Horseradish (Armoracia rusticana), native to the lands around the Mediterranean, made it’s way North in the 15th century where it became hugely popular, especially in German- speaking countries. The Germans called the root meerrettich, sea radish (meer, German for "sea" because it grew by the sea, and rettich, from Latin radix, "root"). So what do horses have to do with it? It’s theorized that the English, hearing the Germans rave about the spice, confused "meer" (sea) with "mare" (as in female horse), and called the spice "mare radish." By the time it got to America it was horseradish! (Actually, the spice is listed as poisonous to horses.) In any case, today, horseradish is very American: 85% of the world’s horseradish is grown in the U.S. where 6 million gallons of the stuff are consumed every year!
Horseradish may be the ugly duckling of spices – a coarse, colorless, odorless, gangly root, but when cut into, wafts of heat are released that can clear out the nasal passages in a flash! Consequently, before becoming a food, it was used as a medicine to treat colds, kidney stones, urinary tract infections, and hoarseness. In the American South some folks still swear by horseradish rubbed on the forehead to relieve headaches.
A member of the celebrated cancer-fighting cruciferous family (broccoli, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, etc.), horseradish is loaded with phytonutrients, like isothiocyanate (ITC), a powerful natural antibiotic, along with many other medicinal compounds. In fact, horseradish has ounce for ounce more healing compounds than most any other spice, which makes it very useful in treating upper respiratory problems, reducing inflammation, thinning mucous, checking cell-damaging oxidants, relaxing muscles, stimulating the immune system, etc. According to Dr. James A. Duke, renowned botanist and botanical medicine specialist: "Horseradish is as useful in the medicine chest as it is in the spice rack."
Buying and Storage
Horseradish is sold fresh, but more often found "prepared" – grated mixed with vinegar. Dried, flaked and powdered are also sold, forms which retain pungency more fully than the grated in vinegar. The best fresh roots are thick and well formed; thin and undeveloped roots, besides being hard to use, are inferior in pungency. Japanese horseradish, or wasabi, is a pale green powder, similar in flavor to horseradish, but made from the tuber of a different plant, the herb (Wasabia japonica).
Fresh horseradish can be grated quite easily, but the root should first be trimmed and scraped under running water to remove soil. There’s not much flavor in the central core, which can be discarded. The whole root will keep in the refrigerator for a few weeks, while grated in vinegar can a few months in the "fridge." Powdered, dried and flaked should be stored in a cool dry place and reconstituted as needed by mixing with water. Be sure to allow enough time before serving to develop full flavor.
Natural antibiotic. The volatile oils in horseradish have been shown to have antimicrobial activity. In studies, a German preparation of horseradish and the herb nasturtium (called Angocin Anti-Infekt N.) was found effective in treating bronchitis, ear infection, gastrointestinal illness caused by food contaminated with E. coli bacteria, pneumonia, sinusitis, strep throat, urinary tract infection and other serious illness involving bacteria Streptococcus pyogenes, such as cellulitis, impetigo, scarlet fever. In many cases, this preparation worked as well as pharmaceutical antibiotics. It was also found to have a preventive effect on individuals with recurrent urinary tract infections (UTI).
Cancer fighter. Horseradish is an important member of the anti-cancer crucifer family (broccoli, watercress, mustard greens, kale, cabbage, brussel sprouts, etc.). These vegetables are effective because they contain the plant kingdom’s largest supply of isothiocyanates (ITCs), compounds that have been shown to protect against cancer. But ITCs would not exist if it weren’t for another compound: gluocosinolates. When the flesh of a crucifer is broken, torn, cut or chewed, glucosinolates are activated to produce ITCs. Researchers have found that horseradish contains the most glucosinolates of all the crucifers – more than 10 times the amount in broccoli, considered king of the crucifers! So a little horseradish goes a long way. One study discovered that ITCs in horseradish inhibit growth of colon and lung cancer cells – the more ITCs, the more weakened cancer cells. Besides ITCs, the spice has been found to contain over 2 dozen other anti- cancer compounds, currently under investigation.
Lower Cholesterol. The ITCs also promote heart health by helping control two risk factors: blood fats cholesterol and triglycerides. When researchers fed mice a cholesterol- rich diet with and without horseradish, after 3 weeks, they found that the horseradish
group had much lower cholesterol levels, theorizing that horseradish blocks the production of cholesterol.
