Some food, some drink.
For those who like to swear while using condiments: The secrets of horseradish revealed.
For as long as my in-laws have let me, I've been using a small portion of ground near their vegetable garden to grow horseradish. This plant loves crazy-hot summers and face-numbing winters. So in Kansas, it's almost impossible to get horseradish to not grow. However, procuring some big ol' root is only half the battle. After years of trial and error, and some research, I've settled on a technique to prepare horseradish that seems to give the best pungency for the longest duration of storage. Time to get out that food processor and have a good cry!
I love what horseradish does for food; the more potent the better. I'm a sucker for masochistic tastes, and the best part about good horseradish is that the hurt is damn near unbearable right before it vanishes; unlike a chile's long capsaicin burn, I'm immediately good to go for another bite. As my short-term memory is non-existant, I doubt I'll ever get tired of the "good hurt" of horseradish.
I been nurturing the same patch of horseradish for at least the last six or seven years. I got a hold of a piece of starter root and even after the first year's growth, I've been able to harvest root-a-plenty. However, the path to pungency for the finished product hasn't been nearly as easy. I learned after two mediocre and one downright terrible season that when it comes to horseradish, the devil is most certainly in the details. There are are a few things that you have to pay attention to in order to attain the best flavor and the most heat; and even then, you've got to make sure that the heat is gonna stay around for a while in that jar. My method to prepare horseradish follows, and if you run down to the supermarket and buy a root and prepare it as wrote, a small spoonful should put you in tears. But if you're growing it yourself, you'll want to pay some attention to my observations as well (unless you're one of those stubborn folks that has to make your own mistakes).
Recipe: Jump to the detailed recipe. (or, keep reading for the gist of it) -
Remove tops (if present) and clean the root pieces with a vegetable brush or plastic pot-scrubber. Use plenty of water and rinse often until the root is nearly all white in color. Grate all the root in a food processor, using the grater/shredder attachment. Reset the chamber for the bottom blade, and add the water and salt to the horseradish. Process the grated root for 3 minutes. If you're not satisfied with the consistency, continue processing in 30 second intervals until you are. Once desired consistency is reached, add the vinegar and process for one minute more. Put on some goggles (no, seriously) and move your macerate to tightly sealed jars. Refrigerate and use as needed.
- When it's time to harvest horseradish root, I make it a point never to dig up anything deeper that just past the length of the blade of my shovel. This is a great way to pull up those phat taproots while leaving lateral roots behind to help propagate growth for next year.
- When cutting the tops from harvested root, make sure you cut just underneath that "wrinkle" where the cell structure seems to be transitioning from root to stem. Not only does the area above taste nasty, but it also has the potential to create new starts if you replant them.
- A good rule of thumb is to replant any root that's smaller than the thickness of said thumb. Plant them horizontally so they'll be encouraged to spread. Always replant back to the same spot (unless you want horseradish all over the place) immediately following processing so as to incorporate anything that wasn't worth pulverizing.
- Your harvested roots will keep for a few days loosely covered in the fridge until you're ready to process them.
- A handful of years back, I couldn't get out to harvest my horseradish until after evening temperatures dropped below freezing. That bit of serendipity has made my horseradish considerably better. Now, I make it a point to harvest my root two weeks after the first hard freeze; and hey, look at this - a proper horseradish producer backs that up!
- It's not too surprising that a bit of cryo-shock would improve the flavor. When a perennial plant's leaves start to stress then its food production will go into overdrive, and the plant will store more stuff in the root that will better help it to over-winter. In the case of horseradish, what's stored as winter sets in significantly improves pungency and flavor. If you've grown parsnips, this'll totally make sense to you.
- Referencing my copy of On Food and Cooking, I found out that it's the thiocyanates that are responsible for the pungency that knocks someone on their ass when they get a whiff of freshly-grated horseradish. These compounds sit dormant in the root until the plant's cell structure until is violently disturbed. Destroying cells and creating more surface area is directly proportionate to the "hotness" you're gonna get out of your root. This system likely evolved as a defense mechanism to keep critters from munching on the root. No one ever claimed humans were sensible.
- Those thiocyanates are hydrophobic. That means that they're really good at repelling water. So good in fact that they have no problem floating up your nose on a passing breeze, just to get away from all that water that happens to be stored in the root. Keep this in mind when preparing horseradish, and you'll keep those outbursts of tears to a minimum.
- If your food processor lets you, run the grater on top and the blade underneath simultaneously to grate. When the grating's done, remove the grating blade and continue with just the bottom blade. Not only does this save from the wanton pain of exposure from having to transfer your horseradish, but it also gives maximum maceration and therefore the best burn for your buck.
- Vinegar is used to 'lock-in" your heat; that is to say that it's added to slow the release of those volatile thiocyanates. Add vinegar judiciously once your horseradish is three-levels past the oomph you'd like it to have (so as to account for a drop-off after the initial pungency spike). Too much vinegar will neuter the compounds you're working to liberate and actually make your horseradish less effective. In the past, I've tried topping off my jar of horseradish macerate with vinegar and after a few weeks, it was utterly worthless.
There is a little work involved with preparing horseradish, but I think it's a make-up call as there's really no maintenance with the plant itself here in the temperate neck of the woods. If you're not completely thorough when harvesting, there are usually enough laterals to get new growth, and the tops will get you going with plenty of starter material each year as well.
Ultimately, if you really wanted the maximum hurt from your horseradish root, you could probably leave it whole in the fridge and grate it as-needed. However, the root is going to try to continue to do that life thing, and will eventually shrivel-up or get funky. As you only get one shot a year at home-grown horseradish, I prefer to hedge my bets and suspend all those beat-up plant bits in solution.
On the topic of culinary possibilities, you'll want to remember that Horseradish is a Brassica; just like cabbages and mustards. If you're looking to try new flavors with horseradish, it helps to keep this in mind. Although horseradish is fine on its own as a food accompaniment, I don't think there's a second condiment out there that couldn't do with a spike of horseradish; it's just awesome stirred into a good cranberrry sauce. Horseradish in compound butter is the bee's knees; and while certainly you can't have a proper cocktail sauce without horseradish, my favorite way to consume ridiculous amounts of root is to combine my prepared stuff with an equal amount of mayo and then season with Kosher salt and freshly-grated pepper. Spoon that horseradish mayo over a medium-rare rib eye, and I'm a very happy camper. :d