What Is Horseradish and Why Is It Hot?

Fresh horseradish in a basket
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Many would be surprised to learn that horseradish isn't actually a radish in the slightest – it's a root vegetable that's native to Russia and Hungary. It is a member of the mustard family which includes kale, cauliflower, and Brussel sprouts.

Horseradish is most widely used as a condiment, both by itself and as an ingredient in sauces and dressings. If you enjoy the pungency of bottled prepared horseradish, you simply must try it fresh to experience the full breath-taking flavor experience.

The Horseradish Taste Test

It is the volatile mustard-like oil in horseradish that brings tears to the eyes and heat to the tongue. Isothiocyanate is the compound that gives off the heat when exposed by eating or crushing horseradish.

Vinegar neutralizes the reaction and stabilizes the flavor and should be added immediately to produce a milder taste. Like mustard, the heat and fumes begin to rapidly deteriorate once the horseradish is cut or grated and exposed to air. Heat also eliminates both the root's aroma and zing, which is why true horseradish aficionados prefer horseradish raw and freshly grated.

Choosing the Best Horseradish

Horseradish is available year-round in most places in the United States, but harvest season is in the spring. The fresh roots are usually sold in two-inch long sections.

When buying horseradish roots, choose those that are firm, not soft. The roots should not show signs of mold or have green spots. Roots that appear dry or shriveled are not ideal, either.

Horseradish Cooking Tips

Horseradish is at its best and most flavorful when freshly grated. There are some bottled varieties, but grating it on your own will be much better for your palate. Horseradish can be grated by hand, but it is easiest with a food processor.

To prepare the horseradish, begin by peeling the skin off of the root. Then cut it into cubes and add it to the blender or food processor. Pulse to your desired consistency. The finer the consistency, the more pungent the horseradish will be.

Also, beware of the fumes which can burn your nose and eyes. To avoid that, open a window when you remove the lid and keep the mixture at an arm's length as you turn away. Some people even choose to process horseradish in the garage or another location that allows more airflow than the kitchen.

A basic recipe for homemade horseradish dip only requires white vinegar and salt mixed to taste. Add these while processing the root. The mixture will keep in an airtight container, preferably glass, up to 6 weeks in the refrigerator.

Horseradish Recipes

Horseradish is very versatile and can be used for meat and vegetable dishes. Make the best of these by exploring horseradish recipes.

It's definitely a fun ingredient to play with. You'll find that it makes amazing deviled eggs, some spicy potatoes, and it can even be used for a homemade mayonnaise that has a great kick. Of course, there's a lot to be said about a side of fresh horseradish served with your favorite steak.