Wild Horseradish: Identifying and harvesting the hottest roots.
At a distance wild horseradish or Armoracia rusticana is a common plant could be readily confused with dock. On closer inspection, the tall, round, wavy-edged leaves of new plants provide a lush, welcoming and familiar appearance and smell.
The plant's taproot, which has a fiery, sharp, biting flavour, is the main target for hungry foragers, while the young leaves are and can be a welcome addition to a salad. Horseradish is more famously known as a great condiment to many dishes when made into a sauce. But let's look at wild horseradish in a little more detail, understand what it looks like, how to eat it and how to get the hottest, tastiest roots.
What does Horseradish look like?
This leafy perennial vegetable reaches a height of around 60cm (2 feet). It has a long taproot and tiny white flowers that emerge in the middle to end of the summer. The flowers make a delicious, spicy garnish too!
The leaves are long and crinkled, emerging from half way up the stem. Since a child, they have always reminded me, of what I thought that, a green dragons tongue might look like.
In the UK, horseradish can be found growing in wastelands, along roadsides and grassy edges. Don't feel bad about periodically digging up a tap root because it is difficult to totally remove because it penetrates the soil deeply. You can almost always count on even the smallest bit of root to succeed in growing a robust new plant the next season.
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What can be mistaken for Wild Horseradish?
Possible look alikes include many of the dock species, which at a distance could easily be confused with Horseradish. However, no docks smell like horseradish, so break a leaf and give it a smell. Furthermore, unlike dock leaves, horseradish leaves are shiny and have a distinct wavy-toothed edge along their firm leaves, which dock leaves lack.
What to do with Horseradish?
Horseradish is often served grated raw with roast beef, used as a sauce for herring and mackerel, and combined with stewed apples to produce a supplemental sauce for duck or goose. The Germans and the Danes use it for mustard and also use it in other dishes. In Eastern Europe, it is readily added to vegetables like beetroot to make a condiment served with their famous sausages. However, the leaves are also very edible too..
Harvesting Horseradish Roots
No matter how often you try to dig up the root, the plant readily reproduces and, once established, is quite tough to eradicate. I can speak from bitter experience because I indulgently let a horseradish clump to grow in my garden, and no matter how many times I try to dig up the roots, they repeatedly come back.
To harvest the roots, cut around the crown of the plant using a spade, with single, strong vertical slices. Once you have 'ringed' the root with your spade, gently lean back on the top of the spade until the root comes loose. You will undoubtedly lose a little of the root because the tap root will go further down than you are willing to dig.
Any time of the year is suitable for digging up and using the root. You can preserve and store your fresh roots by covering them in sand and keeping them in a cold, dark area such as a shed.
Keep in mind that when harvesting roots, it is prohibited to remove the roots of any plant, even horseradish, without the landowner's consent.
Harvesting tip: This one is one that my old grandad taught me, in autumn he used to mark his horseradish spots with a peg (with a little coloured wool tied around the top). Then in the winter, when all of the goodness (and heat) had returned to the root, he used to harvest them then - when they were at their hottest! Likewise, if you prefer a milder horseradish, pick them in summer when the plant is focusing its energy on leaves and flowers. Winter roots were particularly potent and the simple grated and pickled horseradish (using just malt vinegar) that he used to make, was the key ingredient in his favourite sandwich. That is a spankingly mature cheddar cheese and pickled horseradish sandwich. Try it! You'll love it.
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How do you prepare Horseradish Root for eating?
Because of the nature and habitat of wild horseradish, you'll need to throughly wash the roots. Unless you harvested it from perfectly, pebble free sandy soil, the likelehood is that your roots are going to be mishapen, firing in all directions and potentially have locked in a few stones too. Remove the top leaves and scrub the roots throughly with a brush.
