Beets are native to the Mediterranean. The leaves have been eaten since before written history, but the beet root was generally used medicinally and did not become a popular food until French chefs recognized their potential in the 1800s.
Although beets can be eaten raw, they are generally boiled, baked, steamed, fried, grilled, or otherwise cooked before eating. It is estimated that about two-thirds of commercial beet crops end up canned.
Beets are botanically known as Beta vulgaris.
Common and Other Names
Swiss chard, garden beet, beetroot, chard, sugar beet, blood turnip, spinach beet, biet, juurikas, betteraves, rübe, biatais, barbabietola, beterraba, remolacha, betor. Commonly known as the beet in the United States. Outside the United States, beets are generally referred to as beetroot in English-speaking countries.
The most common garden beet is a deep ruby red in color, but yellow, white, and even candy-striped (with red and white concentric circles) are available in specialty markets. Sugar beets are used to make table sugar. The leaves of the beet plant are also edible.
In North America, fresh beet season runs from June through October (mid-summer through early fall). Many markets import fresh beets from opposing climates, carrying fresh beets year-round. Beets are also readily available canned.
Choose beets that are small and firm with deep maroon coloring, unblemished skin, and bright green leaves with no sign of wilting. The taproot should still be attached.
Avoid large beets which have a hairy taproot. All those tiny roots (hair) are an indication of age and toughness. Most beets that come to the market will be 1.5 to 2 inches in diameter. Any larger and they begin to grow a tough, woody center. Smaller beets will be sweeter and more tender.
Purchase fresh beets only if the leaf stems are still attached to ensure ultimate freshness. Avoid beets with scales or spots. As an added bonus, the leaves are also edible and can be prepared in the same manner as Swiss chard (also known as spinach beet).
To store beets, trim the leaves 2 inches from the root as soon as you get them home. The leaves will sap the moisture from the beet root. Do not trim the tail. Store the leaves in a separate plastic bag and use within two days. The root bulbs should also be bagged and can be stored in the refrigerator crisper drawer seven to 10 days.
Cooked or canned beets may be refrigerated up to one week.
Fresh cooked beets may also be frozen up to 10 months. Be sure to peel before freezing in airtight containers or baggies, leaving no air in the container. They may be frozen whole or in cut pieces.
- To retain nutrients and color, cook the beets without peeling first. The skin will easily rub off under cold running water after they are cooked.
- To remove beet juice from fingers, rub with wet salt and lemon juice and then wash with soap and water.
- To clean cutting boards and plastic containers, use a bleach solution.