I should have known something was a bit fishy. "Come on in! Have a taste." My father and his friend Bud were laughing as they invited me into the barn where they were making a fresh batch of horseradish. Little did I know that by entering the barn and partaking in this generations-old family ritual, I was also crossing the threshold into manhood. Both of them were giggling like schoolgirls, with eye- and nose-sealing safety glasses attached to their faces, as Bud handed me a spoon and a jar of fresh horseradish. "Here, have a spoonful. Let's see what you think." So I did. I swallowed the entire spoonful in one gulp. As I was struggling to stay on my feet, eyes watering and head spinning, my dad and Bud were hysterical. I'll never forget the sweet, intoxicating taste followed by the immediate nose-clearing, burning sensation, wrapped all together in an incredible endorphin rush. From that moment forward, I've been hooked on horseradish.
Bud is no longer with us, but this time-honored family tradition continues. Not only is making fresh horseradish a fun way to spend an afternoon, there are a great number of uses for it as well.
Horseradish (Armoracia rusticana) is easy to grow. To be quite honest, it's considered invasive by some. Classified as a brassica, horseradish does well in colder climates that get a solid freeze each winter. I recommend a well-drained, full-sun location away from anything else you're trying to grow in a garden. Horseradish spreads aggressively; sometimes when we clean horseradish and throw the tops and leaves in a compost pile or on the ground, we'll have more horseradish growing there the next year.
Because you won't find horseradish seeds for sale anywhere, you just need to go to a local supermarket or farmers market and buy a root or two to get started. You can also purchase roots or crowns online from many seed companies. Use what you need, and save the crown or even a few chunks of the root ends. Discard the leaves, and plant what you have left a few inches under the soil.
I can't stress enough how easy this is to grow; just find a type that you like, throw pieces of it in the ground, and you'll have horseradish for years to come. I do have to issue a warning: Don't rototill a patch of horseradish unless you really want to encourage it to grow more. Rototilling won't kill it at all; you'll just create a lot of new plants.
One of my favorite things about horseradish is that anytime you can get at the root, you can use it. We dig it in spring, summer, fall, and even winter, if the ground is thawed. Just dig up as many roots as you think you'll need, discard the leaves, and get to work.
After the roots are picked, rinse them off, then sit down and attack them with a vegetable peeler until all the skin that was exposed to the dirt is removed. Grinding and cutting horseradish releases volatile oils, which create the heat that people crave, so make sure you're working in a well-ventilated area. You may even want to wear safety goggles that seal to your face to keep the oily vapors out of your eyes and nose. I personally love feeling the horseradish creep into my sinuses; I do realize, though, that not everyone is addicted to the heat like I am. Next, cut off the crowns and dig out any potentially rotten or blemished areas. It's important to remove these brown spots, because not only will they make the finished product look dirty, but they sometimes give off odors you don't want in your horseradish. Quarter the roots lengthwise to be sure there aren't any blemishes hiding in the middle; you want to find and discard these spots before you start slicing. Soak the chunks in water for a minute or two, just to be sure they're clean. For the traditional garnish that most people think of when horseradish is mentioned, throw the clean root chunks into a food processor on a slicing setting. Run it for a while to make sure everything is cut as small as possible, and visually inspect for brown or blemish spots. Remove any blemishes, and then start to blend.
Up until this point, horseradish is pretty simple. What happens next is critical, and all depends on how hot you like the finished product. If you want your horseradish super hot and spicy, blend the chunks with some water and wait two or three minutes before adding vinegar. If you don't want it as hot as possible, blend with vinegar right from the start. While mixing with water, the oils are agitated as much as possible, releasing all of the heat potential. Once the vinegar is added, the heat potential reaction stops and basically seals in the flavor. If you add too much vinegar or water, just spoon some of the liquid off. If you didn't add enough liquid, you can always add more. You may also want to throw in some salt.
Once you have the flavor and consistency that you want, store your freshly ground horseradish in a clean jar in your refrigerator. We like to use baby food jars. It should keep for four to six weeks, if you don't eat it all first. This is the most common way to use the spicy root, but we do several other things with it as well.
I like to buy a bottle of cheap, unflavored grain alcohol and add a few slices of horseradish root to it. I also can all of my own vegetable juice, and combined they make an amazing bloody mary. I also like to cut the root thin and dry some of it just to chew now and then, or to add to soups and sauces. Ground horseradish is fantastic in my venison jerky marinades or for an extra kick in the homemade sausages I smoke.
Some people like to eat young, tender horseradish leaves in salads and such. Many people love horseradish and ketchup mixed together for a homemade cocktail sauce, while others like a big dollop on top of freshly roasted beef and steaks. Lots of people add thin shavings of horseradish to salads and wraps for extra flavor. I always like adding horseradish "wasabi" on my sushi when I'm eating out.
Each holiday season, my wife makes her famous horseradish cheese spread that our kids' teachers and our holiday guests crave. I've also begun experimenting with my own blend of horseradish mustard for summer grilled brats. Some people pickle horseradish, while others add fresh horseradish chunks or shreds to other pickled items, such as dill pickles and beets. These are just a few ideas. You can find unlimited creative and delicious recipes for utilizing horseradish online.
There are several benefits to growing, making, and preserving your own horseradish. The unique flavor; the endorphin rush of eating horseradish on eggs on a cold winter morning; and the satisfaction of a homegrown horseradish-vodka bloody mary as a summer nightcap make it one of my most prized garden treasures. My favorite thing about growing and preserving horseradish, though, is the opportunity to introduce newbies to it by the spoonful. I now understand why my dad and Bud laughed so hard at me all those years ago.
Keep it Contained
There are a lot of people who like horseradish, but don't want it to take over their garden. One way to help stop the spread is to plant it in a buried container. To do so, cut the bottom out of a 5-gallon bucket or large plastic tote and bury it, leaving the upper portion sticking a few inches above the ground. The horseradish will grow inside the walls, contained and prevented from spreading.
Jason Herbert is a happily married father of four living in southwest Michigan. Herbert makes his living as a public school teacher, but spends as much time as possible outdoors. The Herberts homestead on a small family farm and try to raise, catch, kill, or harvest all of their food needs.