Have you ever noticed that beets always come with a story? I mean, I’m not sure how often they come up in conversation for you 😂, but whenever I mention beets, there’s often a strong emotional connection with them.
People will often tell you how much they love them (or hate them), how they grow them, or all about their Aunt Susan’s amazing beet recipe.
Well, whether you're a beet lover or hater, we've got the answers to all your beet questions.
Here’s your guide to the health benefits and nutrition of beets, as well as how to use them in your kitchen.
What are beets
Beets, a.k.a table beets (Beta vulgaris subsp. vulgaris L) , or beetroot, and its close relatives, the mangel beet and the sugar beet are part of the Amaranthaceae family of plants.
Spinach, chard, lamb’s quarter and quinoa are also members of this family.
History of beets
Cultivation of beets has been traced back thousands of years. Greeks, Egyptians and Romans cultivated an ancestor of the modern beet in their gardens for food and used the roots for medicinal purposes.
Apparently Hippocrates used beet leaves as a bandage around 400 BC. It’s also been said that red beetroot juice was used to treat jaundice and many other blood-related ailments.
Beets were domesticated in the ancient Middle East, primarily for their greens, but harsh winters and shorter growing seasons pushed people to grow more plants for their roots. Beets were known for their “swollen” and sweet roots.
They are thought to have been brought to the Americas with colonization by the Europeans.
Where are beets grown?
Oregon, Wisconsin and New York lead the US in table beet production, with the vast majority going to either the canning industry or to use that beet red color to color various products.
Beets are also commonly grown in the higher elevations of Costa Rica. And both sugar and table beets are grown commercially in the United States.
Varieties of beets
Red and yellow beets: The most common variety of table beet is red in color, with an earthy, sweet flavor. Most yellow or gold beets have a milder flavor than their red cousins. They're often more popular because they tend to be sweeter and have a less earthy flavor.
Beet flavors can range from candy-sweet to almost bitter, depending on the type of beet and how long it spends growing in the earth.
Chioggia, is an heirloom Italian beet with a red-and-white bullseye design. It's also known as the candy cane beet because of its vibrant coloration.
Sugar beets (different from table beets) are grown for the high sugar content of the roots, which can be 20% sugar. Whereas table beets have about 6% sugar in their roots.
Sugar beets are a major crop in states like Minnesota and Michigan. Sugar beets are white, sweet, and much larger than ordinary garden beets, with roots that often measure 6 inches or more across.
A little over half of the sugar produced in the US comes from sugar beets. However, sugar beets are not directly consumed by people and need to be processed in order to produce white sugar.
Mangel beets grow to a size of 15 to 20 pounds and two feet long. They are primarily grown as livestock feed, but smaller varieties can be eaten by humans as well.
When is beet season?
Most types of beet plants are tolerant of heat, but they truly thrive in temperatures between 60-65 degrees Fahrenheit and can withstand chilly temps just shy of freezing.
They can be planted 30 days before the frost-free date of your region.
Beets can often be planted twice, in early spring and later in the fall to be harvested in winter.
The peak season for beet harvest is generally mid-summer through late fall, but they are readily available through the winter in most regions.
Seek out beets that feel heavy for their size, with no mushy areas. If they’re sold with their greens attached, the leaves should be firm and fresh (not wilted) and without yellow spots.
Beets with their greens attached tend to be smaller and younger (better for eating raw), and loose beets are generally larger and have had more time to grow (their greens are often past their prime).
The greens and roots should be stored separately. Store unwashed beets (greens removed) in the refrigerator for up to four weeks.
The greens are more delicate and should be consumed within about three days of purchase. Cut greens about an inch from the roots and store in a damp towel or in an unsealed bag in the fridge.
Beet roots can be stored for long periods of time (similar to apples). Store beets in the refrigerator or in a cool basement or root cellar.
You can also pickle beets as you would cucumber—they'll last indefinitely when canned properly, but if you don't own a canner, you can store them in a sealed jar in the fridge for a few weeks.
