Linda Crampton is an experienced teacher with an honors degree in biology. She writes about nutrition and the culture and history of food.
A Flavorful Plant
Horseradish is a flowering plant that has an edible root with a very pungent and flavorful taste. The grated root is a popular condiment and adds a delicious touch to foods. It's generally eaten in small quantities due to its strong taste and its ability to make the eyes water. Even small amounts of the root may have health benefits, however.
Horseradish has been used since ancient times as both a food and a medicine. It grows in the wild and as a cultivated plant. Grated horseradish root and the sauce made from the root are tasty additions to meat, mashed potatoes, vegetables, and even fruit. The grated root is mixed with vinegar and a little salt (if desired) to make a plain sauce or added to a product such as yogurt or mustard to make a creamy one. The root is used in traditional foods and has cultural uses.
How Did Horseradish Get Its Name?
The horseradish plant has the scientific name Armoracia rusticana. It's not a radish, despite its name. Both plants belong to the order Brassicaceae (also known as the Cruciferae), but radishes belong to the genus Raphanus instead of the genus Armoracia. The word radish comes from the Latin word radix, which means “root”. The parts of the horseradish and the radish plant that are most often used as food are the roots.
Two theories attempt to explain why the plant is known as a "horse" radish. When it was first discovered in Central Europe, it was called meerrettich (sea radish) by some people in Germany, since it produced an edible root and grew by the sea. It's possible that the name was mispronounced in English as mare radish, which later changed to horseradish. Another theory is that the root was named after horses because it’s so large. The word “horse” was once used as an adjective to describe big, strong, or coarse objects.
Grating, Grinding, or Chopping the Root
An intact horseradish root has very little odor. When the root is grated, ground, or chopped, enzymatic activity causes the release of volatile oils from cells. These oils produce the strong taste and smell of fresh horseradish. It’s advisable to grate or process the root near an open window or in an area with good ventilation and to avoid getting the concentrated vapor in the eyes.
As time passes, additional oils are released from the grated root, making the taste stronger and hotter. The addition of vinegar stops the enzymatic activity that produces the oil. A person therefore has some control over the strength of the horseradish. If the vinegar is added soon after grating, the root will taste milder than it would if the vinegar was added later on in the reaction.
How to Make Horseradish Sauce
Where to Find Horseradish
The best flavor and nutritional value can be found in a homemade horseradish sauce. You may be able to find pre-ground roots in your local stores. These are more convenient to use in a sauce recipe than intact roots but may not be as nutritious. Prepared sauces sometimes contain unhealthy ingredients, such as sugar, artificial flavors and colors, and preservatives. Some brands of sauce are healthier than others, however.
Your local produce store may sell horseradish roots, but in my area I need to go to a specialty market or an organic food store to find them. It's also possible to grow horseradish in a garden or a large container. Some gardeners prefer keeping the plants in containers because they can spread aggressively in gardens.
How to Make a Creamy Sauce
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Making Horseradish Sauce at Home
A simple and healthy sauce can be made by removing the skin of a horseradish root, grating the root into fine pieces with a kitchen grater, and then mixing the grated product with a little vinegar. Salt can be added if desired. Horseradish sauce is best served right away. When it's stored, its color gradually darkens and its flavor fades.
The sauce can also be made by placing peeled root pieces in a food processor with about two tablespoons of water. Grind the horseradish into fine pieces, then add two tablespoons of vinegar (and a pinch of salt if you wish) and pulse with the food processor.
If you prefer a creamy sauce, mix the grated or ground root and vinegar mixture with sour cream or yogurt. Drain the excess liquid if necessary before adding the mixture to the sour cream. Some people like to add extra ingredients to the sauce, such as garlic, chives, other herbs, and pepper. Grated horseradish also goes well with mustard and mayonnaise.
Raw horseradish is rich in flavor. When it's cooked, it loses some of its nutrients, hotness, and pungency and becomes sweeter in taste. Like the raw root, however, the cooked one adds an interesting flavor to meals.
Traditional Uses of the Root
Horseradish is a popular addition to many foods, including:
- mashed potatoes
- root vegetables such as mashed turnips, rutabagas, parsnips, and beets
- fish and seafood
- egg dishes
- stews and soups
- vegetable dips
- fruits such as apples and pears
Horseradish is also added to cocktail sauce, which is used in shrimp cocktails. The sauce is a mixture of ketchup and other substances. In the United States, one of the other substances is generally horseradish.
The root is often mixed with tomato juice. It can add a bite to both alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages containing the juice. A traditional Bloody Mary cocktail contains tomato juice, vodka, horseradish, and Worcestershire sauce. Other ingredients are often added to the cocktail to make a complex and tasty mixture.
Aioli is a traditional Mediterranean sauce made from crushed garlic mixed with olive oil and salt. To make a horseradish aioli, people generally mix the root with garlic and other ingredients to make a creamy sauce. The other ingredients often consist of some combination of mustard, egg yolk, lemon juice, mayonnaise, salt, pepper, and herbs.
