Until recently, beets were regarded mostly as cellar-stored root vegetables to put up in jars and then dust off come winter. But beets are delicious fresh out of the ground. Today we have access to a wide variety of beets – and their nutritious goodness – in an array of appealing colors, sizes and shapes.
The beet bulb is noted for its sweet and earthy flavor. It boasts the highest sugar content of any vegetable, yet remains low in calories. Red Ace is the most popular garden beet (sugar beets are a separate variety) in American markets, but other cultivars – like the Chioggia and Burpee’s Golden – are just as delicious.
Beets are grown in more than 30 states, harvested year-round, with peak season from June to October. Small- to medium-size beets (less than 21/2 inches in diameter) are most often used for cooking. Larger beets tend to be tougher, with unpalatable wooden cores.
When buying, choose smooth, hard, round beets with surfaces free of cuts or bruises. Avoid beets with soft spots or shriveled skin. The taproot should be slender, and if the greens are attached, make sure they are crisp and bright, especially if you plan to eat them. If you choose bunched beets, select equal-size ones so they cook evenly.
Beets are one of nature’s most nutritious and healing foods. They are rich in the B vitamin folate (also called folic acid, an important nutrient for fetal development during pregnancy and for normal tissue growth), vitamin C, and dietary minerals like manganese, potassium, magnesium and iron. Betacyanin, the pigment that gives beets their rich color, helps guard against colon and stomach cancers. The antioxidants in beet fiber help to significantly reduce cholesterol, combat cardiovascular disease and protect against free-radical damage. Unlike other processed vegetables, canned beets offer taste and texture as good as fresh beets, but they lack the wallop of vitamin C and folate.
Beets are delicious raw, roasted, boiled, steamed, juiced, pickled or canned. Their natural sugars become concentrated when cooked, but even when raw, their sweetness comes through. To maintain the bright color, don’t salt until after cooking.
- Grate peeled, raw beets to enhance cold salads and salsas. Beets taste great with arugula and apples. Also nice with goat cheese.
- Roast beets to retain maximum flavor and sweetness. Cook whole, unpeeled beets in moderate-heat oven (325 degrees F) until fork tender (about 15 to 20 minutes for small baby beets or 45 to 60 minutes for medium-size beets), cool slightly, and rub with paper towel to remove skin.
- To boil unpeeled beets, cover them with cold water. Bring them to a boil, and then reduce heat to a simmer. Cook until tender, about 45 to 60 minutes. Cool slightly, and, again, rub with paper towel to remove skin.
- Whether roasted or boiled, you can dice, slice or cut beets into julienne strips to serve with cooked meats, seafood, sharp dressings and grains. Try seasoning with sea salt and extra- virgin olive oil, or drizzle with some balsamic vinegar or orange juice.
- Remove greens from beets immediately to prevent moisture loss. Leave about 1 to 2 inches of stem to prevent nutrient loss through bleeding while cooking.
- Don’t peel beets until after cooking, since their nutrients and color easily drain away.
- Like many fresh vegetables, raw beets do not freeze well. Cooked beets, however, retain their flavor and texture in the freezer.
- Unwashed beets can be stored in the refrigerator crisper from two to four weeks.
Chef Cary Neff is the president of the consulting firm Culinary Innovations and the author of The New York Times bestseller Conscious Cuisine (Sourcebooks, 2002).