With their vibrant purple color and their deep, earthy flavor, fresh beets are one of the great culinary pleasures. And they're available year-round, though you'll find that the ones that are harvested in late fall and winter are the sweetest.
Here's the lowdown on what to look for when you're buying fresh beets, and how to store them once you get them home.
To begin with, when selecting beets, it's a good idea to purchase them with the idea of using them that day, or within a day or two. You can store beets for a few weeks (see below), but they will lose quality with every day you store them. The day you buy them at the store or farmers' market, that is as good as they are ever going to be, so you might as well enjoy them at their peak.
There are two ways to buy fresh beets: in bunches, with the greens still attached, and in bulk, with the greens already trimmed away. And the ones with the greens attached are always preferable. Bunched beets with the greens still attached are the freshest, as the first sign of aging is that the greens will start to wilt. And if the greens aren't there, it's harder to tell.
Choose beets that are small and firm with deep maroon coloring, unblemished skin, and bright green leaves with no sign of wilting. The taproot (the thin, pointy tip of the root) should still be attached.
Avoid larger beets which have a hairy taproot. All those tiny roots are an indication of toughness. Most beets that come to the market will be 1 1/2 to 2 inches in diameter. Any larger, and they begin to grow a tough, woody center. Smaller beets will be sweeter and more tender.
Beets that come in a bunch will generally consist of a mix of large and small beets. In these cases, try to select bunches made up of smaller beets rather than large ones.
How to Store Beets
To prepare beets for storage, begin by trimming off the greens about two inches above the root. If left on, the greens will continue to draw moisture out of the roots. Also, the greens will spoil much fast than the beets themselves. And if you trim the stems too close to the root, they will tend to "bleed," meaning they will leak dark purple juice, which can get messy.
Beets will dry out if they're not kept in a humid environment, which is exactly what the crisper drawer of your refrigerator is designed to create. The humidity comes from the vegetables themselves, which are constantly losing moisture through evaporation.
This is why you shouldn't store beets in plastic bags. Plastic seals in moisture, but causes the moisture to condense on the surface of the beets, accelerating the rotting process. So store them loose, in the crisper drawer, where they'll keep for two to three weeks. Wrapping them loosely with dry paper towels can prolong freshness, or just try lining the floor of your crisper drawer with clean paper towels.
And avoid the temptation to wash your beets before you refrigerate them. Even with thorough drying, the extra wetness will just accelerate spoilage.
As for the greens, they'll keep for a day or two stored in this way, but your best bet with these is to use them right away. Roasted beets served alongside their sautéed greens is a perfect pairing.
Using Fresh Beets
Beets are as versatile as they are delicious. You can roast or grill them and serve them as a side dish. They're a perfect ingredient for making salads and sandwiches. They make a wonderful soup. You can pickle them, make chips out of them, or even make them into falafel. One particularly nifty way to prepare them is by steaming them in the Instant Pot, which will crank out a batch of beets in around 20 minutes.
Fresh beets don't freeze particularly well, as they tend to turn mushy when thawed. Cooked beets, on the other hand, freeze very well. Cooked beets, either whole ones, sliced or cut into chunks, can be frozen for eight to 10 months, depending on how tightly they're wrapped. Vacuum-sealed beets will last the longest in the freezer.