Beets are no longer your grandmother’s vegetable. Gone are the days of just having pickled red beets as the only option for eating. Today, we have red, golden, white, and candy-cane striped varieties. Nearly every part of them are edible and methods of cooking them have vastly improved.
Beet (Beta vulgaris) have been cultivated for centuries. The ancient Greeks grew beetroot around 300 BC, but ate only the leaves. Romans did eat the root, which at that time was elongated more like a carrot, but primarily for medicinal purposes. The cylindrical beet known today emerged in the 16th and 17th century in Europe when new cuisines were developed.
People seem to fall into one of two categories where beets are concerned: love them or hate them. Those in the latter category claim they taste and smell “like dirt”. They may be more accurate than they realize. Beets contain geosmin, an organic compound associated with the smell of freshly turned soil. Some people are quite sensitive to the compound, able to detect it in amounts as small as 10 to 30 parts per trillion.
For those people who enjoy the earthy flavor, beets are a nutrient dense, low calorie, and low fat food. They are high in antioxidants, folic acid, potassium, and fiber. Beets contain betalain, a specific antioxidant that ongoing research shows may be a tool in managing cardiovascular disease and cancer as well as improving athletic performance.
There are several popular varieties readily available. Detroit Dark Red is an old stand-by with deep red, round, 2 to 3 inch roots. Chioggia has the distinctive red and white stripes, Formanova are cylinder shaped, Golden, as the name implies, is a golden-yellow color, and Avalanche has white roots.
Beets are easy to grow; the seeds can be sown successively at three week intervals for a steady supply. The beet seed is actually a “fruit” that will produce more than one plant, which means thinning is almost an absolute necessity for this vegetable. The good news is that the young plants can be eaten in salads or as cooked greens.
Beets, as with all root crops, do best in loose, well-drained soil. Heavy clay soil will result in stunted roots and a disappointed gardener. Beets are considered a cool-weather crop that grow best when air temperatures are between 50° and 64°. If they are planted too early and are exposed to cooler temperatures early in the growth cycle, they will flower instead of producing a root. Mid-April is a good time to begin planting, taking a break in mid-summer, and resuming in late summer, 45-65 days before harvest, for a late crop. Temperatures above 85° inhibit germination, but, beets can withstand frost and light freezes. Therefore, they are good candidates for a fall garden.
Seeds should be planted one-half to one inch deep with rows about a foot apart. Water as needed, particularly when newly planted to encourage germination. Plants should sprout in 7 to 14 days. Mulch will help retain moisture and reduce weed competition during the heat of the summer. Keep the weeds at bay, thin when the plants are 3 to 4 inches tall, leaving 2 to 3 inches between plants.
Harvest beets when they are at one to three inches in diameter. Begin with some smaller ones as a thinning method and let some of them grow larger. Harvested beets will keep for months packed in moist sand and kept in a cool basement or garage; first trim the top off to one-half inch.
Now comes the fun part…. cooking and eating the final product. There are so many new and interesting recipes available. Maybe they really aren’t “new,” but certainly 50 years ago, few people thought to grill/roast beets, or to shred them and make a salad. Prepared in these ways, they are delicious. Children might actually have grown up liking them. To roast or grill, remove the tops and peel them with a vegetable peeler. Cut into 1 to 1 ½ inch chunks. Either place them on a baking sheet or on a sheet of aluminum foil if using the grill. Drizzle with some olive oil, sprinkle with salt, pepper, and garlic powder. (Optional: add some dried or fresh diced onion.) If using the oven, roast them at 400° for 30 to 40 minutes, turning once or twice, or until tender. If grilling, close the aluminum foil packet and grill about 30 minutes. Serve and enjoy!
Certified Master Gardener