Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

My Minnesota family’s tradition: Harvesting & preserving horseradish November 5, 2015

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 5:00 AM
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Freshly-processed horseradish from southwestern Minnesota.

Freshly-processed horseradish from southwestern Minnesota.

THE CREAMY SAUCE LINGERS on my tongue. Then, zip, my nostrils burn with the zing of stinging horseradish. My eyes water. And I wonder why I eat this stuff.

I like spicy. I like hot. Not jalapeno with too many seeds hot. But horseradish hot I can handle in small doses. It’s part of my DNA.

STEP ONE: Digging the horseradish, which grows like carrot roots underground.

STEP ONE: Digging the horseradish, which grows like carrots underground.

Just dug horseradish.

Just dug horseradish.

We arrive mid-morning on a cool and windy Saturday to process the horseradish.

We arrive mid-morning on a cool and windy Saturday in late October to process the horseradish.

For years, until his death in 2003, my dad made horseradish. You don’t really make horseradish. Rather you process the roots into a creamy white sauce. Horseradish preserved in vinegar.

STEP TWO: Scrubbing the dirt away with brushes.

STEP TWO: Scrubbing away the dirt.

STEP THREE: The horseradish if placed in laundry bags and washed in the washing machine. Here my brother carries the just-washed horseradish to the work area in his garage.

STEP THREE: The horseradish is placed in laundry bags and washed in the washing machine. Here my brother carries the just-washed horseradish to the work area in his garage.

The roots are now ready to be peeled with a knife and/or potato peeler.

The roots are now ready to be peeled with a knife and/or potato peeler. Every bit of brown must be removed to get a creamy white sauce.

My brother empties the second laundry bag.

My brother empties the second laundry bag.

It’s not an easy task. Creating a horseradish condiment requires a full day of digging, scrubbing, washing, peeling, washing, cutting, shredding, blending, pouring into jars and, finally, planting the peelings for new growth.

STEPS FOUR & FIVE: Family members peel horseradish before it's washed for a second time.

STEPS FOUR & FIVE: Family members peel horseradish before it’s washed for a second time.

STEP SIX: Using knives, we slice the horseradish into chunks.

STEP SIX: Using knives, we slice the horseradish into chunks.

My sister Lanae and her husband, Dale, whom Dad mentored in all things horseradish, pushed for continuing the family horseradish tradition. And so, on a Saturday each autumn, we gather at my middle brother and sister-in-law’s rural southwestern Minnesota acreage to honor our dad with this seasonal rite.

My niece cuts horseradish while her husband refines it in a food processor.

STEP SEVEN: My niece’s husband refines the horseradish in a food processor.

Sometimes the fumes are more than the workers can handle.

Sometimes the potent fumes are more than workers can handle.

STEP EIGHT: Blending horseradish and vinegar.

STEP EIGHT: Blending horseradish and vinegar.

Peelings and conversation fly. Washing machine, food processor and blender whir. Eyes water. Heads turn. And the beer stays in the fridge until the last knife is stashed away. But not always.

An overview of most of the crew.

An overview of most of the crew nearing the end of a long work day.

My nephew adds vinegar (it's by guess, not measurement) to the horseradish before blending.

My nephew adds vinegar (it’s by guess, not measurement) to the horseradish before blending.

STEP NINE: Filling jars.

STEP NINE: Filling jars.

It’s a day that’s as much about horseradish as about family. A coming together. Building memories. Remembering Dad.

STEP TEN, OPTIONAL: Counting the filled jars.

STEP TEN, OPTIONAL: Counting the filled jars.

This year a new supervisor—my sister-in-law’s mother from Iowa—replaced my mom, who is no longer able to watch over the crew and count the jars. Still, Mom asked how many jars we filled. No one counted. We told her 88.

The crew.

The crew.

Life changes. We age. Loved ones die. But we can honor their legacy, their love—for my family via harvesting the horseradish.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


50 Responses to “My Minnesota family’s tradition: Harvesting & preserving horseradish”

  1. Beth Ann Says:

    I am sure you missed having your mom there to count but how nice your sister in law’s mother came to help fill out your crew. I love that you wash them in the washing machine—I must have missed that little fact in other posts but it makes sense to give it a good wash before it is processed. I love horseradish and just had some a couple weeks ago with my prime rib at the club but I am sure it was nothing like yours. Fun post.

    • Yes, you did miss the washing machine part in a previous post. But it works great to remove the dirt/mud.

      Shoot, if you were still nearby, I’d save a jar for you. It’s potent stuff, much appreciated by horseradish lovers.

  2. WOWWW.
    You never cease to amaze me., Audrey.
    I smell that horseradish all the way in Duluth.
    My daddy LOVES it!
    So cool. What a process. I never knew this! xxx

    • If you were nearer than Duluth, or if I was heading that way to visit (I really need to visit, although not this time of year), I’d bring a few jars for your dad. My dad always gave it away and we “kids” do the same.

  3. Dan Traun Says:

    Love your opening paragraph; it’s so true. I love the stuff with pork or beef roast. Sometimes I mix in ketchup.

  4. treadlemusic Says:

    My eyes water……is it the horseradish??? or thoughts/memories of loved ones who once participated in this ritual?? No matter. It was a sweet time, nonetheless. Thank you for allowing us to ‘enter in’ and glimpse a bit of your “family ‘glue'”, that binding factor, that unites us in a day when estrangement seems to be more commonly found.

