“What did the carrot say to the wheat? Lettuce rest, I’m feeling beet.” -Shel Silverstein
Beets are a multi-purpose ingredient that are great for so many things such as pickling, borscht soup, goat cheese salad, robust vegetarian dishes, adding color to pasta dough and, get this…red velvet cake! Yes, I said red velvet cake. Before food coloring was invented, sugar beets were added to red velvet cake to achieve that characteristic red color. Beets can be boiled, roasted, coal roasted, steamed, poached, grated or shaved thinly into salad. And let’s not forget the leaves! They’re just as tasty. I even like folding them into my salad mix.
Just beet it
Beets come in plenty of colors, sizes and shapes. When it comes to beets, you can’t judge a book by its cover. For example, Swiss chard, a leafy vegetable that cooks down like spinach, is a type of beet. Then you have mangelwurzel beets that are used as animal feed. Sugar beets, predominately grown for their sweet taste, are white and more conical in shape than the round beets we think of today. Now that we have got the more unusual beets out of the way, let’s let the beet drop on the garden varieties!
Garden beets, beetroot or table beets (known in the early 19th century as “blood turnips”) are the kind you will find at farmers markets all year round, especially in spring. Let’s get to know some common beet varieties in more depth:
- White beets (also known as albina vereduna, sugar beets or even albino beets) can be round or long and cylindrical. White beets are sweeter and less earthy than their red counterparts. In fact, 55% of sugar produced in the United States comes from white beets.
- Bull’s Blood beets, an open-pollinated variety originally from Britain, are known for their dark red foliage. These are grown mainly for their leaves, which add a punch of color to salads.
- Gold beets come in several varieties; however, the quality can vary depending on the type. Touchstone gold is one of the best. The flesh of gold beets is bright yellow and does not bleed when cooked like red beets.
- Chiogga beets, candy-stripe beets or candy cane beets are an heirloom variety originating from Chiogga, Italy since 1840. They are known for their earthy taste and concentric red and white circles. Chiogga beets keep their wonderful color when shaved raw, but they turn a beautiful pink when cooked.
- Detroit red beets, also known as common red beets, contains less Geosmin than other types. This is a compound that gives many beets an earthy taste.
- Red Ace beets are the quintessential red beet variety, known for their uniform size, which makes them perfect for cooking evenly.
- Red Forno beets are small to medium in size with an elongated, oval or even cylindrical shape. The root skin is semi-smooth, dark red and firm, while the flesh is bright red to crimson, dense and watery.
- Badger flame beets have an elongated shape that tapers to a point and cylindrical roots. The skin is semi-smooth, firm and comes in a dark red to orange color. Under the skin, the flesh is dense, crisp, watery and bright gold to orange with concentric rings that are pale yellow to white. Badger flame beets were the product of years of selective trials and crossings at the University of Wisconsin using a new method of breeding that focused on chef-approved flavor and unique aesthetic qualities. The name badger was chosen to honor the University of Wisconsin’s mascot. The rest of the name pays tribute to their vibrant golden flesh and flame-like shape.
Beet remains were discovered in the Saqqara pyramid in Thebes, Egypt, dating back to the Third Dynasty. Charred beet fruit was also found in the Neolithic site of Aartswoud in the Netherlands.
Despite being around for thousands of years, the earliest written use of the word ‘beet’ dates back to the eighth century in Mesopotamia, when it was described as similar to a radish by Peripatetic Theophrastus, a Greek philospher.
German chemist Andreas Marggraf was accredited for discovering sucrose in sugar beets in 1747. However, it was his student, Franz Achard, who built a sugar beet processing factory at Cunern in Silesia under the guidance of William III, King of Prussia.
What to look for in beets
Because of their various sizes, shapes and colors, choosing beets can be tricky. However, here are some pointers:
- Choose beets that are small to medium in size, firm, heavy for their size and smooth skinned.
- Regardless of type, the color should be vibrant.
- Overly large beets tend to be fibrous and lack flavor.
- Beets with a long root tail are desirable. If the root tail is missing or broken, the beet may spoil faster.
- If the greens are still intact, they should be dark green, vibrant and full of life!
- If the leaves are removed, be sure that 1/2 to 2 inches of the leaf stems remain attached, so the color doesn’t bleed when cooked.
- Avoid beets with soft or moist spots.
- Beet skin should never be flabby, shriveled or dry looking.
- When choosing beets, pick ones that are uniform in size since that will help them cook evenly.
- If you bought beets with the leaves attached, leave them attached so they remain firm.
- If you must remove the leaves, keep 1/2 to 2 inches of the stem intact to prevent the beets from bleeding when cooked. The leaves will go bad faster than the beet itself. Luckily, beet greens can be eaten in salads or even cooked like spinach.
- Only wash beets when you are ready to prep them. If you wash them right when you bring them home, the thin skin may crack and become vulnerable to spoilage.
- Store in a cool, dark, dry place. Beets can last anywhere from ten days to nearly three weeks with proper storage.
- Beet root freezes well once cooked and lasts up to several months.