Nutrients in Horseradish Root
The horseradish plant belongs to the biological family known as the Brassicaceae, which is also called the Cruciferae family. The family includes broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale, cress, watercress, radishes, mustard, and wasabi as well as horseradish.
Horseradish root is normally eaten in small quantities, which may limit the amount of nutrients that it provides. Even a tablespoon of the raw root provides a significant amount of vitamin C, however. The root also contains fiber, folate, and smaller amounts of other vitamins and minerals. It's low in fat but is relatively high in sodium compared to other edible roots. Like all plants, it contains no cholesterol.
The phytonutrients in a normal serving of horseradish may be significant, as described below. Unlike nutrients, phytonutrients (or phytochemicals) aren't essential for our survival. They are thought to fight certain diseases, however, and are considered to be important for this reason. Phytonutrients are found only in plants, which is one reason why nutritionists recommend that we include lots of plants in our diet.
Glucosinolates and Isothiocyanates
Like other members of the family Brassicaceae, horseradish is thought to have important health benefits. When the root is chopped, grated, or chewed, the damage to cells causes an enzyme called myrosinase to be released from its storage area inside the cells. This enzyme reacts with horseradish chemicals known as glucosinolates to form isothiocyanates. The isothiocyanates are present in the volatile oil released from the root's cells. They may be beneficial for us.
One of the glucosinolates in horseradish is sinigrin. Myrosinase converts sinigrin to allyl isothiocyanate, the same chemical found in mustard oil. Allyl isothiocyanate is the main contributor to the pungent taste of horseradish and the sensation of heat that it produces. In nature, it helps to repel animals that are attacking the plant. Like other isothiocyanates, allyl isothiocyanate may help to prevent cancer. More research is needed to confirm the actions and benefits of the chemical in our body, however.
Researchers at the University of Illinois have found that horseradish is especially rich in glucosinolates. In fact, they say that it has ten times more than the equivalent amount of broccoli. This means that the small quantity of horseradish used as a condiment could provide a significant quantity of glucosinolates. In 2016, the researchers found evidence that alkyl isothiocyanate from horseradish activates enzymes that break down certain cancer-causing molecules. Hopefully, the researchers will eventually show that this process happens inside our body.
"The team suggests that AITC (allyl isothiocyanate) is a good dietary anti-carcinogen, not only because it activates the enzyme responsible for detoxifying cancer-causing molecules, but also because a large proportion of it, 90 percent, is absorbed when ingested."
— University of Illinois News Release
Possible Health Benefits of Horseradish
There are many traditional uses of horseradish with respect to health. At the moment, there isn't much scientific evidence to support these uses. This doesn't necessarily mean that they are worthless. It does mean that we should be cautious when we consider the claims, however.
Food amounts of horseradish should be safe for an otherwise healthy person. An excessive intake of the plant may not be safe and should be avoided. The condiment may irritate the digestive tract and make some intestinal problems worse. It may also cause irritation in other parts of the body. A doctor should be consulted about major health problems and about minor ones that don't respond to horseradish treatment.
Horseradish has traditionally been used in folk medicine to clear the sinuses and remove mucus from the respiratory passages. It's still used for these purposes today. It has also been used to fight coughs, colds, and other infections as well as gastrointestinal problems caused by foodborne illness. Respiratory illnesses and foodborne illness (a problem caused by microbes in food) are sometimes serious. Medical help should be sought if this is the case instead of trying to self-treat the problem with horseradish.
The allyl isothiocyanate in the root may be antibacterial. The chemical has been found to kill bacteria outside the body and may be useful in food preservation. We don't know if allyl isothiocyanate is also antibacterial inside the human body, however, or if there is a sufficient amount of the chemical in a typical serving of horseradish to be significant.
A Delicious Condiment
Horseradish is a delicious condiment to add to the diet, especially in its simplest form—the grated root mixed with vinegar. Its nutritional and potential health benefits are an added bonus. I often have the sauce in my kitchen and enjoy its flavor.
It may take you a while to get used to the hot taste if you've never used horseradish before, so start with a tiny amount to begin with. Also remember to be careful if you grate or chop the root at home. The fumes can be very irritating. The preparation process is very worthwhile, though. Fresh horseradish is both tasty and healthy.
- Horseradish facts from the Horseradish Information Council
- Nutrients in prepared horseradish (brand not stated) from the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture)
- Health information related to horseradish from WebMD
- Glucosinolates in the root from the University of Illinois
- Antibacterial action of allyl isothiocyanate (abstract) from the NIH (National Institutes of Health
- Effects of isothiocyanates extracted from Armoracia rusticana on antibiotic-resistant bacteria (abstract) from Springer Publishing
- (Potentially) cancer-fighting properties of horseradish from the University of IIlinois
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
© 2011 Linda Crampton