by Chris Ellis, Staff Nutritionist
Horseradish is not a common household food by any means but we had it in our refrigerator on a regular basis when I was growing up. My mother used a lot of atypical foods for that time (late 1950s and 1960s) and that was one of them. I remember making cocktail sauce using horseradish given to us from an old family friend who did a lot of gardening and grew almost everything including this root. It was overpowering but even then it was tame compared to what you get immediately upon grating it fresh from the harvested root. Horseradish contains volatile compounds that escape when the intact root is grated or cut. It is extremely important that this process be done in a well ventilated area and that protective goggles are worn since it will irritate the eyes (and clear out the sinuses too). Horseradish is preserved by adding the grated or finely chopped root to a small amount of white vinegar. The vinegar neutralizes the compounds but the strong smell still remains. It can then be stored in the refrigerator for several months but if the horseradish turns brown in the jar you can tell it has been around for a while and has lost its potency.
Horseradish is a member of the Brassica family which includes broccoli, kale, radish, wasabi, and mustard. It is a tall plant and produces a white tapered root. I do recall it was grown in our family garden but not for long. It is an aggressive plant and can take over your garden so if you decide to try, make sure you corral it or put it at the end and keep a watchful eye on it. My mother soon decided to end its presence in our garden since there were so many other plants she wanted to grow.
Horseradish is a native of Europe and Western Asia. It has been around for approximately 3,000 years. Originally it was used as a medicinal herb and it has been documented as an expectorant, aphrodisiac, antibiotic, diuretic, and as a poultice for back pain, sprains, etc. Presently it is considered more of a flavoring herb and its name refers to the plant being long, coarse, and tall like a horse and radish comes from the Latin for root. After thinking that horseradish was not found in most people’s refrigerators in the U.S., I was shocked to find out that approximately 24 million pounds of horseradish are grown annually in this country. That amount is transformed into 6 million gallons of prepared horseradish root. A large percentage of the horseradish grown in the U.S. is from one area in Illinois due to its specific soil content along the Mississippi.
Horseradish is frequently served as part of the Seder meal at Passover, which is coming up in April. It is considered one of the bitter herbs that play a part in the Jewish Seder observance. Horseradish and other bitter herbs represent the bitterness of the lives of the Jews when they were enslaved in Egypt.
Horseradish contains a good amount of vitamin C, fiber, and minimal amounts of B vitamins. It provides powerful antioxidants that are responsible for many of its health attributes. One of its main antioxidants is glucosinolates (these convert to isothiocyanates when they are ground) and they are responsible for its sharp taste. They have strong anti-cancer benefits and have been shown to help with detoxification of toxins that the body is exposed to from the environment and for the prevention of tumor growth. Although other members of this Brassica family contain this same compound, horseradish contains ten times as much and you don’t have to eat a whopping amount to attain the benefits. Antioxidants found in horseradish also have been shown to help treat urinary tract infections where they act similar to an antibiotic. Sinus and respiratory problems also have been demonstrated to improve with consumption of horseradish due to its antioxidant properties. Other benefits that research has revealed about horseradish are its ability to help with digestion and increasing appetite. It has been reported to have anti-inflammatory properties and a calming effect on the nerves too.
So what do you do with this horseradish? Most people often use it on meats or fish and I remember helping my mother make meatloaf with horseradish in it, which gave it a great taste. Whatever you do, remember if you buy horseradish it can’t stay around for months on end without losing its beneficial properties! It also loses its pungency the longer it is stored. Wasabi (Japanese horseradish) is a variant of the same plant but has a little stronger flavor and light green flesh. Due to the limited supply of the true Japanese wasabi plant, traditional horseradish is often mixed in with it with when you buy it in a prepared ready-to-use form. If you should find fresh horseradish root at the store and are ambitious enough to want to grind it yourself, remember to make sure you are in a well ventilated area and wear protection for your eyes—or be prepared to shed some tears!
Definitely one of the most common ways to use horseradish is with meats. Since I don’t eat meat, the main way I use it is by adding it to dips to give them an extra sharp punch. I know people who add it to mashed potatoes, which I have not tried yet but it does sound enticing! Liven up your foods with horseradish using any of these tips below. It only takes a little to get amazing health benefits from this rugged root! The amounts you add will vary based on your desire for a lot of punch or just a little zing!
• Add to scrambled eggs, omelets, or deviled eggs
• Mix into salad dressings
• Make a spread or dip using butter, mayonnaise, Greek yogurt, or sour cream
• Add to mashed avocado with a little dash of paprika as an appetizer
• Use with ketchup to make your own cocktail sauce for vegetables or shrimp
• Mix with cottage cheese for use on crackers or chips
• Mix with tomato juice
• Add to mashed or baked potatoes
• Include in hummus