Beets, or “beetroot”, are plants with edible greens and taproot in the Amaranthaceae family. They are part of the species Beta vulgaris, along with swiss chard and sugar beets. The plant was first cultivated in the Mediterranean regions and Middle-East and is now a staple ingredient in cuisines throughout Europe and North America.
In North America, the round sweet root vegetables are called “beets”, whereas in British English and other parts of the world they are referred to as “beetroot.” Today, beets are one of the few vegetables that are locally grown and available year-round in the Adirondack region.
For many reasons, beets have earned a tough reputation in the United States. People either love them or hate them. Some people are sensitive to their “earthy” flavor, that is thanks to a compound called geosmin, which is also the compound that we associate with the smell of “fresh rain” and “forest soil”. Some people are much more sensitive to this compound than others. However, their nutritional, symbolic, and practical characteristics have kept them on the menu from 1000+ BCE to today.
Above: Red beets Left: Swiss chard, a plant grown for its greens in the same species as beets
History and Facts
What we know as the beet today originates from a wild “sea beet” that grew on the coasts of Europe, North Africa, Asia, and India. Beets were first grown and eaten by Ancient Greeks, Romans, and Israelites mostly for their edible leaves. Their large stalks were eaten like chard. The leaves, stems, and roots were also used medicinally by Ancient Romans specifically to alleviate constipation.
The first recorded evidence of beet roots (what we call beets in the US) being cultivated and eaten regularly traces back to 1542 in Germany and Italy. Initially, beets were long and skinny and looked more like a parsnip. By the end of the 1500s, beets commonly used looked like the bulbous round beets that are common today. Northeastern Europe was the first region to make beets a culinary staple.
Due to the sugary nature of beets, in the 1740s, a chemist in Berlin developed a way to extract sucrose from their roots. Fredrick the Great, King of Prussia subsidized the sugar beet industry, and a sugar beet extraction plant was built in what is now western Poland during his leadership from 1740-1772. As the popularity in “sugar beets” (large beets grown and bred specifically for high sucrose content roots) grew, so did beet beer, molasses, and other sweetened products.
In the 16th century, beet juice was used as a dye for clothing, and in the 19th century, Victorians used beet juice to dye their hair. Beets are also an important part of folklore and culture even today. During the Jewish celebration of Rosh Hashana beets, apples, pomegranates, and other fruits and vegetables may be eaten in setting intentions for a “healthy and sweet” New Year. Learn much more about why and how beetroots are sometimes part of Rosh Hashanna ceremonies here.
Because beets were a staple crop for European colonists settling in North America because they can be grown in cooler climates and store well during the winter. They were an important survival crop, especially during what European colonists called the “Six Weeks of Want”, the time from January to March in the Northeastern parts of modern-day United States when most plantlife is dormant and most vegetables and fruits in storage have been used up.
The beet was also an important food in the United States during World War II, as Victory Gardens popularized across the country. The beet was easy to grow and embodied the culture of prudent resourcefulness as the greens could be picked and eaten, and the root can be prepared and used in many ways.
Harvest at Juniper Hill Farm,Wadhams, NY by Ben Stechschulte
How They are Grown
The current top producers of both edible beet roots, and sugar beets are Russia, France, the United States, and Germany. Minnesota and North Dakota are top US states for growing sugar beets, which are usually done on a large commercial scale. Sugar beet production is such a large industry, it’s estimated that 30% of sugar in the world is from sugar beets. Edible beet roots and greens are grown on most diversified vegetable farms in the Northeast.
Beets come in lots of different colors, shapes, and sizes. From large deep red, to smaller golden, pink, striped, and white roots. They are a staple of farmers’ market tables, CSA shares, and farmstand veggies in the Adirondacks.
Generally, freshly-picked beets with their greens attached are available from local farms from June to November. Beets without the greens attached, commonly packaged in a plastic bag and called “storage beets” are generally available the rest of the year.
On small-scale farms, beets are usually grown in dense rows, loosened from the soil, and picked by hand. They can be grown by directly planting seeds into the soil, or transplanting small plants started in a greenhouse. Farmers adjust the soil, water, and planting time to help the plants develop large, tender roots.
Beets are also commonly grown in the Northeast as part of brightly colored micro-green mixes along with chard.
3 Ways to Enjoy
As mentioned, beets are an incredibly sweet, tender, vegetable that we have the joy of being able to enjoy almost year-round in the Adirondacks!
Because of the same things that make beets the deep red color, they are full of nutrients and vitamins not commonly found in other vegetables. According to the Cleveland Clinic, they are high in fiber, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and anti-inflammatory properties.
A word of caution, if you’ve never prepared fresh beets at home before, know that their juice may stain your cutting board, hands, and kitchen towels. Also, their bright red color pigments don’t break down when we eat them, so you may notice some totally harmless but potentially alarming side effects the first time you eat fresh beets.
Tips to Cook Beets so They Don’t Taste Like Dirt
There are a few ways that beets can be prepared that mask their “earthy” flavor. One way is to pair them with bright, sweet, fresh flavors. By adding vinegar, lemon juice, fresh herbs, tangy cheese or yogurt to your dish, you will help balance the flavor. This is why you commonly see roasted beets and goat cheese together, such as in this marinated beet and goat cheese salad.
Roast or Sautee Them
The most popular, and arguably most versatile preparation for beets is to roast them. Some people roast, then remove the skins, others use a veggie peeler to remove the skin before roasting. If they are grown organically, you can scrub them well and keep the skin on if you choose! Roasted beets are a great side dish, salad topping, and snack option. Added to any dish, they make it a meal. This recipe explains how to store and prepare beets with the greens attached.
Eat Them Raw
Beets can totally be enjoyed raw. Choose firmer beets and thinly slice, grate, or spiralize them to be included as toppings for salads, tacos, wraps, and whatever you enjoy. This recipe uses a spiralizer to make long ribbons of beets topped with an easy ginger-sesame dressing.
Beets at Craigardan, located in Elizabethtown, NY by Jeff Mertz
Where to Buy Local
Wherever local veggies are sold near you! Find farmers’ markets, local food retail locations, and farmstands open during the winter at AdirondackHarvest.com.
Do you enjoy beets? Comment below and let us know.