There is a (somewhat) unconventional line of reasoning that suggests eating something hot and spicy makes a warm summer day seem cooler. If there is truth in that philosophy then reaching for the horseradish sauce might be a novel way to stay cool this summer. At any rate, horseradish is an interesting plant that serves as the source of a condiment enjoying new-found popularity nationwide. Is it any wonder, then, that the Horseradish Information Council has dubbed it "America's favorite root"?
Horseradish (Armoracia rusticana) is a perennial member of the Brassicaceae (Mustard) family. Although its leaves are edible it primarily is grown for its fleshy, pungent roots. Native to southeast Europe and west Asia, its common name is puzzling since it has nothing to do with horses and is not a radish. The German word for horseradish is "meerrettich" (sea radish) since it grows by the sea and, similar to radish, it bears a large storage root. The English began calling it "mareradish". Over centuries of time words often gradually become corrupted and "mare" became "horse" and its current common name was born. The first record of horseradish as a designation for the plant appeared in an herbal on medicinal plants published in 1597.
The first use of horseradish by humans was for its medicinal properties and dates back at least 3000 years. Some ancients used horseradish syrup as a cough medicine while others were convinced it cured ailments such as rheumatism and tuberculosis. Early Greeks (who considered horseradish to be worth its weight in gold) used it as an ointment for back pain and an aphrodisiac.
The appreciation of horseradish as food is believed to have originated in Europe, and during the Renaissance horseradish consumption spread from Central Europe north to Scandinavia and west to England. By the late 17th century horseradish was a standard condiment for English commoners and labourers and was especially favoured to accompany beef and oysters. From England, it was taken to North America during colonial times. Commercial production of horseradish is very labor intensive. It began in the mid 19th century in the United States on small horseradish farms in the Midwest. Today, that tradition continues and Illinois produces more horseradish than any other state.
A little horseradish goes a long way and the needs of most families are met by only a few plants. For those who want to grow their own, horseradish is propagated vegetatively in the early spring from root cuttings eight to nine inches long that contain a growing point. The latter usually is saved from the previous fall's harvest. Form a trench three to five inches in depth and place the root cuttings 12- 15 inches apart at a 45 degree angle, all facing in the same direction. Cover the bottom portion of the cuttings with soil to hold them in place.
Horseradish needs a deep, rich soil along with adequate fertility and moisture to thrive. Manure incorporated into the soil in the fall before planting a crop the following spring is very beneficial. Synthetic fertilizers may be added in the spring but avoid those that are high in nitrogen. Once roots are established, irrigation usually is not necessary until later in the growing season when the storage roots begin to enlarge.
The greatest amount of root growth of horseradish occurs during late summer or early fall when temperatures are relatively cool. Harvest is accomplished by digging the roots and should not be done until late October or early November after frost has occurred. Roots may be dug anytime during the winter as long as the soil is not frozen.
Horseradish is relatively pest free. Flea beetles and beet leaf hoppers are its primary insect pests; white rust, turnip mosaic and brittle root are diseases known to be problematic on horseradish.
Freshly dug, intact horseradish roots have almost no aroma. However, when cut or grated, enzymes convert a compound called sinigrin to isothiocyanate, or mustard oil. The latter irritates the eyes and sinuses and causes the "fire" in horseradish sauce. To prepare horseradish sauce use a well-ventilated area since the fumes are very strong. Roots can be ground in a home food grinder, blender or processor after they have been peeled and diced. Keep the mixture as cool as possible by adding a small amount of water or crushed ice. Oddly, horseradish needs to be kept cold to stay hot.
After the horseradish sauce is the proper consistency for consumption, about two to three teaspoons of white wine vinegar should be added per cup of ground horseradish. The vinegar stops the enzymatic reaction described above and stabilizes the hotness of the finished product. Adding the vinegar promptly produces a milder product; waiting several minutes results in greater pungency. It should be noted that waiting too long will cause the sauce to discolor and assume a bitter taste. After preparation is completed place the mixture in tightly sealed jars and store in a refrigerator or freezer.
REVISED: December 2, 2011