchased or taken from a friend’s plants, should be fairly straight, about 6 to 8 inches long and about 1/2 inch across.

Purchased roots will have been trimmed with a sloping cut on the lower end and a vertical cut on the upper end. As Illinois horseradish grower Bob Keller explains: “Plant the root with the wider straight-cut end up and the diagonal-cut on the thinner end down. Lay the root in the hole with the wide end slightly elevated, as if you were putting your head on a pillow to lie down like you were going to bed.” Make holes about 12 inches deep and at least 18 inches apart. Place a root in each hole and cover with soil. Horseradish will grow in almost any sunny location (heavy soils tend to promote forked roots), and thrives in enriched, well-drained soil that is kept free from weeds.

Horseradish grows best in cooler weather–fall is the time for the greatest growth and the peak time to use the fresh roots. The tastiest, most tender roots come from first-year plants. Roots can be left in the garden year-round and dug when needed, or they can be dug in late fall and kept in the refrigerator or in a cold root cellar. Roots left in the ground for longer than a year tend to be pithy and are more likely to become diseased.

I prefer to dig the roots every year, store them, and then plant sections of roots in early spring. That doesn’t mean that beautiful horseradish plants that are a few years old should be completely abandoned. The main roots are probably pithy, but it’s worth digging them up to see if there are some usable small side roots.

Who Says It’s Herb of the Year?

The International Herb Association has proclaimed horseradish the Herb of the Year for 2011. Herbal enthusiasts, gardeners, botanic gardens, nurseries and garden clubs will honor heady horseradish all year long. Herb of the Year aims to educate and promote a specific herb all year at festivals, herbal events, education days, herb fairs and plant sales. Look for events in your area to learn about cultivating, harvesting and processing this historic root.

The association offers encouragement and guidance to herb professionals and entrepreneurs with newsletters, publications and conferences. Although July has been officially proclaimed as National Horseradish Month by the Horseradish Information Council, the International Horseradish Festival is held during the first week of May in Collinsville, Illinois, located east of St. Louis, Missouri. All food served at the festival has to be eaten with horseradish or have horseradish in it. A recipe contest, a horseradish root toss and a horseradish root bagging contest are among the attractions. Find out more about the herb world at www.iherb.org and www.horseradishfestival.net.

Susan Belsinger is a long-time herbal enthusiast who wrote Dill, Herb of the Year 2010 for the International Herb Association.

To read more, see the International Herb Association’s book, Horseradish, Herb of the Year 2011, edited by Susan Belsinger. To purchase, visit www.iherb.org or write to Marge Powell at the International Herb Association, P.O. Box 5667, Jacksonville, FL 32247-5667.

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