The beet is a fleshy root vegetable, used for food and the making of sugar. Beets are hard and crunchy when raw, but become soft and smooth when cooked.
Beets come in different varieties which range in color from white, yellow and multicolored to the more popular maroon colored ones. This fleshy root vegetable is high in dietary fiber, Vitamin C, manganese, copper and potassium making it a very nutritious food. Though beets are high in sugar and sweet to taste, they are also very low in calories.
Beets can be grated and used raw in salads, pickled, or cooked and used with other vegetables.
Root: 1 ½" - 3" diameter. Leaves can spread about 12" and grow to about 8-12" high.
The color of red/purple beetroot is due to a variety of betalain pigments, unlike most other red plants, such as red cabbage, which contain anthocyanin pigments. The composition of different betalain pigments can vary, giving breeds of beetroot which are yellow or other colors in addition to the familiar deep red.
Beetroot comes in a variety of colors including blood red, purple, orange and pink. There are many cultivars on the market like the heirloom variety, ‘Bull’s Blood’, which is very dark red. Beets perform best when temperatures are cooler, so they are generally sown in late winter to early spring and harvested by late spring or early summer. Beet greens are also edible and can be eaten separately from the root.
Selecting and Buying
Avoid large beets which have a hairy taproot. All those tiny roots (hair) are an indication of age and toughness. Most beets that come to the market will be 1-1/2 to 2 inches in diameter. Any larger and they begin to grow a tough, woody center. Smaller beets will be sweeter and more tender.
Purchase fresh beets only if the leaf stems are still attached to insure ultimate freshness. Avoid beets with scales or spots.
The plants we know as beets are in the same family as chard. While chard is grown for its leaves, beets were traditionally grown from their bulbous roots. However, all parts of the beet plant are edible. All types of beets and chard will cross-pollinate with one another.
Beets are not quite as cold tolerant as something like broccoli, but they can tolerate a light frost and they do like cool temperatures, so beets are generally grown in the spring or fall.
Beets are biennial. They will no flower until their roots have matured and they’ve had at least 1 month of cold temperatures.
You can start harvesting greens when they are a couple of inches tall. The greens are most tender before they reach 6". Beet roots are ready to harvest when they are approx. 1 ½ - 2" in diameter. Larger roots are tougher and more fibrous.
Harvest by tugging or digging. Leave at least 1" of the leaves on, to avoid bleeding during cooking.
Beets don't transplant well and are always planted from seed. The beet seed in packets is really clumps of 4-6 seeds. You can plant the whole clump and thin and use the greens when they get a few inches tall or you try and separate the clumps into individual seeds before planting. The safest way to do this is to gently run a rolling pin over the clumps. Be careful not to crush the seeds. Personally, I find it easier to simply thin the young greens.
Beet seeds can be slow to germinate, because of their tough outer shell. Soaking the seed clusters over night will help soften the shell and speed germination. You can always use the old trick of planting fast sprouting radishes in the same row as your beets. It helps mark the row and loosen the soil. By the time the beets start to develop, the radishes are ready to be pulled.
Another germination trick is to cover the seed in the garden with vermiculite, peat moss or some other non-crusting material. This will keep the seed moist and warm, but not inhibit it from breaking through the surface. This trick is very useful in gardens with less than ideal soil.
Beets grow with a portion of the root above ground, so seeds do not need to be planted deeply. 1/2" to 1" deep is sufficient, planting deeper as the temperature warms.
Beets are planted only about 2-3" apart. That's all the space the roots need and when the leaves start growing together, they provide a cooling mulch for the roots. You can plant in rows, wide rows or blocks. It's easiest to simply broadcast the seed and thin to the recommended spacing. All thinnings can be eaten.
Preparation and Use
Select beets that are similar in size. They should be smooth, round and a deep red color. If available, choose beets with fresh, dark green tops.
Prepare the cleaned beets gently to prevent tearing the thin skins: cook the beets before cutting or peeling. This will help retain the beet's color and flavor.
Conserving and Storing
To store beets, trim the leaves 2 inches from the root as soon as you get them home. The leaves will sap the moisture from the beet root. Do not trim the tail. Store the leaves in a separate plastic bag and use within two days. The root bulbs should also be bagged and can be stored in the refrigerator crisper drawer 7 to 10 days.
Cooked or canned beets may be refrigerated up to one week.
Fresh cooked beets may also be frozen up to ten months. Be sure to peel before freezing in airtight containers or baggies, leaving no air in the container. They may be frozen whole or in cut pieces.