Real Food Encyclopedia | Beets
When it comes to vegetable love, beets sometime have a hard time making headway. It’s not surprising considering many people get their first taste of the vegetable care of canned, pickled beets in the school cafeteria line. Others might taste them fresh, but bite into one of those large, red, undercooked beets (as they too often are), which leads many to find them tough, fibrous, and tasting earthy (aka, “dirty”).
But farm-fresh beets come in a rainbow of colors, including bright red and pink varieties; the sunny golden beet; the striped Chioggia (“candy cane”) beet; and even white varieties, all with unique flavors. Yes, they are a little earthy, but they can also be slightly sweet, sharp, spicy and a little bitter.
Fun Facts about Beets:
- 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.
- Mangelwurzel (aka “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) is frequently synthesized from sugar beet waste in a gross-sounding process that involves bacteria and ammonia.
What to Look for When Buying Beets
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.
Sustainability of Beets
Pesticides and Beets
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.
The bad environmental news about beets has 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.”
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.
Beets and Geography
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.
Beetroot can be stored loose in your fridge’s veggie drawer for at least two to three weeks, or longer. 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.
Cooking with Beets
- Every single part of the table beet is edible — roots, stems and leaves — and delicious.
- Getting the skin off of roasted beets can be a bit difficult, so 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 with no vegetable peeler necessary.
Beetroot can be eaten raw, roasted, boiled, steamed, sautéed and even made into chips. They are excellent paired with salty or creamy cheese (think feta, goat, ricotta), nuts and citrus. They are wonderful roasted whole, a super simple method that concentrates the sweet and earthy flavors, but they can also be microwaved.
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. Beet stems are also delicious and can cooked the same way you’d cook chard stems or bok choy; either boil in salted water until tender or sauté.
Pickling beets is a great way to preserve them, and making them from scratch way outshines the canned variety. Beets can also be lacto-fermented; beet kvass is a super healthy drink made from lacto-fermented beets. Beets can also be canned and frozen.
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.