Beets are common root vegetables that stand out from other produce due to their dark red color. Table beets (different than sugar beets) are popular in European cuisines. The plant thrives in cold climates and Germany, France, Russia, and the U.K. are leaders in beet cultivation. Used often in salads and soups, the entire plant is edible and can be boiled, baked, steamed, or eaten raw. There are some tricks to cooking with beets, most notably is how to clean up because they will produce stains.
What Are Beets?
The beet (Beta vulgaris) is a root vegetable that grows as a round bulb with a leafy top poking out above the soil. Beets are similar in shape to turnips and radishes, though they're not related botanically. The most common garden beet is a deep ruby red in color. While beet is the most common name for this vegetable in the U.S., beets are generally referred to as beetroot in other English-speaking countries. The distinction is important in recipes because the leaves are also edible.
Beets are native to the Mediterranean region. The leaves have been eaten since before written history, but the beetroot was generally used medicinally. It did not become a popular food until French chefs recognized its potential in the 1800s. Today, they're inexpensive and most often used in soups and salads. The root can also be made into beet juice, which is popular for detoxification juicing. Beets need to be washed and the greens removed prior to cooking; they don't have to be peeled.
How to Cook With Beets
Although beets can be eaten raw, they are generally boiled, baked, steamed, fried, grilled, or otherwise cooked before eating. Beets must be thoroughly washed first to remove all of the dirt that comes with root vegetables. Cut off the taproot and leaves, saving the greens to prepare in the same manner as Swiss chard. To retain the vegetable's nutrients and color, cook the beets without peeling first. The skin easily rubs off under cold running water after cooking.
Beet juice will stain skin and porous surfaces; it's used as a natural dye for foods and fabric. Rub your hands with wet salt and lemon juice and then wash with soap and water. To clean cutting boards and plastic containers, use a bleach solution. Be careful about splashing beet juice on your clothes.
What Do They Taste Like?
Beets are best described as having an earthy flavor with a surprising amount of sweetness for a root vegetable. Some people describe the earthiness as tasting like dirt and dislike beets for that reason. However, when cleaned properly and cooked, that earthy taste typically goes away.
Beets add a colorful flair to dishes, even beyond salad and soup. There are plenty of recipes in which you can explore this vegetable's full potential.
Where to Buy Beets
In North America, fresh beet season runs from June through October. Many markets import them so it's easy to find fresh beets year-round, and they're generally inexpensive. You'll often find them sold in a bunch containing about five beets. They're also readily available canned or in jars as well as frozen and as dried beet chips. Beets are a popular vegetable for backyard gardens and are frost resistant. Plant the seeds for an early crop in spring or a late crop anytime between June and September.
Choose beets that are small and firm with deep maroon coloring and unblemished skin (avoid scales or spots). Purchase fresh beets only if the leaf stem and taproot are still attached. The leaves should be bright green and not wilting. Most beets will be 1 1/2 to 2 inches in diameter. Avoid large beets that have a hairy taproot, as the tiny roots are an indication of age and a tough, woody center. Smaller beets will be sweeter and more tender.
To store beets, trim the leaves 2 inches from the root as soon as you get home. The leaves will sap the moisture from the beetroot. Do not trim the taproot. Store the leaves in a separate plastic bag and use within two days. The root bulbs should also be bagged and stored in the refrigerator's crisper for seven to 10 days. Cooked beets may be refrigerated up to one week.
Fresh cooked beets may also be frozen up to 10 months, either whole or cut. Be sure to peel before freezing in airtight containers or baggies, leaving no air in the container. Pickling beets is another popular method of preservation.
Nutrition and Benefits
The beet parts have different nutritional properties. Beet greens are low in starch and carbohydrate and a good source of vitamins B6 and K, iron, magnesium, potassium, and antioxidants. The roots have more starch from natural sugars and dietary fibers but have few calories. They also contain lots of vitamins and phytonutrients, including antioxidants often touted for detox support. It's also good to know that for a small percentage of people, eating a good portion of beets can turn their urine and stool red temporarily.
Raw beets do have a high amount of oxalic acid. It's often advised that people with a history of kidney stones limit their raw beet consumption to avoid complications.
Beets vs. Radishes
Beets and radishes are two similar-looking root vegetables. Both are most often red and sold in bunches with the greens and stems, all of which are edible. Depending on the variety, beets are larger than radishes. The two belong to different plant families: Beets belong to the amaranth family (Amaranthaceae) and are related to chard, quinoa, and spinach, while radishes are part of the mustard family (Brassicaceae) along with cabbages, horseradish, and kale. Tasting the two will definitely tell you that there's a difference: Beets are sweet and radishes are spicy.
Red beets may be the most familiar variety, but beets come in a rainbow of colors. Yellow, white, and even candy-striped (with red and white concentric circles) beets are available in specialty markets. Sugar beets are used to make table sugar.
One long-standing myth associated with beets is that they're a "blood-building" vegetable. It has not been scientifically proven and is part of many claims into the detoxifying benefits of beet juice. Beets are a good source of iron, which is essential for healthy red blood cells. However, the amount of iron provided is not close to that found in iron-rich powerhouses like beef, shellfish, dark greens, and legumes.