I did not grow up eating beets. In fact, my first contact with them came in the form of canned pickled beets in the “vegetable” compartment of a plastic public school lunch tray – definitely not the most auspicious introduction. Scarred by my school lunch experience, I unconsciously steered clear of the root for years. Fast forward to fifteen years ago, the beginning of my change of heart, which was inspired by beet ravioli with butter and poppy seed sauce, served up at one of my favorite Brooklyn restaurants. The sweet earthy beets, the rich butter and the nutty poppy seeds all combined into an unforgettable dish, one that transformed my thinking about the root vegetable. I’ve come to think of beets as a sort of “gateway” root – once I realized that beets are delicious, it didn’t take much time to recognize the virtue of other formerly shunned roots, like parsnips and turnips and rutabagas. These days, beets (and their delicious greens – more on that, below) are in heavy rotation in our house, and I’m proud to say they are one of my two-year-old son’s favorite veggies. I think I’ve finally banished the sense memory of those ghastly pickled beets of my childhood.
A Brief History
The beet descended from the wild sea beet, native to the Mediterranean and parts of the European and North African Atlantic coast. Only the leaves of the sea beet were (and still are) eaten. Eventually, although it is not clear exactly when, the sea beet begat Beta vulgaris,the scientific name for the beet (a.k.a., “beetroot” or “table beet”), chard (a.k.a., “leaf beet”), the sugar beet and the mangelwurzel (a.k.a., “fodder beet”). The plant was domesticated early –chard was the first of these to be cultivated, probably by the Greeks. According to Diane Morgan, in her amazing book Roots (hat tip to Kim O’Donnel for the recommendation), the Romans were the first to grow the vegetable for its edible roots. (Red beets are still referred to as “Roman beets” in some culinary circles, although it is entirely unclear whether the roots the ancient Romans grew were actually red.) The first cultivated roots were probably long and thin; it wasn’t until the late 15th century that the first swollen beetroot is mentioned.
According to food historian Alan Davidson, the sugar beet, a white variety grown solely for its sucrose (sugar) content, was first developed in the 1700s in Germany and Prussia. At the time, sugar made from sugar cane was imported from the tropics and was very expensive; Europeans were eager for a domestic source of the sweet stuff. Aggressive sugar beet breeding ensued (culminating in genetically engineered sugar beets – more on that in a minute), and sugar beet industries popped up in temperate areas all over the globe, including in the United States. (For an excellent history of sugar beet production and sugar in general, check out Elizabeth Abbott’s book, Sugar: A Bittersweet History .)
- The Chioggia beet (frequently called “candy cane beet” in the US), beautifully striped hot pink and white, is named after Chioggia, a fishing town in the province of Venice. Based on these pics, I feel the need to visit immediately.
- Mangelwurzel (a.k.a., “fodder beet”) is a large yellowish beetroot cultivated for animal feed. Its name means “poor root” or “scarcity root,”and it’s generally eaten (by people) only in times of shortage, although it was also pickled and made into beer in the past.
- Monosodium Glutamate (MSG), the dreaded culprit of “Chinese food syndrome
,” is frequently synthesized from sugar beet waste in a gross-sounding process that involves bacteria and ammonia. (Here’s a history of the process for all you chemistry nerds.)
The beet and its Beta vulgarisrelatives are in the former Chenopodiaceae (Goosefoot) family, now generally accepted by botanists as part of the Amaranthaceae family – a neat botanical group that includes lots of yummy food, including spinach, quinoa, lamb’s quarters and amaranth, plus a whole bunch of not-so-yummy weeds. A personal favorite of mine in the garden, beetroot is easy to grow, but it prefers cool weather for germination. Beet greens can be harvested as baby greens (for eating fresh in salads) or the entire plant can be pulled up for eating – root and leaves.
There are limited global and US stats on table beet production – neither the FAO nor the USDA track the vegetable – but this University of California publication notes that Oregon, Wisconsin and New York lead the US in table beet production. The vast majority of beets grown in the US go to the canning industry.
France, Germany, Turkey, Russia and the US lead global sugar beet growing.
The peak season for beets is generally mid-summer through late fall – but beets can be cold stored (like apples) or heavily mulched and so, in most regions, are readily available through the doldrums of winter.
Fortunately, table beets do not appear on the Environmental Working Group’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, which means that their pesticide load is fairly small. Generally, table beets aren’t grown in quantities large enough to justify large-scale monocropping or the other ills of industrial agriculture. However, if you’re concerned about the environmental impact of beets, check with your local farmer about his/her growing practices (*and check out our vegetable rule of thumb).
The bad environmental news about our friend Beta vulgarishas to do with sugar. According to the USDA, sugar beets account for about 55 percent of US sugar production, while over 95 percent of sugar beets are now genetically engineered (GE). The majority of GE sugar beets grown in the US are Monsanto-developed; they are engineered to be resistant to glyphosate, a (Monsanto-developed) herbicide. This is concerning for a number of reasons, as this article and this article point out, not the least of which is the possibility of cross-pollination (and thus GE contamination, also known as genetic trespass) with organic table beets and chard, plus the serious possibility of continued problems with glyphosate-resistant “super weeds.” (Read up on the problems with genetic engineering on our GE issue page.)
Beets come in a rainbow of colors, including bright red and pink varieties; the sunny golden beet; the aforementioned striped Chioggia (“candy cane”) beet; the bull’s blood beet (which has dark purple, almost black leaves) and even white varieties. Generally, beets are globe-shaped, but there are a handful of varieties that are cylindrical. Beets also come in a range of sizes – I prefer baby-to-medium sized beets for the best flavor and texture. Very large beetroots can be tough and fibrous.