Nasal decongestant. A popular old home remedy for colds uses a teaspoonful of grated horseradish mixed with a little raw honey to quickly clear the nose. A folk medicine for hay fever involves taking daily copious amounts of horseradish before the onset of the pollen season to clear the sinuses.
These remedies comport with recent studies showing that horseradish is unique among crucifers not just because it has higher levels of ITCs, but it also contains another compound thiocyanate – a rare substance found in only 2 other spices, mustard seed and wasabi. When the flesh of the horseradish is cut or chewed, it’s the thiocyanates that send the pungent zing of heat into the nasal cavity When eaten, the moisture in the mouth releases thiocyanates into the air, up nasal passages; if there’s congestion, the nose runs and eyes water, while the heat rapidly dissipates.
Stomach helper. Horseradish, richer in Vitamin C than orange or lemon, is also a gastric stimulant and, thus, an excellent condiment to aid digestion of rich or fatty foods. It helps benefit the system by correcting imbalances in the digestive organs.
In the Kitchen
The Northern Europeans have a long horseradish tradition. Germans prefer to grate and serve it fresh so that it’s potent tang cuts the fatty flavor of their sausages and other standard meats. Consequently, they have a multitude of recipes for horseradish sauce featuring a wide range of ingredients like vinegar, lemon, bread, whipped cream, beer or green apples. The Norwegians grate their horseradish and whip it with sweet and sour cream, sugar and vinegar to serve with cold salmon and other fish. The Danes freeze creamed horseradish and serve it like sherbet in a chilled sauceboat. The Poles grate beets into horseradish to make a purple-red condiment served with ham. Horseradish soup is a Polish Christmas Day tradition.
The French, generally not "into" fiery foods, make an exception with horseradish. They serve a dipping sauce which combines the spice with vinegar and oil. In England, standing rib roast with horseradish sauce is a national tradition. And, of course, horseradish is always on the Seder table – the meal that celebrates the Jewish holiday Passover – it’s one of the bitter herbs (maror) that symbolizes the suffering the Israelites endured in Egypt.
Horseradish arrived in America in the 1600’s, but didn’t really take off until the mid 1800’s with the influx of German and Polish immigrants who brought along their beloved punchy spice. One of these new Americans, Henry J. Heinz, had the idea to mix horseradish with vinegar in bottles and peddled it in Pittsburgh to much acclaim. Heinz Horseradish became the country’s first mass-marketed convenience food!
Americans add horseradish to ketchup to make cocktail sauce for seafood or steak. It’s also a popular addition to a Bloody Mary, the tomato-vodka cocktail. Collinsville, Illinois, self-proclaimed horseradish capital of the world, hosts the annual International Horseradish Festival, including the Little Miss Horseradish beauty pageant.
Grating fresh horseradish can be a tough job. The vapors hit your nostrils like a punch in the nose, so you may prefer to work outdoors or in a well-ventilated room. Once grated, flavor rapidly deteriorates, so you will be forgiven for taking the easy route: buy prepared horseradish with vinegar. It won’t give quite the same zing, but has equal healing powers and lasts several months in the refrigerator. Brands with just basic ingredients – horseradish, distilled vinegar, salt – are most versatile. You can squeeze the vinegar out with the back of a fork to get a purer taste.
There are also granules or flakes, which must be rehydrated. Generally, horseradish relishes and sauces are not cooked as heat destroys pungency, which is really the whole point.
Here’s some more ways to put horseradish into your life:
- Add a dollop to potato salads, slaws, dips
- Add a tablespoon horseradish to 1/3 cup sour cream – a nice topping for fish. Sprinkle with chives.
- Mix horseradish with sour cream and whip into mashed potatoes.
- Basic cocktail sauce: equal parts ketchup and horseradish. Add a few splashes Worcestershire sauce and lemon juice.
- Dipping sauce for seafood: 2 tablespoons homemade mayo, 1 tablespoon sour cream, 1 tablespoon prepared horseradish, ¼ teaspoon mace and mint.
- Traditional horseradish cream for roast beef: beat ½ cup heavy cream until slightly stiff. Fold in 2 tablespoons prepared horseradish. Add 3 tablespoons lemon juice, a little seasalt and black pepper. Chill an hour before serving.
- Mix horseradish with yogurt as a topping for baked potatoes.
- Horseradish mixed into butter is excellent with broiled fish or meat.