This rather gnarly looking object is not a withered old tree branch, but rather is the root vegetable that is the source of that sharp, pungent white condiment usually only encountered in jars purchased at the supermarket. Most people are well familiar with the commercial product as an especially good accompaniment to roast beef, but it does have other uses as well. It is sometimes used in ‘Bloody Mary’ concoctions, it works well as a sandwich spread for all sorts of creations (and not just those using cold beef), and it is very commonly used to provide the sharp bite of the standard seafood cocktail sauce. Quite a few Cole-slaw sauces also use it too. The purchased varieties are fine to use, as long as you don’t let them age too long, but there are some benefits to using the fresh article that are also worth investigating…
Here you can see the cut surface of the root. If you smell it, as is, the familiar horseradish aroma is apparent, but is quite muted. This is because the various chemicals responsible for the taste and smell must first combine and be acted upon by enzymes, which can only be accomplished through breaking the cell walls, such as is achieved by grating. The main chemical produced by the reactions involved is the same chemical known as ‘mustard oil’. Indeed, horseradish and mustard are both plants in the same ‘Brassicaciae’ botanical family, which includes cabbage, and the very similar tasting ‘Japanese horseradish’ known as Wasabi.
Before grating, or otherwise processing the root for use, one must remove the very tough outer -skin with a vegetable peeler, or the like. Once you do, the body of the root has an appearance and feel very much like a parsnip. Moreover… and this is the true benefit one gains from using the fresh article… it also has the sweet smell and taste of parsnip beneath the usual, sharp, mustard like pungency.
Unfortunately, exposure of the whole or grated root to air, without taking steps to preserve the flesh with vinegar, causes the stronger tastes to quickly lose strength, and, even with preservation, the sweet quality disappears not long after grating. If you get the chance, try tasting a little of the freshly grated root alongside one of the commercial preparations and you will see what I mean.
Generally, the root can be grated with an ordinary kitchen grater but this is laborious and a food processor works well too. During this process, you can add the preserving vinegar as you go as this will help make a finer, somewhat smoother blend. Basically, just keep adding a little at a time in a thick porridge like consistency is obtained.
While you do this, you will experience much the same ‘eye-burning’ sensations you get from peeling onions. The aroma will be very strong but, take a good whiff directly from the bowl of your processor at your own peril… I promise you, the fumes will make your trachea virtually slam shut like tear gas.
To improve the storage life beyond a week or so, you can also add a pinch of salt or two and then put the finished condiment in a tightly sealed jar in the fridge. You can, in fact, keep the vinegared blend for a few months but it will darken with age (losing its pristine appearance) and the flavour will not only diminish, but once the condiment gets considerably darker, it will also get bitter.
Aside from the usual blend of grated root with vinegar, one can make ‘horseradish cream’, or purchase ‘horseradish sauce’. The former basically consists of the gratings combined with sour cream and (usually) fresh cream as well. For obvious reasons, this sort of preparation necessarily needs to be made fairly close to use and will not keep well.
Horseradish sauces, in contrast, are generally mayonnaise based and tend to keep longer. The one pictured above is just a very basic preparation and just contains horseradish, salt, vinegar, and some commercially made mayonnaise. You can, of course do the same and add to the basic recipe with all manner of additions. Mustard and lemon juice are common additions to commercial varieties, but you can try dried herbs, or, indeed, anything that suits your fancy…