Gas masks, protective goggles and amazing food. Those ideas seem incongruous.
Or so I thought years ago, before I met Launie and before I heard the details of her family’s tradition of making horseradish from scratch. The first time Launie told me stories about members of her family donning gas masks to protect themselves from the intense fumes of the horseradish-preparation process, I was convinced it was just my favorite raconteur indulging her imagination for comedic and dramatic effect. I mean, everyone knows horseradish packs a punch. Why tell tall tales?
I was just naive, though. When you cut below the outer skin of a horseradish root, enzymes begin to break down and that famous and much-loved aroma is released. That aroma, though, is much more intense during the preparation than it is when you open a jar of the finished product. It attacks both your eyes and your nose and it’s not for the faint of heart. While Launie’s description of members of her family wearing gas masks may have been a slight exaggeration, it’s not much of one. They wore air-tight goggles. (See the description that Ginny, Launie’s mother, gives below.) Launie can be forgiven a little literary license: Making homemade horseradish is serious business and so are the delectably intense results.
You might think you’re a knowledgeable connoisseur of horseradish. You might use it in everything from a mustard dip to a Bloody Mary or a borscht to a cocktail sauce. You might think you understand the powerful, sinus-clearing properties of this distinctive ingredient. But if you’ve only used store-bought horseradish, you don’t know the half of it.
Making horseradish is to cutting onions as skydiving from the edge of the atmosphere is to jumping off a ladder. While a gas mask might not be necessary, it doesn’t seem unreasonable.
I don’t say all of this to scare you away from making your own horseradish. In fact the daredevil aspect of the process probably spurs some people on. And if you’re brave enough to weather the fumes – and have access to the fresh roots of this perennial plant or know someone who grows their own – homemade horseradish will make all the sensory overload worth it. There is no comparison to store-bought.
I’ve been curious to try making some for years, but just haven’t gotten around to it. Because we get a freshly-made batch from Launie’s family each year, I haven’t had much incentive to dive into it myself. Still, I have to admit – being the glutton for punishment that I am – those stories of gas masks, goggles and watery eyes have always held a certain perverse appeal for me.
So, when Launie’s mother, Ginny, told Launie during a recent phone call that she was about to start a batch, I couldn’t help but interrupt and beg her to send us photos and a recipe. I have my fingers crossed that we’ll get a taste of this batch – and maybe even a small jar – when we see them later this week for Thanksgiving.*
*Launie’s note: Mom said we’re getting a jar!
Ginny’s Homemade Horseradish
1 large, raw horseradish root, washed and peeled
White vinegar, 2-3 cups
A strong blender and a steely constitution
First, you’ll have to clean your horseradish root off. Ginny soaks hers in a bucket and does an initial washing off of the loose dirt.
Then she brings it inside and gives it a final wash.
Ginny was using a particularly gnarly-looking root in this batch. (It reminds me a bit of mandrake root. What kind of arcane magic goes into this condiment?)
Peel some of that gnarl away. (I’m pretty sure this is about the time you’ll get the first wave of those fumes we’ve heard so much about.)
Cut the peeled root into chunks to make the coming job easier on your blender.
Soak the chunks of horseradish in a bowl of well-salted water while you feed them into the blender with white vinegar.
I’ll let Ginny take over the description from here. She has some wise advice for you about both the process and the perils:
“Sometimes I don’t add salt at all but I think it helps the horseradish to stay white. Today I just soaked the little chunks in very salty water before blending.”
“You’ll want to have plenty of vinegar on hand because the blender needs that liquid to process the root. I probably used 2-3 cups today. I started with 1 cup in the blender, added root chunks a handful at a time and blended until it was a good consistency. Beware, the longer the horseradish sits in the blender the stronger/more difficult it gets to deal with. I’m not kidding when I said I was crying. By the time I was spooning out the 3rd batch, I was dreading having to do more. The fumes bothered my nostrils as well as my eyes — had to get out of the kitchen (which made the rest of the stuff sitting in the blender get even stronger!). I learned to get plenty of jars ready BEFORE blending and move as quickly as possible.”
“You’ve probably heard the story many times, but one day Grammy or Grandpa Little (or maybe both of them) looked for (Uncle) Scott and found him in the garage grinding horseradish — and he was wearing goggles. Smart guy.”
If you look really closely at this next photo (and use a little literary license), you might just catch a glimpse of Ginny’s bleary, watering eyes in the blender’s reflection.
All that brave work, though, results in a treasure trove of one of the season’s greatest prizes. What you see here all came from just one large root. Your sacrifice is appreciated, Ginny.
(Photos by Virginia Little)