  5. Mike S. Says:

    My dad still makes horseradish, his favorite condiment, every fall. The first year he tried it, he took the finish off the inside of Mom’s blender! She made him switch to an old hand-cranked meat grinder and banished him to the barn to keep the fumes out of the house.
    Now Dad’s horseradish is coveted by friends and family from Montana to Florida.
    Your post has inspired me to make sure our family carries on Dad’s tradition – thanks!


    • Help your Dad, Mike, so you know the ins and outs of the process. I’m sure he will be thrilled to share his skills and knowledge.

      I am laughing at the hand-cranked meat grinder because that’s what my dad used, powering it with a drill that sparked and shocked. For safety reasons, we have upgraded to the food processor and blender.

      Like your Dad’s horseradish, my Dad’s was (and continues to be) coveted.

  6. Expectational Says:

    I like how the Grey Poupon jars have been recycled for this project. One of my favorite things this time of year is a nice serving of ham with a side of horseradish sauce.

  7. I just read the title and my eyes started watering. I enjoy your annually posts on the making of horseradish. My family use to stink up the home front making sauerkraut – ha! Family Traditions 🙂 Happy Day – Enjoy!

  8. Aunt Dorothy Says:

    It is fantastic to see how making horseradish still runs in the family,, It must be a great day and also tired by the end of it. Love to all of you!

  9. Littlesundog Says:

    I LOVE horseradish! I need to know – do you control the horseradish patch? Or does it just grow wild from year to year? I raised it here for two years and it got madly out of control! My roots looked just like yours did – which I am glad to see. I had no idea how it was supposed to look. I made a great sauce with mine on an as-needed basis, and sadly the roots didn’t make it more than 4 months in the fridge… but oh how wonderful it was to make my own sauce at just the right heat level. You cannot buy it in stores hot enough! I will try raising it again, perhaps either in an area I don’t care to keep it contained in, or in a large planter of some kind. In Nebraska my mom and siblings still get together to put sweet corn up for the winter. Family events like that are just terrific!!

    • My brother doesn’t contain his patch. But a friend said she contained hers, otherwise it grew out of control. After we peel the horseradish, the peelings are tossed back into the horseradish patch (in a shallow “trench”) and grow from those. It’s amazing. In several years, those roots are ready to dig.

      Some of my siblings also gather at my brother’s house to make tomato juice. I don’t.

      Like your family, my family also put up sweet corn when I was growing up. It was an all-day task.

  10. Jackie Says:

    I love this post Audrey, it’s such an interesting tradition and so neat that you have carried it on in your dad’s honor! I do think you need to set up a tripod so you can be included in the group photo 🙂

  11. Sue Ready Says:

    I must say this was one of the most intriguing posts I have ever read. I had no idea what horseradish looks uprooted. And the process to bottle it seems quite labor intensive. Kudos to you and family members.to keep the legacy alive in your family for your father. Perhaps at some later date you’ll post a favorite horseradish recipe to share with readers. I’m still shaking my head over the washing machine part 🙂

    • Thank you, Sue. Just don’t add soap to the washing machine. You’ve heard of washing cucumbers (prior to making pickles) in the washer, haven’t you? The Old Maytag wringer washer worked great for that.

      I just put my horseradish on meat. I wish I shared your interest in cooking and was searching for recipes. That’s why I so enjoy your blog. You have many really good recipes and I don’t have to look anywhere but to your blog.

  12. hotlyspiced Says:

    Love that last line, Audrey. I have found this post so interesting. I always have a jar of horseradish in my pantry – you just can’t serve beef without it. But I’ve never made my own! And now I know how. Who knew you’d need a washing machine! xx

  13. Missy's Crafty Mess Says:

    I haven’t had homemade horseradish in years!!! YUM!!!! I love to buy subway subs and bring them home so I can add horseradish. Do you really wash the roots in a washing machine?

  14. Eva Taylor Says:

    I’m here from my friend Charlie Louis Facebook. What a beautiful tradition. My
    dear Mom always loved fresh horseradish. I bet those jars don’t last long.
    Washing the horseradish roots in a washing machinee? That seems crazy but I bet it works like a charm!

    • Welcome, Eva. Happy to have you here.

      Yes, washing horseradish in the washing machine works great.

      It seems either you really like horseradish or you don’t. Happy to hear your dear mom loved horseradish. Yes, the horseradish is in high demand.

  15. Thread crazy Says:

    I’m sure your Dad is smiling at the family’s accomplishment of making horseradish. I do so remember your previous posts in past years of the family making this wonderful condiment. While we like horseradish with certain dishes, we love our jalapenos. We eat them with chicken, sausage, and just about everything else. Love to grill them also.

  16. jessykahb Says:

    Any way I could buy some of that horseradish?? I know someone itching for one!

    • Jesse, I’m sorry but we don’t sell this horseradish. Rather, we give it away, just like our dad did. Last season’s horseradish is long gone. Perhaps you can find some at a local farmer’s market this fall.

  17. albert Says:

    I just saw the reference at Celi’s place. This is a heartwarming post. Family traditions often center around food, but “making it” together, that seems like something special. I can tell from the photographs and the comments below them how important this get-together is.

    • Albert, you’re right. This is an important family tradition, started by my dad many years ago. For a few years after his death, the tradition stopped. And then we restarted the annual horseradish making. All of the horseradish is given away, just as my dad gave it away. The condiment is in high demand.

  18. Kent Nusbaum Says:

    What a wonderful family tradition. Brings back memories of growing up on a farm and all the canning and freezing we did.
    Do you happen to know where I can get some horseradish roots near Duluth, MN to plant in the spring?

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