The best versions of this simple condiment are bright and nose-tinglingly spicy. Don’t buy the wrong one.
How We Tested
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.
The Science Behind Horseradish’s Heat
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).
Comparing Horseradish Styles
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 horseradish, vinegar, and salt. They looked almost homemade, with tiny bits of grated horseradish loosely mixed together with vinegar. The three shelf-stable products had creamier, more cohesive textures, and all contained upwards of 10 ingredients, including everything from sugar and corn syrup to eggs and soybean oil, as well as thickeners and preservatives.
When we focused on texture, our tasters had a slight preference for the smoother shelf-stable sauces. They made thick and velvety cream sauces that held their shape when we dolloped them into sample cups. In comparison, sauces made with refrigerated horseradish were looser and thinner. Some tasters complained that they contained unpleasantly “tough” or “woody” bits of horseradish. But those visual and textural differences mostly disappeared when mixed with butter and cream in the mashed potatoes. Only a few tasters noticed some “graininess” from the horseradish shreds, and most found all the samples to be pleasantly creamy and smooth. When we looked at the overall rankings, we were surprised to see that we didn’t have a firm preference for one particular style of horseradish. Our tasters liked—and disliked—products of each style.
We Liked Hot, Spicy Horseradish
The single most important factor identified by tasters was heat level. Several noted that one horseradish hit them “right in the nose.” Some quickly clarified that its “fiery” heat “was a good thing,” while others warned that it might be “too intense” for some. They also liked samples that were a little less punishing—those with a “slow build” and “just enough heat to not be overwhelming.” But anything less than that wasn’t enough. Tasters were critical of the mildly spicy horseradishes, noting that they tasted too strongly of vinegar. The mashed potatoes made with these products tasted “pickle-y” and “tangy” instead of spicy.
We identified several potential explanations for those heat differences. First up: vinegar. The formation of the horseradish’s irritating isothiocyanates is dependent on pH (a measure of acidity). Adding a little vinegar at the beginning of processing results in a more pungent prepared horseradish, but adding a lot of vinegar up front makes for a milder, mellower horseradish. However, adding vinegar after the formation of isothiocyanates slows down the breakdown of those irritating molecules, keeping the horseradish hot. Refrigeration also helps. Because isothiocyanates are oil-soluble, oil can also help shelf-stable products retain their spiciness over time. Finally, natural and artificial flavors can contribute additional heat to both refrigerated and shelf-stable horseradishes. Those flavors weren’t essential, though. One of the spiciest products in our lineup, which was also one of our tasters' favorites, didn’t contain oil or added flavorings, suggesting that strategically adding vinegar is enough to bring out the full intensity of horseradish.
Tasters also detected strange “eggy,” “musty,” and “earthy” notes in one shelf-stable horseradish. It was noticeable in every bottle we opened, and none of them was near its expiration date. Those sulfurous flavors may be due to the eggs it contained or the horseradish itself, both of which are high in sulfur. Happily, we didn’t notice any funky flavors in any of the other products we tried.
The Best Prepared Horseradishes: Woeber’s Pure Horseradish and Inglehoffer Cream Style Horseradish
We ended up with a tie between two products. Woeber’s Pure Horseradish, a refrigerated product, offered “bold heat” and “bright, acidic” flavor that earned it top marks in both tastings. One of the spiciest of all the samples in our lineup, it “really brought the heat” and was a favorite among heat seekers. Inglehoffer Cream Style Horseradish—a shelf-stable product also sold under the name Beaver Brand Grandma Rose’s Hot Cream Horseradish—gave us “great horseradish flavor that lingers.” As a final test, we made Bloody Marys with our two winners. We had a slight preference for the sample made with Woeber’s. With just three ingredients, it made a classic Bloody Mary, while the extra ingredients in Inglehoffer made the drink taste ever so slightly eggy and creamy. In dips, sauces, and side dishes, however, both will add considerable spice and work well.
- Taste 8 products (5 refrigerated, 3 shelf-stable), priced from about $1.50 to about $5.50 per bottle (about $0.19 to about $0.51 per ounce) and purchased online and in Boston-area supermarkets
- Sample in Horseradish Sauce
- Sample in Easy Mashed Potatoes with Horseradish and Chives (omitting the chives)
- Compare two top scorers in Bloody Marys
- Samples were randomized and tasted blind to eliminate bias