What is Horseradish?
The root is harvested in the spring and fall and sold in 1200 pound pallets to processors who grate the root releasing the volatile oils that distinguish horseradish from all other flavors. The ground horseradish is then mixed with distilled vinegar to stabilize the "heat." This basic formula, which varies from processor to processor, may also contain spices or other ingredients like salt, sugar, cream or vegetable oil. But, generally speaking, horseradish and vinegar are the primary constituents in the basic prepared horseradish on the market today.
In the United States, an estimated 24 million pounds of horseradish roots are ground and processed annually to produce approximately 6 million gallons of prepared horseradish.
In addition to the most popular basic prepared horseradish, a number of other horseradish products are available, including cream-style prepared horseradish, horseradish sauce, beet horseradish and dehydrated horseradish. Cocktail sauce, specialty mustards, and many other sauces, dips, spreads, relishes and dressings also may contain horseradish.
Each May, horseradish is feted at the International Horseradish Festival in Collinsville, Illinois. Events include a root toss, a horseradish-eating contest and a horseradish recipe contest. Begun in 1988, the festival was designed to create national awareness for the herb and the area where most of the worlds supply is grown, according to festival organizers. Collinsville and the surrounding area is part of what is known as the American bottoms, a Mississippi river basin area adjacent to St. Louis. Carved-out by the glaciers from the ice age,
the soil is rich in potash, a nutrient on which the horseradish thrives. The area grows 60 percent of the worlds supply. German immigrants to the area began growing horseradish in the late 1800s and passed their growing methods from generation to generation. The areas cold winters provide the required root dormancy and the long summers provide excellent growing conditions.
What Makes Horseradish Hot?
Horseradish is a member of the mustard family (sharing lineage with its gentler cousins, kale, cauliflower, Brussel sprouts and the common radish) and is cultivated for its thick, fleshy white roots.
The bite and aroma of the horseradish root are almost absent until it is grated or ground. During this process, as the root cells are crushed, volatile oils known as isothiocyanate are released. Vinegar stops this reaction and stabilizes the flavor. For milder horseradish, vinegar is added immediately.