Thanks to the rise of farmers markets in cities and towns from California to Maine, Florida to Washington State, beets have gone from zero to hero in the vegetable world in just a few short seasons. This newfound fame comes as chefs, cooking school instructors and nutritionists are touting this ancient plant’s sweet, earthy taste as a colorful addition to everything from soups to desserts. Truth be told, though, beets are a vegetable that may eternally have a “love it” or “hate it” reputation.
The good news for beet lovers is that these colorful taproots are generally available year–round, with peak season being June through October. Beets are grown in relatively small amounts in almost every state, and that may account for their frequent appearance at farmers markets. The table or garden beet (Beta vulgaris) is a member of the chard family and was long ago prized, not for its dark fleshy bulb, but for its leaves, which were boiled for eating, with the bulb sometimes used as medicine. It is worth noting here that although they share the same name, the table beet is very different from the sugar beet, which is not grown for eating, but for processing into sugar (sucrose).
Beets are planted in the spring and fall with about a 50- to 70-day harvest for most varieties. Home gardeners take note: In areas where the temperatures are consistently mild, about the mid-70s, beets can be planted and harvested all year, for a continuous sweet supply.
Beets are an ancient vegetable that grew wild in prehistoric North Africa and were first cultivated by the Romans along their southern seashore. In its early form, the root was white to beige and more elongated, resembling a parsnip. The Roman author Petronius, who wrote of Roman society during the time of Nero, documented a menu containing a whole suckling pig that was prepared with chicken livers and beets and served at a millionaire’s funeral feast.
The first documentation of the beet root being cultivated as the dark red bulbous-shaped vegetable we know today was in 1592 in either Italy or Germany.
It became a staple vegetable in Northeastern Europe because it was one of the few vegetables available during the long winters, but didn’t capture much attention in other parts of the world for about 200 years. Today, it is still popular in Eastern European cuisines as well as in Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and American cuisines.
Candy Cane or Chioggia
Who but the Italians, with their sense of style and drama, could fashion a beet that looks so humble on the outside, but when sliced looks like the festive gondola mooring poles in Venice. Still somewhat of a specialty, it might require a trip to a gourmet market or farmers market to find this mild and sweet beet variety. Be sure to ask for it by name: kee-oh-gee-uh.
Buying and Storing Beets
For all beet varieties, always look for ones that are sold in bunches with stalks and leaves intact. The bulb should be firm and smooth, and the leaves springy and bright. Avoid individual beets with leaves removed and stalks cut down to an inch or two as they are often old, and are likely to be less sweet and a bit tough.
If not cooking the beets immediately, cut the leaves from the bulb, leaving about two inches of the stalk on the bulb. Store the leaves and the bulb unwashed, in separate plastic bags in the driest part of the vegetable drawer until ready to use. The leaves will only last a couple of days, but bulb can be kept for as long as three weeks.
Preparing and Cooking Beets
It’s a good idea to use food prep gloves, lay down a piece of aluminum foil, and wear a dark apron when handling beets, especially reds, as they tend to bleed onto hands and almost anything they come in contact with.
To prep beets for cooking, wipe them down with wet paper toweling. To prep beet greens for cooking, rinse in a bowl of cold water, drain and dry on paper toweling or in a salad spinner.
Beets can be grated or shredded and eaten raw in salads or salsas. Use a vegetable peeler to peel the beets then cut to size to fit into the feed tube of a food processor fitted with a shredding blade. Chef Sara Moulton likes to use this method, then she sautés the shredded beets as a quick cooking method.
Other cooking methods are baking, boiling, steaming and microwaving. The preparation preferred by many home cooks and chefs today is roasting. This cooking method brings out the sweetness, tones down the earthiness, and is significantly less messy, an all around win! Whatever the cooking method, beets are fully cooked when they can be easily pierced with a fork.
Beet greens add texture with slight bitter note when torn and tossed raw into salads, or try them quickly sautéed and served like any chard.
Beets go well with dairy and soft cheeses – sour cream, yogurt, crème fraiche, cream cheese and chevres; a variety of assertive herbs, like dill, oregano and tarragon; light acids, including vinegars and citrus. Complement the taste and texture of beets with nuts, apples and pears.
Beet Recipes & Techniques
Roasted Root Vegetable Salad from The Kitchen Journals
Russian Borscht by The Culinary Institute of America
Chocolate Beet Cake by Martha Stewart Living
Donna Scocozza is a former magazine food editor, test-kitchen director and culinary marketer, and a current food content creator, editor and blogger. She is the editor of an online e-zine, sucreemagazine.com, which is devoted to all things sweet.