Why Eat It
Nutrition Chart

Why Eat It

Beets are notable for their sweetness--they have the highest sugar content of any vegetable, but they are very low in calories. Their sweet flavor comes through whether the beets are fresh or canned (which is the way most beets are sold in the U.S.). Unlike many other processed vegetables, canned beets are perfectly acceptable in both taste and texture; if not pickled, their sweet flavor is largely unaffected by the canning process. Fresh beets, however, have twice the folate (folic acid) and potassium, and have a distinctive flavor and a crisp texture not found in canned beets. Fresh beets also supply a nutritional bonus--their green tops are an excellent source of beta-carotene, calcium, and iron.

The beets we eat as a vegetable (also called red beets, root beets, and table beets) are a root vegetable with two parts, the root and the edible green leaves. They belong to the botanical species Beta vulgaris, which also includes sugar beets (which are processed for sugar), mangel-wurzels (very large bulbs 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 civilizations, 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.


The beets generally seen in the market are globe-shaped roots, with deep red flesh and green leaves that have either green or red veins. Other less common varieties have golden or white flesh, but these are mainly raised by local growers and home gardeners.


Fresh beets are always in good supply. They are grown in more than 30 states, and crops are harvested and shipped throughout the year. June through October, however, are peak months, and at the start of the season you can find young beets with small tender roots that are suitable for cooking whole. The roots get larger--and tougher--as the season goes on. In the off-peak months, you may also find "clip-topped" beets that have been in storage, but these are less tender than freshly harvested beets.


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--radish-size immature roots that have been pulled to thin the farmer's rows--are a delicacy. Sold (and cooked) with the tender leaves attached, they may be found in early summer at farmers' markets and specialty greengrocers. Small, young beets (about 1 1/2" in diameter) are pleasingly tender and cook in less time than larger ones; their fine texture is also an asset if you intend to use them raw in a salad. 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.

If 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 crisper 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 color 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 unappetizing 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.

Beets 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 strips--or, if they're small, serve whole.

Cooked beets hold their color 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.

Baking: Dry-heat cooking locks in nutrients and intensifies the natural sweetness of beets. It's not a quick method, though: To save time, cook a large quantity of beets at once, then chill some for later use in salads. You can also bake beets when you're baking or roasting something else. Wrap beets in foil, place them in a baking pan, and bake in a 350°F to 400°F oven until tender. Unwrap and let stand until they're just cool enough to handle, then peel them while still warm. Cooking time: 1 1/2 to 2 hours, depending on size.

You can also slice peeled beets, then layer them with thinly sliced onions or apples in a casserole. Add a little broth or stock to keep them moist and cover tightly, then bake/braise. Cooking time: 30 to 60 minutes.

Boiling: This is the most common way of cooking beets, but some of the color (and nutrients) will be lost in the cooking water. Place beets in a pot of boiling water, cover, and simmer until the beets are just tender. Cooking time: 40 minutes to 2 hours, depending on the size and the age of the beets.

Microwaving: Place one pound of whole beets in a microwavable dish with 1/4 cup of liquid. Cover and cook until tender. Cooking time: 10 minutes.

Steaming: Beets can be cooked in a vegetable steamer over boiling water. Tiny beets can be steam-boiled with their leaves attached in a little water with lemon juice and herbs added. Cooking time: 40 minutes.

Nutrition Chart

Beets/1 cup diced cooked

Total fat (g)
Saturated fat (g)
Monounsaturated fat (g)
Polyunsaturated fat (g)
Dietary fiber (g)
Carbohydrate (g)
Cholesterol (mg)
Sodium (mg)
Folate (mcg)
Manganese (mg)
Potassium (mg)

Date Published: 04/19/2005
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