Nutrition and health benefits
Beets are incredibly nutrient-dense. They are high in fiber, folate and manganese, and are a decent source of Vitamin C, potassium and magnesium. The pigments that give beets their bright color are antioxidants that may help reduce the risk of cancer.
Beets naturally contain nitrates—different from those found in cured and deli meats—that have been shown to improve energy, boost athletic performance and reduce cholesterol levels. The nitrates in beets turn into nitric oxide in our bodies. This process can relax blood vessels, improve blood flow, and lower blood pressure.
Beet greens are equally, if not even more, nutritious than the beetroot. They are high in fiber, vitamins A, C, and K, riboflavin, calcium, iron and plenty more. The nutrients in beet greens (and beets) can help strengthen your immune system and keep you regular.
This hand-staining root vegetable boasts many health benefits.
How to prepare beets
Every single part of the table beet is edible — roots, stems and leaves — and they’re all delicious.
Always wash your beets well and cut off the ends. You can either leave the skins on (my preference) or peel them.
The skins are edible and you don’t have to remove them. Just scrub them well and cook your beets as normal! I usually only peel them if I’m pureeing my beets (like for hummus).
To remove the skin you can boil them, let cool a bit and then using a paper towel, rub the skins off. The peelings come off very easily with this method.
You can also use a vegetable peeler to remove the skins. Make sure to save them and try your hand at homemade beet skin chips!
How to use beets
Beets can be eaten raw, roasted, boiled, baked, steamed, sautéed or even made into chips. This earthy vegetable is excellent paired with salty or creamy cheese (think feta, goat cheese, ricotta), nuts and citrus.
Beets have a very characteristic earthy flavor from a compound called geosmin. Many people don’t like the earthy, dirt-like flavor of beets, but different varieties contain different amounts of geosmin.
Yellow beets generally have lower levels of geosmin so people who don’t care for the earthy flavor of beets may like the yellow variety more.
Raw beets can have a very strong earthy, and sometimes bitter flavor (especially if they’re older), but when they’re roasted, they can turn almost candy-like. If you’re eating them raw, younger, early-season beets will be less bitter.
Beets are also great for baking—their vibrant color acts as a natural dye, making foods like chocolate cakes much richer and darker in color.
For longer preservation, you can also try pickling, lacto-fermenting or freezing your beets.
Ways to use beets:
- Bake them like a potato - wrap in foil and bake until tender
- Make beet hummus
- Slice thin and bake into beet chips
- Roast and add to your favorite Buddha bowl
- Puree into a Polish soup called Borscht that can be served hot or cold
- Pickle like cucumbers for a long-lasting, flavorful condiment
Using beet greens
The leaves are excellent raw, boiled, steamed and sautéed. Add them to any recipe calling for spinach or chard. The stems are also delicious and can be cooked the same way you’d cook chard stems or bok choy; either boiled in salted water until tender, sautéed, steamed or braised.
- Try them sautéed with garlic and red pepper flakes for a nutritious side dish
- Use in place of spinach in a soup or pasta
- Use beet greens instead of basil to make a beet green pesto
How to get that beet red color off your hands
Beets can “bleed” and make a big mess of your kitchen, countertops, hands and clothes.
It’s been said that you can reduce the bleeding by cutting off the greens at least an inch from the beet root. There's also less color transfer with yellow beets.
If you do end up with red stains on your hands or cutting boards, a little lemon juice should help get the stains out. Just rub stained areas with lemon juice and wash with warm soap and water.
Beet fun facts
Betanin, the red color compound obtained from the roots of beets, is used industrially as red food colorant and flavor enhancer for products like tomato paste, desserts, jams and jellies, ice cream, candy, and breakfast cereals,
Betanin is not broken down in the body, and in higher concentrations, may temporarily cause urine or stools to take on a reddish color. It’s not dangerous, but can cause alarm if you’re not expecting it. Definitely been there...