HorseradishBy amy • • Apr 16th, 2011 • Category: Columns, Condiments, Dressings, Oils, Vinegars
First analysed in the Journal of Biological Chemistry in 2009, kokumi is the new kid on the block – the sixth taste. Kokumi, often translated as heartiness, is a sort of enabler, indiscernible by itself but enhancing any flavours linked to it. It is found in foods such as scallops and yeast, and joins the pantheon of five gastronomic properties: salty, sweet, bitter, sour, and umami. With all due respect, Shelf Life finds the freshman a bit underwhelming. This is because we have stumbled across our own unsung flavour – a fiery reaction on the palate we call OMG!! OMG!! means big whoop. OMG!! will hunt you down. OMG!! is the taste of horseradish.
Named as the 2011 herb of the year by the International Herb Association, horseradish is classified as a herb but derives from a root. Armoracia rusticana is related to mustard, wasabi, broccoli, and cabbages, and is cultivated for its large white tapered root. Horseradish gets its distinctive taste and odour only when the root is grated, which releases volatile oils. As more oils are released horseradish gets hotter, until vinegar is added to stop this reaction and stabilize the flavour. The sooner the vinegar is added, the milder the finished product.
Grated horseradish root and vinegar are the primary ingredients in most prepared horseradishes, but brands may contain salt, sugar, spices, eggs, or vegetable oil. Horseradish – the name’s origins are obscure, but at various times the plant was known as ‘redcole’ in England and ‘stingnose’ in some parts of the U.S. – is high in Vitamin C and may improve your sandwich in more ways than one, since there is evidence to suggest that both mustard and horseradish help to neutralize listeria and e coli bacteria.
Given all of this natural magic, to say nothing of the current vogue for extreme flavours, it seems odd that horseradish isn’t more widely used. To be sure, the grated root is ritually served at the Jewish Passover Seder; moror represents the bitterness of slavery the Jews suffered in ancient Egypt. But all too often horseradish ends up neglected at the back of the fridge, like the Incredible Hulk trapped in a small bottle. Shelf Life would like to free the beast, and bring back OMG!! to the nation’s kitchens. A note of caution: rumour has it that a more powerful genetic strain of horseradish is on the horizon. This is the mega-hot son of OMG!!, known as WTF!!
Take that, kokumi! say this week’s expert judges: deli man Zane Caplansky, owner of Caplansky’s Delicatessen; Carolyn Chua, Associate Food Editor, Chatelaine Magazine; and National Post columnist Amy Rosen, who daylights as food editor at House and Home magazine; all in Toronto. Space limitations prevent us from evaluating every product in a given category; entries reflect the luck of the draw. Items are blind taste-tested and awarded between zero and five stars. In Shelf Life’s experience, horseradish designations ‘hot’ or otherwise are often arbitrary, so we purchased products of all temperatures.
available at fine food stores
Zane: There’s a whole lot of shakin’ going on here. Brand One smells pungent and hot, and it’s cleared out my sinuses even before tasting. It’s creamy, finely grated, and pale. The flavour has serious kick: my eyes are watering and I’m trying to catch my breath … Bring it on.
Lyn: Maybe it’s me, but aroma-wise, I’m not finding the pungency … ah … aaaiii!! Now I am! Wow. Brand One has real strength but I’m getting it more in the nose than the palate. I like the fine texture and clean colour. Is my face red?
Amy: Love it. This is blow-your-head-off hot. It’s not sweet, it’s not vinegary, it’s just pure natural flavour. It’s really good with plain lettuce, and it’s even better with roast beef and gefilte fish. Brand One is like wasabi – I could eat it again and again. Ouch, my nose.
Brand One Total TWELVE STARS ************
available at selected fine food stores
Zane: !!!! Phew! Let’s take a minute … This is pure straight-up sensation. Brand Two is hot, hot, hot, and it’s making me … just a sec … what a killer. It looks the same as the previous brand, but doesn’t smell as pungent. Amazing …
Lyn: This has got to be the strongest … eek! … excuse me. Okay, I’ve recovered, I think. The thing about Brand Two is that it’s very clean tasting; by comparison all the others taste masked in some way. It’s very light and fine and sharp!!
Amy: It doesn’t smell hot at all, but then – God, I’m crying now – it turns into a heat seeking missile that goes straight up into my brain. I think we need a pre-arranged rescue signal to indicate when we fall off our chairs. Brand Two has a lovely, natural colour and texture. I adore this horseradish. I want more.
Brand Two Total THIRTEEN STARS *************
available at selected fine food stores
Zane: Brand Three has a drier, lumpier texture than the others, but otherwise it’s all good. The heat delivers great punch, and there’s a slightly sweet finish. You could try this one with, say, cheddar.
Lyn: It looks like a tofu scramble, and it’s not too pungent on the nose. But I like it – Brand Three is balanced. It’s not burning me up. It’s got a sweet aftertaste, but that’s not a bad thing.
Amy: You’re right: I think we’ve found the middle ground here. Nice moisture, pleasant chew, a good mixture of heat and vinegar and sweetness. Brand Two is for daredevils; Brand Three is something you would serve to guests.
Brand Three Total THIRTEEN STARS *************
available at fine food stores
Zane: We were talking earlier about poultry and horseradish – obviously beef is a more common match, but chicken works with citrus, and many horseradishes have a citrusy flavour. But not this one. Brand Four tastes like vinegar. There doesn’t seem to be any heat. It smells earthy.
Lyn: Brand Four looks like cooked oatmeal, and it tastes blah. If there’s such a thing as a bland horseradish, this is it. And there’s no kick in the smell.
Amy: I know what Zane means about the aroma – Brand Four smells like a walk in the woods, like old growth forest. Like Vancouver Island! And it’s super vinegary. It’s too mild. Once you’ve had Brand Two there’s no going back. Hit me again with Brand Two.
Brand Four Total FIVE STARS *****
Results: Tymek’s horseradish scored a tie with Kozlik’s, and the panel is still reeling. The white-hot fusion of these two elements on one table has either eradicated half of Shelf Life’s taste buds or given us superpowers – possibly both. Interestingly, each is a product of Ontario. Winnipeg-manufactured Dennis brand was also appealingly boombastic, but no such luck with Mrs. Whyte’s horseradish, which turned out to be more water pistol than bazooka.
Off The Menu: For the mighty root, there is more to life than Bloody Marys, roast beef sandwiches, and shrimp cocktail sauce. Shelf Life’s favourite horseradish recipe is simple but positively atomic; we mix it with sour cream and add a dollop to ripe August tomatoes. Amy Rosen, by contrast, recommends a cheddar, horseradish, and potato soup. Zane Caplansky makes a dynamite version of a jelly doughnut, using an applesauce, horseradish and cinammon mash-up. Pork chops are Lyn Chua’s thing: combine 1 tsp. horseradish and 2 cups applesauce for an easy yet epic condiment. For more vernal equinox titbits see our retro holiday visuals on our flickr page here.