When peeling the roots, it is best to sit outside to reduce the influence of the fumes and to wear goggles (we are not joking) since the sap vapour released by the root will sting if it gets in your eyes. I once attempted to peel and grate (using a mixer), some particularly potent roots. Arriving at work the next day, I was asked if I was ok because the tear gas affect of doing it inside had made me look like I had been crying solidly for many days before. Be careful when peeling off the outer brown covering or skin or when grating the root, because it is quite astringent. Rubber gloves should also be worn if you have sensitive skin.
Although tedious, the work is worthwhile and when you have got over the fierce chemical affects, the taste, as you'll probably already know, is standout.
Can you eat Horseradish leaves?
A lesser known fact about Horseradish is that you can also eat its leaves. The leaves can be used raw or cooked, such as by boiling, steaming, or sautéing. Young, tender leaves can be put whole into salads, sliced and tossed with vegetables, or finely chopped and mixed into salad dressings and sauces.
The leaves have a heat also, that emerges more strongly and then becomes pleasantly sharp, bitter and peppery. If you are a fan of bitter leaves such as chicory and you love the heat of chilli or mustard, you'll enjoy them.
Leaves are best harvested in spring, although fresh young leaves are available throughout the summer growing season too. Try this recipe for another fantastic way to eat the leaves: Mackerel wrapped in Horseradish leaves with a Mustard Sauce.
Health Benefits of Horseradish
Aside its fiery taste, horseradish is packed with antioxidants. The root includes sodium, calcium, magnesium, vitamin C, and was historically used to treat urinary tract infections and respiratory problems. It also has antibacterial and antifungal characteristics. If that wasn't enough, horseradish also speeds up your metabolism, supports immunity, helps with digestion and has bio-active compounds which are reported to help fight cancer.
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Aside the obvious sauce recipe, there are so many ways to enjoy wild horseradish. From using it in crusts and coatings, to creamy dips. Grated into mash potato or hash browns, to a flavouring for pastas. Below we have listed just a few ideas to get you going, but first let's start with a quick classic, wild horseradish sauce.
Wild Horseradish Sauce Recipe
3 rounded tablespoons of freshly grated horseradish roots
150ml of soured cream
A pinch of dry mustard
Salt and pepper
Incorporate the grated horseradish into the soured cream and add salt, pepper, and mustard to taste. If you have some fresh, young horseradish leaves, why not finely chop them and use them like a herb in this sauce for a little extra kick. Serve alongside cold gammon, hot or cold roast beef and smoked salmon or trout.
Celeriac, Fennel and Horseradish Gratin
5 medium potatoes, peeled
1 small celeriac, peeled
bulb of fennel,
3 tbsp finely grated horseradish
400ml double cream
Small bunch of thyme, leaves picked
6 tbsp cheddar, grated
Butter (for the ramekins)
Heat the oven to 160c. Generously butter 8 ramekins. In a bowl, mix together the horseradish, cream and some seasoning.
Thinly slice the vegetables, cutting them so that they will fit neatly into your ramekins. Layer them in the ramekins, seasoning between layers with salt, pepper and some thyme leaves. Pour over the cream mix, sprinkle with the cheddar and a small knob of butter.
Bake for 80mins or until golden and tender. Perfect with beef, lamb, fish or on its own.
Grated Horseradish With Beets (condiment)
500g Beetroot, cooked, peeled and grated
1 tsp cider vinegar
1 tsp brown sugar
350g grated fresh horseradish
1/4 tsp salt
In a large bowl, mix your grated horseradish, cider vinegar, sugar, and salt until well combined. Add grated beets and mix thoroughly. beets prepared in this way is used as a condiment in eastern Europe. Serve it with cold or hot meats.
Eating this plants roots brings me such nostalgia, memories of my grinning grandad turning up to Sunday lunch with another jar of the hottest horseradish will never leave me, and with each bite of my horseradish and cheese sandwich I think of peoples past.
But from the old days of a simply pickled preserve, horseradish has come along way and is now paired with even more great ingredients and used at the very best restaurants. However you choose to eat yours make sure you do, at some point, harvest your own. Harvest in winter with my grandads tip for the hottest roots and you to, can wrily smile when you pass on a jar, knowing that it has the potential to knock somebodys socks off.
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