Beetroot is high in fiber, folate and manganese, and is a decent source of vitamin C, potassium and magnesium. The greens, though, are really the nutritional powerhouse of the plant. They are super high in fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin K, riboflavin, calcium, iron, magnesium, copper, manganese – the list goes on and on. The pigments responsible for both red and yellow beets, betalains, are antioxidants and may also be cancer-preventatives.
What to Look for
Seek out beets that feel heavy for their size, with no mushy or black areas. If sold with their greens attached, the leaves should be sprightly (not wilted) with no yellow spots.
What to Do with It
Every single part of the table beet is edible – roots, stems and leaves – and delicious.
Beetroot can be eaten raw, roasted, boiled, steamed, sautéed and even made into chips (yes, please!). It is excellent paired with salty or creamy cheese (think feta, goat, ricotta), nuts and citrus. My favorite way to cook beets is to roast them whole (see recipe, below) – this super simple method concentrates the sweet and earthy flavors. (In a pinch, I’ve also successfully microwaved them.) Beets are an essential part of Russian and Eastern European cooking; probably the most famous dish is borscht, a (usually) beet-based soup with many regional variations. The old-fashioned and academically named Harvard beets are boiled and topped with a cornstarch-thickened sweet and sour sauce. Beets are also used in baking, as both a food coloring (check out this red velvet cake made with beets instead of red dye) and to add moistness (like in this chocolate beet cake with crème fraiche).
Beet leaves are excellent raw, boiled, steamed and sautéed. Add the leaves to any recipe calling for spinach or chard. I also really, really like beet stems – I find boiling them for 7-8 minutes in salted water, until tender (see recipe below) is the best way to cook them. Toss them with extra virgin olive oil, salt and a dash of red wine vinegar.
Getting the skin off of roasted beets can be a bit difficult, so I use this tip from the venerable chef Thomas Keller – after letting the roasted beets cool slightly, rub the skins off with a paper towel (or a rough dishtowel you don’t mind getting stained). The skins will come right off with very minimal effort and no vegetable peeler necessary. You’re welcome!
Beetroot can be stored loose in your fridge’s veggie drawer for at least two to three weeks, or longer. (I admit I’ve roasted beets that have been in my veggie drawer for at least a month and a half.) Beet greens are far more delicate and should be cooked within two or three days of purchase; cut greens from the roots and store in a plastic bag in the fridge.
Stretching Your Fresh Food Dollar Though Preservation
Pickling beets is a great way to preserve them – I have to admit that lately, pickled beets have been elevated to something much more delicious than my public school lunch fare. Beets can also be lacto-fermented; beet kvass, a super healthy drink made from lacto-fermented beets, is another great way to preserve the beet harvest. Beets can also be canned and frozen.
Roasted Beet Salad with Beet Stems, Beet Green-Pistachio Pesto and Ricotta Salata
Texture is always good in a salad, and this one has it in spades: the softness of the roasted beets, the crunch of the pistachio pesto and the creamy-saltiness of the ricotta salata. This salad is also easily adaptable – sub golden or Chioggia beets, or use walnuts in place of the pistachios, or goat cheese or feta in place of the ricotta salata. Extra beet green-pistachio pesto tastes great with potatoes or as a topping for grass-fed steak.
1 bunch red beets, with greens (about 4 medium beetroots)
1⁄3 cup unsalted pistachios, shelled and roasted
1 clove garlic, roughly chopped
1 ounce ricotta salata, crumbled
1⁄4 cup extra virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
Fresh lemon juice, for drizzling
Special equipment: Food processor or mini-food chopper
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
- With a sharp knife, cut the beetroots from the beet stems and leaves. Set stems and leaves aside.
- Wrap beetroots tightly in foil, two beets to a packet, and place in preheated oven. Roast beets until tender when pierced with a pairing knife, about 1 1⁄2 to 2 hours. (See note.)
- Meanwhile, make beet stems and beet green-pistachio pesto: Remove the beet stems from the beet leaves (it’s okay if some stem remains in the leaves). Reserve any tiny beet leaves (2 inches or less) for garnish.
- Bring a medium pot of salted water to a rolling boil. Add the beet stems and boil, 7-8 minutes, until tender. Remove from water with a slotted spoon and set aside. (Keep water boiling.)
- Add the beet leaves to the boiling water and cook until just tender, 3-4 minutes. Remove from water and drain well.
- Add the pistachios, chopped garlic, a generous pinch of salt, the extra virgin olive oil and the cooked and drained beet greens to the bowl of a food processor. Pulse until a rough, chunky sauce forms. Taste and correct for salt, if necessary. Set aside.
- Remove beets from oven and peel (see Pro Tip, above). Cut each beet in half, then into half-moons about 1⁄8-inch thick. Chop cooked and drained beet stems into ¼-inch chunks.
- Spread beet slices on a small platter. Top with dollops of the beet green-pistachio pesto (you will probably have extra pesto left over). Scatter beet stems over. Top with ricotta salata and any reserved tiny beet leaves. Drizzle with additional extra virgin olive oil (if desired) and a few drops of lemon juice.
Note: the length of time beets take to roast in the oven is fairly variable, depending on the size of the beets. Start checking after about an hour and a half for medium beets, less for smaller beets.
(*Vegetable rule of thumb: We think that first and foremost, in terms of nutrition, people should eat lots of fruits and vegetables whether they are organic or not. The EWG’s guide is a handy list, but we will point out here that the impacts of pesticides are not limited to your ingestion of them – agricultural chemicals also affect farmworkers and local waterways, both good reasons to buy organic, even those vegetables that carry a light pesticide load. Also, it has been demonstrated that produce grown by small-scale farmers, even those who are not certified organic, tends to have a lighter pesticide load than its industrially-produced counterpart, owing to industry’s tendency toward large monocrops.)