Why Beets Deserve the Spotlight

lubitsch/ iStock / Getty Images Plus
lubitsch/ iStock / Getty Images Plus

For years, earthy-tasting beets languished on “most hated vegetables” lists, but things started to change when the now-ubiquitous beet and goat cheese salads spread quickly across menus around the country. With a lot going for them in the looks, taste and nutrition categories, one might say beets can’t be beat.

Roots and Greens — How to Cook Beets

Beets purchased at farmers markets and supermarkets today have a larger root bulb than the wild beets that grew in ancient Asia, Europe and North Africa, which is why only the greens were typically consumed back then. Beet greens can be eaten raw in salads, but are frequently sautéed or steamed, much like their botanical cousins chard and spinach. The roots, most often thought of as ruby-hued, can range in color — including yellow, white and even striped — and are as versatile as they are beautiful.

Classic culinary treatments include pickling or blending cooked beets into soups, such as Russian borscht. Raw beets are a popular juicing ingredient, yielding a perfectly pink concoction. They can be grated, diced or thinly sliced for a colorful salad or edible garnish. Grilling or roasting beets and serving either hot or cold brings out their natural sweetness. Steaming or boiling also are popular options. Using cooked beets in baked goods, such as a reduced-fat cake or brownie recipe, adds nutrients and moisture.

And, for those who don’t want the trouble of preparing beets from their raw state, pre-cooked, plain beets are available in the refrigerated produce section of supermarkets, along with canned beets, in forms including pickled, glazed and unadorned.

Beets and Nutrition

Fresh beets present a double bounty; their greens and root bulbs both are edible. A one-cup serving of cooked beet greens is an excellent source of vitamins A and K, potassium and magnesium, and a good source of calcium. A cup of beetroot is an excellent source of folate, as well as a good source of fiber and potassium.

Recent attention has been drawn to the high nitrate content of beets. Research suggests the natural nitrate in vegetables and fruits — which is reduced in our bodies to nitrite, nitric oxide and other metabolites — is partly responsible for heart-healthy benefits conferred by a produce-packed diet, such as lowered blood pressure levels.

Athletes are increasingly interested in dietary nitrate supplementation with beet juice (sometimes called beetroot juice); research indicates it may improve performance by decreasing the amount of oxygen needed during exercise, increasing blood flow to exercising muscles and lengthening the amount of time one can exercise before reaching exhaustion.

Beet juice products are now marketed to elite athletes — although sports dietitians may want to counsel their clients to eat all sorts of fruits and vegetables, including those that are higher in nitrate.

Using Beets in Foodservice

Beets can be economical and versatile. They are available in a range of cuts and sizes, including shoestring, baby beets, diced, sliced and whole. Canned beets can be enhanced with a dusting of citrus peel and a sprinkle of toasted nuts for a salad or mashed with sweet potatoes or yams for a colorful side dish.

Storing fresh beets takes adequate refrigerator space, especially if they have greens attached. To store, separate the greens from the roots; the tops will keep for a few days in perforated bags, while the roots will last a week or more in the refrigerator crisper drawer. Always wash well before use.

Cooking fresh beets for a crowd calls for a bit of prep time — washing, peeling and slicing — and, depending on their size (smaller beets cook faster) and cooking method, beets can take more than an hour to become tender. The outer peel of a beet is easily slipped off after cooking, which helps preserve nutrients. Raw beet recipes usually call for peeled beets, so wear gloves to prevent staining your hands.

Roasted fresh beets can be enhanced with a drizzle of balsamic or orange juice-based glaze. Sliced fresh beets roast in about the same time as carrots and potatoes that are cut to the same thickness; toss slices in olive oil and season before roasting to create a colorful side dish for the fall season.

Related Recipe

  • Caramelized Beet and Sweet Onion Soup
Kitty Broihier on FacebookKitty Broihier on LinkedinKitty Broihier on Twitter
Kitty Broihier
Kit Broihier, MS, RD, LD, is a writer, nutrition instructor and recipe developer based in South Portland, Maine. She is president of NutriComm Inc., a food and nutrition communications consulting company. Find her work on nutricomm.com and glutenfreeslowcooking.com, and follow her on Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest and Twitter.