Horseradish has a long and complex history, with records of its use dating back more than 3,000 years. Ancient Greeks rubbed the pulverized root on the sore, aching backs of athletes. The root was well known in Egyptian culture as far back as 1500 B.C. where it was used for sinus problems and strained muscles. Jews then, as well as now, use horseradish during Passover seders as one of the bitter herbs mentioned in the Bible.
The name we know the plant by today, horseradish, most likely came about because of a mispronunciation of the German word, “meerrettich”, meaning sea radish because it grew by the sea. The English mispronounced “meer” to sound like “mare” and that evolved into “mareradish.” The word “horse” was stuck in instead of “mare,” relating to the large, robust size of the plant’s roots. The “radish” comes from the Latin word, “radix” which simply refers to root. But unlike the name, which has evolved over time, the plant itself remains virtually unchanged since ancient times.
Horseradish is believed to have originated in Central Europe, where it spread northward into Scandinavian countries then on to England. By the mid 1600s, horseradish, chopped and mixed with vinegar to preserve it, had become the standard accompaniment for oysters and roasted beef across Great Britain. Early settlers to America brought horseradish roots with them and by the mid-1800s, the first large scale, commercial cultivation began. Today, the United States produces about 24 million pounds of horseradish, most of it going to producers who grind it into prepared horseradish you find in the grocery store. Some of it goes to whole foods stores where you will find the individual fresh root, shrink-wrapped and ready to grind in your own kitchen.
It Grows Everywhere
Because horseradish has been grown and used by such widely dispersed cultures, from the desert oases of Egypt to the steppes of the Ukraine, from the fertile farms of Germany to the cool and damp shores of England, then to America, therein lies a clue you can certainly grow horseradish in your own garden.
Horseradish isn’t particular about soil or climate. To grow the best horseradish roots, ideal conditions would be fertile, sandy soil with average rainfall. Think of the fertile farmlands of Illinois, the state that produces the most horseradish in the United States. Illinois farmers produce excellent, long, straight roots that are sold domestically as well as abroad.
In my own garden in Southern Missouri, I have no deep, sandy loam soil. I have lots of rocks and clay and average rainfall isn’t a given. My horseradish finds its way around the rocks in my soil, it penetrates the clay and I still grow the plant successfully. If you have poor soil like I do, I recommend digging out the rocks, make a large hole about 18 inches deep and 24 inches across, which you then fill with good, rich compost mixed with some sand and a cup of bone meal. Do that, then plant your horseradish in that spot.
Horseradish is normally planted in early spring. Root divisions, either cut up roots, or plants divided into sections, are the usual way for starting this plant. You can order roots or potted plants from a variety of mail-order suppliers or ask for a start from a friend. For best results, regardless of your soil type, it’s a good idea to add a lot of rich compost and bone meal to the soil before planting. Like most herbs and vegetables, the plant needs all-day sunlight.
Harvesting & Preparing
Horseradish is harvested in the spring or fall but can also be harvested well into the winter, as well. To harvest, dig up the clump of roots, separate out the largest ones and replant the smaller ones to grow on next season. This plant is hardy even in extreme cold conditions so it over-winters easily. Cut off the leaves and a bit of the top, then scrub the roots with a vegetable brush. Peel the root and it’s ready to be ground up to use.
Back when my grandmother was a girl, the next step in the process of making and preserving horseradish was to cut the roots into sections and run them through a hand-cranked grinder. Grandma said she hated this job because the fumes from the pulverized horseradish stung her eyes. Her mother made her and her sisters do this job outdoors, taking turns grinding because they all hated doing it.
Today, however, you can make easy and quick work of preparing horseradish. After the roots are peeled and cut into pieces, simply drop a few at a time into a food processor, along with a small amount of vinegar and water. No fumes, no tears and your prepared horseradish is ready to place in the refrigerator or freezer. However, don’t stick your nose near the ground horseradish, it will sting your nose and eyes. The addition of the vinegar is to help preserve the horseradish, but your finished product should always be kept refrigerated.
Buy only the amount you will use in a reasonable time. Keep in a tightly covered container in the refrigerator to protect freshness and flavor. Stored, prepared horseradish, when exposed to air, loses its flavor and heat rapidly, so only take out the amount you will use at a meal and return the container immediately to the refrigerator.
Varieties of prepared horseradish include: prepared horseradish, which is horseradish and vinegar; horseradish sauce, which is horseradish root with some mayonnaise and other ingredients added; cream-style prepared horseradish, which includes mayonnaise; and dehydrated horseradish powder, which is simply dehydrated horseradish root.