The best versions of this simple condiment are bright and nose-tinglingly spicy. Don’t buy the wrong one.
Published June 22, 2020. Appears in America's Test Kitchen TV Season 22: Perfectly Fried Seafood
Prepared horseradish is a potent source of flavor and heat. Just a tablespoon transforms mayonnaise into a special sauce and turns a bowl of ketchup into a tangy, spicy cocktail sauce. Horseradish gives Bloody Marys their trademark zip, and we wouldn’t serve prime rib and Yorkshire pudding without it. Each spring, horseradish is a must-have at Easter buffets and Passover seders alike. But which product is best?
We purchased eight prepared horseradishes, including a mix of refrigerated and shelf-stable products, priced from about $1.50 to about $5.50 per bottle (roughly $0.19 to about $0.51 per ounce). Groups of 21 test kitchen editors and test cooks sampled them in two blind tastings: in a simple horseradish sauce and in horseradish mashed potatoes. They rated the flavors, consistencies, and intensities of the samples in both tastings.
Before we dive into the differences between the products we tasted, let’s review horseradish in general. A botanical relative of cabbages, radishes, and mustard, this root vegetable resembles a knobby, oversize parsnip. When its cell walls are damaged, as they are when it’s cut or grated, a chemical reaction takes place that releases irritating molecules called isothiocyanates. As anyone who regularly eats spicy foods knows, horseradish’s heat affects us differently than some other hot foods. Hot chile peppers, black peppercorns, and grated fresh ginger, for example, generally make just our mouths and lips tingle, while the heat of horseradish and mustard can be felt in our nasal passages. As food scientist and author Harold McGee points out in On Food and Cooking (2004), how we experience a food’s spiciness is related to the volatility of its compounds.
In general, molecules that are lighter in weight are more volatile. Horseradish’s isothiocyanate molecules, which are small in size and light in weight, contain just one or two dozen atoms, while the pungent molecules in chiles, black peppercorns, and ginger consist of around 40 to 50 atoms. That means that horseradish’s irritants readily escape from the food in our mouths and travel into our nasal passages, stimulating nerve endings in both. Because the molecules of chiles, black peppercorns, and ginger are heavier, their irritants mainly stimulate nerve endings in our mouths and become airborne only when they’re heated (that’s why you might cough when you toast peppercorns).
There are two kinds of prepared horseradish, refrigerated and shelf-stable, and we included both kinds in our lineup. The five refrigerated products contain little more than ho...
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Kate is a deputy editor for ATK Reviews. She's a culinary school graduate and former line cook and cheesemonger.