Beetroots are notable for their sweetness, they have the highest sugar
content of any vegetable, but they are very low in calories. Fresh beetroot
also supplies a nutritional bonus, their green tops are an excellent
source of beta-carotene, calcium, and iron.
They belong to the botanical species Beta vulgaris, which also includes
sugar beets (which are processed for sugar), mangel-wurzels (very large
roots used as animal fodder), foliage beets, and Swiss chard (the latter
two grown for their greens, not their roots). All these vegetables are
descended from a wild slender-rooted plant that grew abundantly in southern
Europe. In ancient civilisations, only the green leaves of the beet
plant were eaten; the roots, which did not look like modern beets, were
used medicinally to treat headaches and toothaches. Beets with good-sized,
rounded roots, like those we eat today, were probably developed in the
sixteenth century, though it took another 200 years before they gained
any popularity as a food.
Beets are marketed in a range of sizes. Early crop beets are usually
sold in bunches with the tops attached, or as clip-topped beets in perforated
plastic bags. If those you buy are bunched, choose equal-sized ones
so that they will cook evenly. Very small "baby" beets, golf
ball sized immature roots that have been pulled to thin the farmer's
rows are particularly good. Medium-size beets are fine for most cooking
purposes, but very large specimens (over 2 1/2" in diameter) may
be tough, with unpalatable woody cores.
Look for smooth, hard, round beets;
a healthy deep red color is an indicator of quality. The surface should
be unbruised and free of cuts. Avoid beets with soft, moist spots or
shriveled, flabby skin. The taproot, which extends from the bulbous
part of the beet, should be slender.
the leaves are attached, and especially if you're planning to eat them,
it's preferable that they be small, crisp, and dark green. Leaves that
are larger than about 8" are probably too mature to be palatable.
Limp, yellowed leaves have lost their nutritional value. However, beets
with wilted greens may still be acceptable, because the leaves deteriorate
much more quickly than the roots. If the leaves on the beets offered
at your market look less than fresh, be sure to check the roots extra
carefully for soundness. If the beets are clip-topped, at least 1/2"
of the stems (and 2" of the taproot) should remain, or the color
will bleed from the beets as they cook.
To reduce moisture loss from the roots, cut off beet greens before storing,
but leave at least 1" of the stem attached (tiny leaf-topped baby
beets can be stored for a day or two with their tops intact). Place
the unwashed roots in a plastic bag and store in the refrigerator salad
drawer for up to three weeks. Store the greens separately in the same
fashion and use them as soon as possible; they are perishable and will
keep for only a few days.
Generally speaking, to preserve their colour and nutrients, beets should
never be cut or peeled before cooking them in liquid; otherwise, they
will "bleed" their rich red juices while cooking and turn
an unappetising dull brown. Scrub the beets very gently and rinse well,
but be careful not to break the skin, which is quite thin. Leave at
least 1" of stem and don't trim the root.
are done when you can easily pierce them with the tip of a sharp knife.
Once cooked, you can peel them; the skin of a cooked beet will slip
right off. (However, it's wise to use a paper towel or wear gloves to
keep the beet juice from staining your hands.) Then cut the beet in
quarters, slices, cubes, or in long, thin strip or, if they're small,
beets hold their colour better if some acid ingredient is added to the
cooking water; vinegar or lemon juice, used in many beet recipes, will
keep them a beautiful crimson.