What's the Difference Between Fresh and Jarred Horseradish?

If you’ve never cooked with fresh horseradish root, you owe yourself the favor of picking some up on your next market run.

Spicy horseradish sauce in glass jar isolated on white
Photo: Lena_Zajchikova

Even as (an admittedly odd and food-adventurous) child, I was strangely drawn to horseradish. Most children, at least in this country, are wary — if not downright afraid — of the pungent, sinus-clearing sauce. I say "sauce," because the prepared, paste-like concoction is the way most of us first encounter this glorious root.

What Is Prepared Horseradish?

"Prepared" horseradish is a beige-colored amalgam of shredded horseradish root, vinegar (sometimes with beet juice or grated beet in the mix, which results in a more purple colored blend), oil, sugar, possibly mustard seeds, and various spices.

You'll most commonly find prepared horseradish presented in small glass jars in the supermarket. When you buy it from the store, jarred horseradish is typically refrigerated and should be kept that way. It has a good shelf life, and can be used until it starts to discolor and/or doesn't taste good. Growing up, I was always a fan of prepared horseradish in the jar. It has heat, and it has some of the sinus-clearing effect, but, for me, the overriding flavor was always vinegar. I eventually came to want more horseradish and less vinegar; that's when I embraced fresh horseradish root.

What Is Fresh Horseradish?

In short, fresh horseradish is a plant in the mustard family, cultivated for the root. In fact, horseradish root has been cultivated since ancient times, and has been valued medicinally and in cuisine in cultures around the globe.

I first encountered fresh horseradish at a local farmer's market. I saw these strange, off-white spikes in a bin, I looked at the label on the crate and saw the word "horseradish." Naturally, I bought one. Back home, I peeled one end of the root and started to chop it up. Yes, the horseradish effect was there all right. I tasted a piece; yes, again. But it still wasn't exactly what I wanted. I did some research and found that grating was the way to go. Thus, I pulled out what, at that time, was considered a "new-fangled" tool: a microplane. As soon as I'd grated a small pile, the room was absolutely suffused with the scent I was looking for. I spooned out a bit of sour cream, and stirred in the grated horseradish — I was in heaven.

The mix wasn't blindingly hot, but hot enough to really make its presence felt. And the aroma was intoxicating. Bottled, prepared horseradish has a vague similarity, but this flavor/aroma combo was horseradish essence amplified. I knew I'd found what I was looking for.

For those who really love the flavor profile of bottled horseradish, you can find plenty of recipes (like this one from Chef John) to easily mimic that taste. But for me, using the fresh root, as is, to amp up various dishes is the way to go. I like to grate it into sour cream to create an easy sauce for beef or schnitzel, or into some ketchup to make a cocktail sauce for shrimp, or into/onto the myriad other food items that benefit from the peppery, radish-y, herbal, hot bite of horseradish.

Horseradish Recipes to Try:

Be prepared: The fresh, grated root, not tempered by the acid of vinegar, is potent. It may take some experimenting to decide on the amounts that taste best to you. But I guarantee, even if you don't get the proportions quite right on the first go, your "mistake" will still be fun to eat.

If you find that you too prefer the fresh stuff, horseradish is easy to grow. Just buy a fresh looking root (preferably organic) that has some green leaves left at the top. Cut off most of the root to use in cooking, and plant the top. You'll be amazed at the prehistoric looking plant that emerges. Be careful though, because it will take over whatever area you plant it in. I'd advise using a large pot, until you decide whether or not you want a horseradish farm!

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