The horseradish root, gnarled and funny looking, has been cultivated and prized from the earliest times. Horseradish’s exact place of origin is unknown, though the Old Testament cites horseradish as one of the five bitter herbs along with coriander, horehound, lettuce, and nettle, and it is served traditionally at Passover Seder.
Used by the ancient Greeks and the Egyptians for its medicinal value, horseradish was also considered to be an aphrodisiac and a universal cure-all for a host of ailments, including intestinal worms, coughs, gout, scurvy, food poisoning, tuberculosis, colic, and rheumatism.
Luckily for us, during the Middle Ages people in Europe started to view horseradish as a food instead of a medicine, and by the end of the 17th century horseradish’s piquant but pleasant flavor served as a standard counterpoint to beef, fish, and oysters.
Horseradish has a highly complex flavor, a combination of biting heat and intensity, with a beguiling undercurrent of sweetness. Its strong bite comes from a natural chemical, allyl isothiocynate, as well as other volatile oils. When the root is cut or grated, horseradish’s natural chemicals are acted on by enzymes, thus developing its characteristic pungent odor and flavor.
Horseradish is a cruciferous vegetable. Although it contains some vitamin C, horseradish is eaten in such small quantities that this is of no particular consequence.
For more information, see Prepared Horseradish in the National Nutrient Database.
Types of horseradish
Fresh horseradish: Scruffy and gnarled, these roots vary in size from 6 to 12 inches long and 1 to 3 inches in diameter.
Prepared horseradish: This horseradish, which has been grated and mixed with vinegar, comes in bottles. You can find both white and red prepared horseradish. The red is colored and flavored with beet juice.
Wasabi: Wasabi is the pungent green paste most commonly associated with Japanese cuisine. Sold in the form of powders and pastes, wasabi is often marketed as Japanese horseradish, though what you are actually getting is Western-style horseradish that has been tinted green to resemble real wasabi. The main reason for this is that real wasabi is an extremely difficult, and ultimately expensive, plant to grow. Real wasabi is botanically related to horseradish, but is not of the same genus. Most real wasabi is still only available in Japan, but there are presently some American growers tackling the challenge of growing wasabi in the States.
How to choose the best horseradish
When shopping for fresh horseradish, look for roots that are plump and not dried or withered, though the skin may be wrinkled. Depending upon the time of year, the horseradish may have its green tops or not. Whether or not the tops are attached is not a measure of freshness. Keep fresh horseradish, unwrapped, in the crisper drawer of the refrigerator.
Fresh wasabi, not generally available in local markets, can be purchased through mail-order sources. The roots should be firm and the leaves, if any, should be bright green. Fresh wasabi should be wrapped in damp paper towels and kept refrigerated. It can be refrigerated for about 30 days, but should be rinsed in cold water once a week to keep it at its best.
How to prepare horseradish
Fresh horseradish should be peeled before grating. Once peeled, grate on the finest holes of a box grater.
Fresh wasabi should be gently scrubbed before grating, and peeling is optional. Grate wasabi on the finest holes of a grater. Once grated, crush it with the back of a knife to release more flavor. After crushing, let wasabi stand 5 minutes before using to allow the flavors and heat to develop.
13 ways to serve horseradish
- Grate fresh horseradish and sprinkle on meat, seafood, or vegetables.
- Add horseradish to your favorite guacamole recipe.
- For a quick sauce, stir horseradish into sour cream or yogurt.
- Stir horseradish into meat or poultry stews.
- Add horseradish to tuna or chicken salads.
- Stir horseradish into mashed potatoes.
- Combine horseradish with mayonnaise and use as a sandwich spread.
- Combine horseradish with diced apples and nuts for an interesting relish.
- Jazz up ketchup with a healthy amount of prepared horseradish.
- Stir wasabi into your favorite barbecue sauce.
- Combine soy sauce with wasabi powder or paste and use as a dipping sauce for fish or tofu.
- Grate horseradish or wasabi into applesauce and use as an accompaniment for roasted or grilled meat or poultry.
- Add horseradish to mint, currant, or apple jelly to serve alongside lamb or other meat.