What's With the Gas Mask? Time to Grind the Horseradish

[Photographs: Ben Jay]

With Passover is less than two weeks away, New York's Jewish population is getting ready to plan another year of seder plates. For The Pickle Guys, that means one thing: horseradish, the meal's all-important reminder of the bitterness of slavery, ground fresh in public view at their Lower East Side storefront.

Between now and Passover owner Alan Kaufman estimates that The Pickle Guys will produce 3,000 pounds of horseradish. It's done the old fashioned way: the horseradish is peeled, ground, and brined right on the premises, and one jar can take 20 to 30 minutes to make. The result is a product that Kaufman boasts as "super hot, super fresh, the best horseradish you can possibly get." It's also rabbinically supervised so it's kosher for Passover.

Alan Kaufman hauling whole horseradish.

For anyone making horseradish at home, Kaufman strongly suggests making it outside so the volatile fumes can dissipate. "If you want to use a Cuisinart, don't open it in the house. Open it outdoors, because once you open up, the fumes are gonna go everywhere. Everybody's gonna be tearing." To preserve the horseradish, Kaufman suggests using vinegar, lemon juice, anything with citric acid, or fermented beet juice.

Here's how Kaufman's team does it on the Lower East Side, where they started grinding horseradish on Sunday.

Step 1: Peeling and Washing


For the next three weeks, Kaufman will be in the back of the store, personally cutting and peeling every bit of horseradish. He chops off the top of the root, peels off the skin, and places the peeled root in a water bath for ten minutes. After that, he takes a bucket of peeled horseradish to the front for grinding.

The horseradish itself is purchased at the Hunts Point Market in the Bronx, and according to Kaufman, the best horseradish is grown in Louisiana.

Horseradish bath.

Step 2: Grinding


Chris Hofelleor, a 19-year Pickle Guys veteran, works with a grinder outside by the sidewalk and wears a gas mask for the entirety of his nine-hour shift to protect himself from the fumes (and presumably to make Essex Street look and smell like an episode of Breaking Bad). While the intact horseradish root doesn't have much of an aroma of its own, grinding and cutting it causes mustard oil—which irritates the eyes and sinuses—to emanate from broken plant cells.

Chris Hofelleor's workstation.

In addition to grinding the horseradish, Hofelleor also greets passers-by. Most often, people want to know what the guy in the gas mask is making ("horseradish!"), and he often offers freshly ground samples to the uninitiated. After he has enough ground horseradish, he passes it to the man behind him, William Su, who is tasked with the final step: brining.

Freshly ground horseradish.

Step 3: Mixing

The horseradish lab.

Pickle Guys produce the two main varieties of horseradish—red and white. The white horseradish consists of ground horseradish mixed with apple cider vinegar from Wayne County Vinegar Company in Pennsylvania, some water, and salt. The milder red horseradish is mixed with fermented beet juice produced by brining beets in salt water for three to five weeks.

The horseradish is then mixed with either the brine or juice until it achieves the consistency of mashed potatoes, about three scoops.

After it's stirred, the finished horseradish is scooped into pint or quart jars and sealed.

And just like that, here's freshly made horseradish that's potent as hell. The Pickle Guys sell pints for $9 and quarts for $18, and each pint contains over a pound of horseradish. Jars keep in the refrigerator for about four months, and Su suggests storing the jars upside down or pressing plastic wrap down onto the horseradish to prevent oxidation.

Packed up and ready to go.

The Lower East Side location is open every day but Saturday and will be making horseradish through Passover, which this year runs from the evenings of Monday, April 14th to Tuesday, April 22nd. The Coney Island location will start making horseradish this Sunday, April 6th. Horseradish and pickles are available at both locations and online.

Chris Hofelleor and William Su, masked and unmasked.