Sorry, ranch dressing. This Horseradish Sauce is about to become everyone’s new favorite condiment, complementing everything from beef and pork to veggies and fries with its signature face-tingling flavor.

As you probably know, most of our ability to enjoy different flavors doesn’t rely on our capacity to taste food. Somewhere around 90% of what we “taste” is actually coming from our sense of smell. It’s definitely the smell of coffee brewing in the morning that triggers my salivation response (and pulls my reluctant body out of bed), and some foods are pretty assertive in reminding us just how related our sinuses are to the whole eating thing. I’m pretty sure horseradish is at the top of that list.

Horseradish, or “sting nose” as it’s called in some parts of the world, is a pungent root that’s grated and mixed with vinegar to be used as a condiment.

Although we’ve only been eating it since around the 17th century, horseradish has been around for about 3,000 years and was originally used medicinally for things like rheumatism, tuberculosis, and gout. Some people still swear it’s a great headache remedy if you slather it on your forehead, though I think I’ll stick with something more pharmaceutical.

Horseradish is part of the mustard family, which includes cabbage, kale, and Brussels sprouts, and creates an intense but short-lived heat on your tongue while simultaneously releasing its vapors directly into your nostrils. All those nasal nerves start to react, and soon there will be little doubt something spicy’s going on!

Obviously horseradish “heat” is very different from what you’ll find in spicy peppers, and it isn’t listed on the Scoville scale, but some have compared the spicy quality of horseradish to a habanero pepper. The flavor itself is similar to a radish.

If you like spicy food or eat much sushi, you’re probably already a big fan. (FYI – The “wasabi” served in many sushi restaurants in the U.S. is often just horseradish mixed with green food coloring since wasabi is an expensive crop to grow.)

If you’re not a fan of tongue-numbing heat, though, don’t stop reading yet!

The chemical that gives horseradish its characteristic heat, isothiocyanate, is released only once you start grating it, and that intensity wanes the longer it’s exposed to oxygen (adding vinegar also helps neutralize it a bit).

That means unless you’re grating the stuff directly into your mouth, you can tame the heat with time or by diluting it with a few carefully chosen ingredients like the ones in my easy Horseradish Sauce. That way you can still enjoy the warmth and flavor of this tasty tap root without starting a three-alarm fire in your mouth.

The horseradish sauce Alton Brown makes uses fresh horseradish, and fresh is almost always better.

Depending on where you live, you may have access to the actual root in your grocery store. It’s hard for me to find, though, and is presumably for a lot of other people, so rather than making a fresh horseradish sauce, I use a prepared variety.

It’s already preserved at an ideal heat with vinegar, and it saves my knuckles from the hazards of a box grater.

Just make sure you buy a fresh jar of prepared horseradish for this recipe. That jar in your fridge that’s been hidden since your last shrimp cocktail party (like more than four months), has lost a lot of its characteristic flavor and heat.

So, let’s talk about how to make horseradish sauce.

To turn this flavorful root pulp into something a little more palatable to mere mortals, we’ll want to add some dairy.

It mitigates the effects of the heat and adds a wonderful creamy quality that makes it perfect for dipping and spreading. I like to use just sour cream, rather than a combo that includes mayo like the horseradish sauce Ina Garten makes, because it results in a thicker, richer sauce without the airier, eggy component mayonnaise adds.

The only other ingredients are a little salt and pepper, with a touch of vinegar to offset any sweetness in the horseradish and add a little more tanginess to the sauce. These ingredients work to temper the horseradish but you’ll still enjoy that wonderful whole-head-warming sensation.

So, now you’re wondering why you’re making this sauce.  What are some Horseradish Sauce uses?

Well, you’ve probably enjoyed a side of horseradish sauce for prime rib at your favorite steak house, and you can definitely use this Horseradish Sauce for beef of any kind (including horseradish sauce for corned beef). It’s a great dipper for grilled meats too – I love using my Horseradish Sauce for steak (especially one that’s been sitting in my killer marinade) and have used this Horseradish Sauce for pork loins and tenderloins too. Then there’s always cold shrimp (move over, cocktail sauce), fish, and other shellfish.

Aside from meat, it’s a great add-in for potatoes – salad, mashed, or baked – and goes great on any sandwiches you might think about adding mustard to (so probably not PB&J, unless you’re feeling adventurous).

You can also throw a few tablespoons into salad dressings and other creamy dips, like guacamole or hummus, or just dive into it straight with some hot, crispy fries or cool, crunchy crudite.

Since this horseradish cream sauce will last for two or three weeks in the fridge, you’ll have plenty of time to experiment.

Recipe Notes:

Types of Horseradish – You’ll likely find two types of horseradish in the grocery store: prepared, which is grated and typically mixed with vinegar and a little salt and sugar, and creamed or cream-style, which has eggs and/or some dairy. These will come in shelf-stable versions (with those hard-to-pronounce preservatives) and refrigerated options.

The cold varieties will be the best bet for freshness, and you’ll want a prepared, not creamy, variety for this dish since we’ll be making our own creamy sauce.  Keep in mind the heat, texture, and overall quality will vary dramatically from one brand to another.

America’s Test Kitchen, which is a great resource for reliably taste-tested recipes and products, chose the Boar’s Head Pure Horseradish as its favorite, and it’s usually available anywhere you can find Boar’s Head products. (This one’s the runner-up: Ba-Tampte Prepared Horseradish)

Source: adapted from Alton Brown

Check out these sauces!

Tzatziki Sauce –  Thick, rich and creamy flavored with garlic, lemon and dill. 

Homemade Cranberry Sauce -Perfectly spiced and sweetened, thick sauce!