Horseradishes: from the garden to dinner plate

By Tom Seymour | Oct 21, 2019
Photo by: Tom Seymour Horseradish roots, when ripe for picking, are ready for grating.

When we need prepared horseradish, most of us head to the grocery store. The ease of procuring the commercially produced product has nearly obliterated the need to grow our own horseradish. Or has it?

Horseradish, Armoracia lapathifolia, a perennial, has its place in selected areas of our gardens. The plant likes damp ground best, but will persist even in dry conditions if given loose, rich soil and regular watering. In the past, most everyone had their own patch of horseradish. There, they could harvest the roots and leaves. More on the leaves later.

Horseradish belongs in the mustard family. I’m sure the mention of mustard conjures images of bright-yellow containers of French’s Mustard, but this is a large family of plants, and most are not suitable for making mustard. The common link for all members of the mustard family is the cross-shaped flowers. Most mustards have a nip to them, a certain pungency that many know helps digestion and stimulates the appetite.

Digging horseradish roots, making your own prepared horseradish sauce and using it on seafood, cold lamb or cold beef, stands as one of life’s great pleasures. And since horseradish roots are available any time the ground isn’t frozen, we have a long window of opportunity for harvesting the white, often huge, roots.

Horseradish uses

The large, toothed, wavy basal leaves of horseradish give the plant a stately appearance. Smaller leaves appear on the flower stems, but these are inconsequential. Horseradish leaves spring from the root crown and in spring, when young and tender, the leaves make a delightful addition to salads and greens for boiling.

Once, many years ago, an elderly friend asked me if I knew of anyone who grew horseradish. I told him his search had ended. What he sought, however, surprised me. He wanted horseradish leaves rather than roots. The man said that as a youngster, his mother would harvest young horseradish leaves and after simmering them in water, would have her children eat heaping portions. The boiled horseradish leaves with a touch of cider vinegar and melted butter no doubt helped in getting the children to finish their appointed portions.

But the real reason for this vernal horseradish fest was that horseradish was considered a spring tonic. In the days when fresh vegetables were nearly unobtainable in winter, people developed vitamin deficiencies. The vitamins and sulfur compounds in horseradish leaves stopped problems in their tracks.

Today, fresh vegetables are trucked to all parts of the country, negating the need for spring tonics. But that doesn’t make horseradish any less valuable. The diet of so many people on the go still begs for vegetables, so a vitamin boost via horseradish leaves, or even horseradish sauce, still makes sense.

Horseradish culture

All garden catalogs and garden centers sell horseradish roots for planting. Alternately, fresh roots from the grocery store will serve the same purpose. With several roots in hand, select an area where horseradish won’t be in conflict with other plants. Remember that while not exactly an invasive species, horseradish is difficult to eradicate.

In fact, every hairlike rootlet growing from the main root is capable of starting a new plant. And when digging horseradish, a broken tip of a root, left in the ground, will regenerate and make more horseradish.

Select a somewhat damp location where your horseradish can grow to its fullest measure. Enrich the soil with composted manure or just plain compost and set the roots in the ground so that the crown is barely beneath the soil. Don’t bother the plants the first year, but do check on them the following year. Once firmly established, any digging of roots will only encourage more growth.

You might even wish to plant horseradish in a place where visitors are sure to see it, since the large leaves elicit attention. Most everyone who sees my stand of horseradish asks what it is and when they learn its true identity are fascinated.

Horseradish sauce

To make your own horseradish sauce, select the larger roots and rinse thoroughly. Then peel with a vegetable peeler and cut into small pieces. Surprisingly, horseradish root isn’t hot until cut or diced, since it is a chemical reaction that takes place at the time that imparts the peppery flavor.

Place the cubed roots in an electric blender, add enough white vinegar to barely cover the horseradish and run the blender until the horseradish acquires the consistency of oatmeal. It is natural to want to take a sniff of newly made horseradish, but beware, because the fumes that arise upon removing the top from the blender will burn your nose and make your eyes water.

Place your horseradish sauce in a glass jar, screw on a cap and refrigerate. This will last for many months without any appreciable loss of flavor.

I sometimes make horseradish sauce without a blender. Instead, I’ll use a cheese grater. This makes a thicker product, but while the consistency may differ, the taste remains the same.

Dresden sauce

This famed sauce has helped put horseradish on the map. Here’s how to make it:

Combine 1 cup sour cream or yogurt, 1/2 teaspoon prepared dry mustard, 1/2 teaspoon grated horseradish and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Refrigerate until time to use.

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Comments (1)
Posted by: Lynette Walther | Oct 26, 2019 13:28

Thanks for this piece, I have been growing horseradish for a couple years now. But I have been reluctant to dig it up for the roots. Now I know what to do!


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