Published November 1, 2009. From Cook's Illustrated.
Steer clear of shelf-stable brands and head straight to the refrigerator aisle.
Buyer beware: “Prepared horseradish” can vary astonishingly from brand to brand, and much depends on where you buy it. Refrigerated products are simply grated horseradish, vinegar, and salt. Shelf-stable ones add a laundry list of other ingredients, including sugar, eggs, citric acid, high-fructose corn syrup, soybean oil, artificial flavorings, and preservatives. These filler-packed horseradishes are rife with chemical tastes. Equally problematic: Many have a slimy texture and are overwhelmingly hot. The refrigerated ones deliver more natural flavor with less mushiness and are hot without being overpowering. Our advice: Avoid shelf-stable brands with fillers and go straight to the refrigerator aisle, making sure the label reads simply “grated horseradish, vinegar, and salt.”
To choose our favorite, we narrowed our focus to four refrigerated brands, which we tasted both plain from the jar and in creamy horseradish sauce. Tasters disliked samples that were “vinegary,” “pickle-y,” and “sweet,” preferring a generous amount of heat and a finely grated texture that incorporated smoothly into cream sauce, unlike coarser, “chunkier” horseradish that came across as “pulpy” and “chewy.” Horseradish gets its distinctive taste and heat only when the hard white root is grated, which releases volatile oils. It will continue to get hotter as more oils are released, until vinegar is added to stop this reaction and stabilize the flavor.
Our favorite won by a landslide for its “intense,” “wasabi-like” heat and “great, lingering bite.” Finely grated, it left “no unpleasant shreds” or chewy bits when mixed into cream sauce. Its “peppery,” “complex,” “fresh” flavor put it beyond its rivals.