Sweet Beets

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Quick and easy ways to enjoy this colorful, nutrient-packed powerhouse.

With their knobby, sometimes hairy exteriors, whole, raw beets can intimidate those who have not cooked them. But while they might look gnarly on the outside, the insides of beets reveal vibrant, jewel-like colors that range from deep red to golden yellow — even candy-cane stripes. When cooked properly, beets (also called beetroot) have a sweet, buttery, earthy flavor and a delicate texture. Beet greens are luscious, too, whether sautéed or braised. A relative of nutrient-rich quinoa, as well as of spinach and Swiss chard, beets offer phytonutrients that help your body detoxify, eliminate free radicals and tame inflammation. So go out and track down a bunch of these gems — and enjoy.

Shopping Tips and Storage

  • Select beets of similar size so they will cook evenly. Medium-size beets (2½ inches in diameter) are most often used for cooking. Small, young beets (about 1½ inches in diameter) are very tender and cook quickly; they are also great raw. Larger beets tend to be tough.
  • If you buy beets with the greens still attached, remove the greens as soon as you get home to prevent moisture from being drained out of the root bulb. Leave 2 inches of the stem to prevent loss of nutrients and color while cooking. Store the greens in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for up to four days.
  • Unwashed beets can be stored in the refrigerator in a tightly sealed plastic bag for two to four weeks.
  • Raw beets do not freeze well and will become watery and soft when thawed. Cooked beets, however, freeze well and retain their flavor and texture.

Nutrition Know-How

  • Beets are rich in phytonutrients like belatains, which offer anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and detoxification support. Bruising damages belatains, as does overcooking. To prevent loss of belatains, steam sliced beets for less than 15 minutes or roast them whole for no longer than an hour.
  • Betacyanin, a belatain that gives red beets their rich red-violet color, helps guard against colon and stomach cancers.
  • Lutein and zeaxanthin, carotenoid phytonutrients that support eye health, are plentiful in beet greens. More lutein is found in the roots (the beet bulb is also called the root) of yellow beets than of other varieties.
  • The antioxidants found in beet fiber help to significantly reduce cholesterol, combat colon cancer and support cardiovascular health.
  • Beets are rich in the B vitamin folate (also called folic acid or folacin, an important nutrient during pregnancy for normal tissue growth), vitamin C, and dietary minerals like manganese, potassium and iron.

Kitchen Tips

  • Beet juice will stain clothing, towels and skin, so you might want to wear gloves when handling beets. If your hands get stained, rub them with lemon juice.
  •  It’s generally best to peel beets after cooking because their nutrients and color can drain away without the protective skin.
  • Beet greens should be cooked separately. Young, small and tender beet leaves are best for eating raw or in a quick sauté, while larger leaves are best braised.

Colorful Beets

Red Beets: With their deep wine color, red beets are the most common beets found in American markets.

Chioggia: Featuring red-and-white candy-cane rings, Chioggia beets have a slightly sweeter taste than red beets.

Albina Verduna (Snow White): The pale-white flesh of these beets blends well with other foods.

Golden Beets: Yellow-gold beets tend to be slightly sweeter than red, and their color doesn’t bleed when cooking.

Beet It!

Tal Ronnen has been cooking beets for so long, he thinks he’s seen everything that can be done with them. His fondest memory is the beet soup he had as a kid. “My grandfather was Russian, so we grew up eating borscht. I love it,” says Ronnen, an L.A.-based vegan chef and author of the much-heralded cookbook The Conscious Cook (William Morrow, 2009). Ronnen develops recipes for Lyfe Kitchen, a California-based restaurant franchise serving delectable, nutritious food that’s been sustainably sourced. He’s also a consultant chef at the Wynn, a resort and casino in Las Vegas, where he’s developed 20 vegan menus that are available alongside the regular menus at any of the 20 Wynn restaurants.

EL | How do you like to eat beets?

TR | I don’t have one favorite way. You can roast beets or boil them. You can slice them thin for a carpaccio or you can steam them. There are so many cool ways to work with beets.

EL | Are some beets earthier than others?

TR | Large red beets always taste earthier to me. My favorite beets to use for cooking are golden and red, for contrast.

EL | What’s the most common mistake people make when cooking beets?

TR| Overcooking them. Beets should still have a bit of bite to them.

EL | Any tips for preparing and cooking beets? 

TR | Experiment. I think that’s the best way to get to know any produce or vegetable and learn techniques for cooking them.

EL | Should beets be peeled before cooking?

TR | You can go either way. If you want to get more flavor into the beets during the cooking process, peel them first. But most people keep the skin on, which prevents the beets from losing their color and might help stem nutrient loss.

EL | Please share some ideas for simple beet dishes.

TR | Cook more beets than you need and then keep a few of them in the refrigerator so you can dice or slice them into a salad. They add great color and texture. Pickled beets — with a light, sweet pickling — are also nice for salads.

EL | What flavors pair well with beets?

TR | Caraway seeds. -Horseradish. Dijon. Citrus is great with beets, of course — oranges, orange juice, orange zest. Shallots go great with beets, as does tarragon. Then there’s vinegar, especially balsamic.

EL | For people who think they don’t like beets, what is a good preparation?

TR | Try them shaved thinly in a salad. Another good option — and it’s kid-friendly as well — is fried beet chips.

EL | Any other general beet tips?

TR | Beets are soft, so having other elements on the plate with a firmer, crunchier texture, such as pistachios or walnuts — things that can contrast not just the flavor but also the texture — is really important.

EL | I know you grew up eating your grandfather’s borscht. Any recent beet stories to share?

TR | White chef coats and beets don’t mix well!

Quick and Easy

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Quick and easy cooking tips and recipes for this colorful, nutrient-packed powerhouse.

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Recipe: Sauteéd Beet Greens With Smoked Sausage

To turn this hearty main dish into a side dish, cut out the sausage completely or include only half the amount.

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Makes four servings 

  • 1 bunch beet greens (about 6 cups)
  • 1 tbs. extra-virgin olive oil
  • 6 oz. cooked sausage, such as andouille or kielbasa, diced (ideally nitrate- and nitrite-free sausage)
  • 1 shallot, minced
  • 2 tbs. red-wine vinegar
  • Salt to taste
  • Freshly ground black pepper to taste

Separate the leafy greens from their stems and cut the stems into 1/2-inch pieces. Coarsely chop the leafy greens. Heat the olive oil in a large skillet and sauté the sausage for a few minutes to flavor the oil. Add the stem pieces and shallot, and sauté until almost tender, about five minutes. Add the red-wine vinegar and simmer for one to two minutes until absorbed by the stems and sausage. Add the leafy greens and cook just until wilted. Season with salt and black pepper to taste.

Karen Olson is a Minneapolis-based writer and a frequent contributor to Experience Life.

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Karen Olson