Arlene Hamilton

Master GardenerS

Annually the International Herb Association declares a “Herb of the Year” and encourages those of us who enjoy herbs to expand our knowledge and use of a particular plant. The 2011 Herb of the Year is horseradish so get ready for some sinus clearing, flavor boosting, spicy tastings.

Horseradish (Armoracia rusticana, syn. Cochlearia armoracia) is a perennial plant of the Brassicaceae family, which also includes mustard, radish, wasabi, broccoli and cabbages.

The plant is probably native to southeastern Europe and western Asia, but is popular around the world today. It grows up to five feet tall and is mainly cultivated for its large white, tapered root. The leaves are a rich, dark green and the blooms are big white spikes in early spring.

The intact horseradish root has hardly any aroma. When cut or grated, however, enzymes from the damaged plant cells break down sinigrin (a glucosinolate) to produce mustard oil which irritates the sinuses, and eyes. Once grated, if not used immediately or mixed in vinegar, the root darkens, loses its pungency, and becomes unpleasantly bitter when exposed to air and heat.

 In 1869, John Henry Heinz made horseradish sauce from one of his mother’s recipes, bottled it, and one of the first condiments began sales in the United States. Today most horseradish is grown in the Northeast and Midwest areas of the United States.   Collinsville, Ill., refers to itself as the horseradish capital of the world. This St. Louis suburb has an annual festival that includes food, exhibits, a root toss, Bloody Mary contest, a Little Miss Horseradish pageant and other competitions. This year’s festival is June 4-5.

Horseradish is a herbaceous perennial (will drop its leaves and die back to the root in the winter) in hardiness zones 5–9 and can be grown as an annual in other zones, though not as successfully. Zones with both a long growing season and winter temperatures cold enough to ensure plant dormancy are preferable.

Also, horseradish does not do well in clay soil so the beds need to be worked with lots of manure and compost to provide the light loamy conditions needed for good root production.  Potash is an important nutrient for success in growing horseradish. In North Texas, planting in containers is preferred. 

Choose a deep pot as the root will want 18 to 24 inches of soil that is kept moist but not wet. Sun in the morning and shade in the summer afternoon is preferred. After the first hard freeze kills the leaves, the root can be dug and divided.

The main root is harvested while large offshoots can be replanted to produce next year’s crop.

Horseradish left undisturbed in the garden spreads via underground shoots and can become invasive.

Older roots left in the ground become woody, after which they are no longer of culinary value, although older plants can be dug and redivided to start new plants. Tender young leaves can be used in salads as you would use any bitter herb. 

Horseradish can tolerate some pest damage to its leaves but crucifer weevils, beet leafhoppers and pathogens that destroy root crops require treatment.

In the kitchen horseradish asserts its pungent flavor in Bloody Marys, cocktail sauce for shrimp, clams, oysters and mussels, cream sauce for roast beef and, ham and on the Seder plate for Jewish Passover. 

The grated root can be mixed with sour cream, mayonnaise, ketchup, yogurt, cream cheese, mustard or a combination to make a sauce for almost anything. 

Try some on sandwiches, baked and mashed potatoes, coleslaw, fresh and baked vegetables or as a dip with vegetable crudités, crackers or chips.

Having grown up on a Pennsylvania farm in a German – Polish family, horseradish was an important crop and much loved condiment. 

A memorable Easter tradition was making beet-horseradish sauce for our Easter ham, homemade kielbasa and boiled eggs. 

The recipe has been handed down for many generations and is presently in the hands of my sister and brother-in-law who go through the ritual preparation annually a week or two before Easter.

No matter the temperature in western Pennsylvania, on the appointed day John, my brother-in-law,  retreats to the back porch with his grater and roots, as a well ventilated area is needed to keep from irritating the nose and eyes.  Meanwhile, in the kitchen my sister Patti is preparing the beets and pickling syrup. All the family eagerly awaits this special treat, filled with delicious flavor and precious memories.

Krupa – Partsch’s Beet Horseradish

6 to 8 pounds fresh beets, scrubbed and green removed (leave about one inch of green to keep juice from bleeding out)

2 to 3 horseradish roots

2 cups white vinegar

14 tbs. white sugar (1 cup)

Boil the beets until soft, let cool, peel and grate into a large bowl. Next peel the skin off the horseradish roots, cut into 4 to 6 inch pieces and grate. Add to the beet mixture. Bring the vinegar and sugar to a boil dissolving all the sugar. Slowly stir into the horseradish- beet mixture tasting as you proceed to your liking. Spoon into small, sterilized canning jars. Seal and refrigerate. This will keep several months in the refrigerator. 

This is not an exact measure of ingredients. Like most recipes handed down through families tastes vary and the degree of heat desired is an individual option. We are at the mercy of the preparer. In honor of horseradish’s status for 2011, I have already told John and Patti that I plan to be with them in mid-April to help with the celebration.

Arlene Hamilton is an Ellis County Master Gardener and guest columnist in the Daily Light. For further information, contact the Ellis County Master Gardeners at the Texas AgriLife Extension Service, 701 South Interstate 35E, Suite 3, Waxahachie, or call 972-825-5175 or e-mail: ellis-tx@tamu.edu.