You’re not alone if you’ve ever asked the question, “What is horseradish?”
After all, we’re talking about a condiment with plenty of weird attributes we might not understand. It gives off a lot of spicy heat, but it doesn’t come from a plant like a pepper. It has a funny animal name combined with a vegetable name. And we rarely see it outside of the spoon able “prepared” version we see in jars at grocery stores.
One thing you’ll definitely notice about horseradish, compared to pepper plants, is that the spice generated from it generally affects the sinuses much more than it does the taste buds.
But we’re going to lay it all out for you, so you’ll not only know what horseradish is, but also why it’s so hot!
What is Horseradish?
Horseradish gets confused with being from the pepper family because it’s so hot. But in fact, horseradish is a root, kind of like ginger – which also has some spicy properties!
One big difference between the horseradish root and the basic prepared horseradish that you get in the store is that the latter is grated horseradish that is mixed with vinegar – which stabilizes the heat and the pungency of the raw root.
Some consider horseradish an ancient plant whose origins come from Eastern Europe and Russia, and the roots were used as a condiment in Denmark and Germany during the Middle Ages. However, both the root and leaves were believed to be used medicinally during that same period.
Horseradish comes from the Cruciferae family, which also includes the common radish, mustard plants, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and turnips. There are plants characterized by herbaceous plants with alternate leaves, clustered flowers and acrid or pungent juices.
You should be able to find horseradish in many different forms, including the raw root, basic prepared horseradish, shredded horseradish, dehydrated horseradish and even beet horseradish.
Wasabi, which most people use as a condiment with sushi, is often called Japanese horseradish, and it comes from the same family as traditional horseradish – even though they are indeed different plants.
What Makes Horseradish So Hot?
If you think of the horseradish in terms of it being from the same family as mustard, then you’ll understand why the heat is different from peppers.
The heat that comes from raw horseradish actually comes from isothiocyanate, which is a compound that generates heat when it oxidizes after it’s introduced to air and saliva. In other words, if you bite the horseradish root itself, you’ll get a much different bite and smell than you would if you tasted it with the root cells already ground up. The grinding or grating is what helps release the isothiocyanate compound.
If vinegar is introduced to the ground horseradish immediately, it’s much more mild than if vinegar is added much later.
Those pungent flavors and smells attack the sinuses and nostrils, making horseradish a great condiment for people that like spicy things, and for those that like a different experience!
You have now learned the answer to the question, “What is horseradish?” along with several other fun facts you can use to impress your horseradish-eating family and friends!