Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
It may sound strange, but springtime, especially Easter time makes me think of horseradish. My dad is Polish, and horseradish is one of his favorite condiments for homemade Polish sausage, often found on my family's table at Easter and beyond.
If the only horseradish you've ever seen has been in a jar, you might wonder exactly what part of the plant you are consuming. You are in fact consuming the root of this member of the Brassicaceae family, whose cousins include mustard, broccoli, and cabbage.
Horseradish plants grow up to five feet tall, though most are only about three feet tall, all composed of wide leaves extending from the plant's crown at soil level. In the spring, large sprays of tiny white flowers appear on large stems extending above the leaves. As impressive as this sounds, the root is really the prized part of the plant.
The fleshy white root of horseradish doesn't have any aroma just as it is. The familiar pungent aroma of horseradish doesn't develop until the root is crushed or grated. This sets off a chain of reactions within the cells of the horseradish root, breaking down the chemical sinigrin into isothiocyanate, or mustard oil. Isothiocyanate is what gives horseradish its characteristic flavor and heat.
One common reason given for the origin of the name horseradish is the processing method called 'hoofing' where horses were used to step on the roots and tenderize them before they were grated.
To a point, the longer the grated or crushed horseradish root sits, the stronger the flavor that develops. But if the horseradish begins to darken it becomes bitter. Vinegar is added to freshly grated horseradish to stabilize the characteristic flavor and prevent bitter flavors from developing. This finished product of horseradish and vinegar is basic prepared horseradish. Over time it will darken and lose its flavor.
Much of the time basic prepared horseradish is used as an ingredient in other condiments, such as cocktail sauce. Or it may be mixed with other ingredients like beets or mayonnaise to make a milder horseradish sauce.
In commercial operations, horseradish roots are typically harvested and processed in the fall. My dad always prepares his in the spring. His spring preparation doesn't appear to me to affect the flavor. Keep in mind though that as horseradish roots age, they become woody and lose their flavor.
Preparing horseradish can be done at home, but you may wish to do this activity outside. I honestly don't know how my dad can stand making horseradish, even outside. I like horseradish, but the smell of freshly grated horseradish is enough to knock you over!
Horseradish is a plant with a lot of history, dating back to at least 1500 B.C.. Ancient Greeks believed it to be an aphrodisiac. While the Jews were in Egypt, horseradish was designated as one of the bitter herbs on the Seder table at Passover and remains part of that celebration today. Horseradish use spread throughout Europe as a medicinal plant in the middle ages, and gradually rose in popularity as a condiment. Colonial settlers that moved to the North America brought their horseradish with them.
Horseradish is easily grown in the home garden in any well drained sunny spot. But horseradish can become invasive if it is not harvested regularly. I also know from personal experience that horseradish spreads prolifically from root pieces. One year my dad grazed the clump of horseradish that had stood peacefully at the edge of our vegetable garden with the tiller, and there were hundreds of little horseradish plants popping up all over the garden.
Collinsville, Illinois is the self-proclaimed "horseradish capital of the world". About 60% of the world's supply of horseradish is produced in this area. The soil in this part of Illinois is uniquely suited to horseradish growing. German immigrants are credited with bringing horseradish to the area in the 1800's.
Recent research from University of Illinois has identified compounds in horseradish that may have anti-cancer properties. These compounds, known as glucosinolates, have also been found in cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts, relatives of horseradish.
Researchers hypothesize that glucosinolates increase the body's ability to detoxify cancer-causing compounds and suppress cancer growth in the body. The levels of these chemicals in horseradish are more than ten times that of broccoli. So just a little bit of horseradish goes a long way in providing these beneficial compounds.
Whether horseradish proves to be a 'miracle food' or not remains to be seen. Nonetheless it is still a great addition to many meals and a food that has a lot of history in the world and Illinois.