Beetroot is dead easy to grow. Sow the seeds directly in the garden, and sow the seeds at a depth approximately three times the diameter of the seed. Soak seeds in water 24 hours before planting so that you can separate them easily. Thinning is nearly always required as seedlings emerge from a seedball of several seeds. If you don’t thin them, you will get a number of rather pathetic plants which don’t grow to an edible size. Harvest in 55 – 70 days but will keep in ground for longer.
Keep well-watered as dry beetroot develop a woody and inedible core. Tip from the Italian Gardener “Make sure the top of the beet’s bulb is covered with soil; this keeps the entire bulb the same color and prevents ‘corkiness’ at the top of the bulb.” For tasty and tender beetroot, start harvesting at golfball-size.
Like many modern vegetables, beetroot was first cultivated by the Romans. By the 19th century it held great commercial value when it was discovered that beets could be converted into sugar. Today, the leading commercial producers include the USA, Russia, France, Poland and Germany. Many classic beetroot recipes are associated with central and Eastern Europe including the famous beetroot soup known as borscht. Beetroot’s earthy charm has resulted in its ubiquitous influence on fashionable menus and recipes. Its delicious but distinctive flavour and nutritional status have escalated it to the root you can’t beat!
Belonging to the same family as chard and spinach, both the leaves and root can be eaten – the leaves have a bitter taste whereas the round root is sweet. Typically a rich purple colour, beetroot can also be white or golden. Due to its high sugar content, beetroot is delicious eaten raw but is more typically cooked or pickled.
Beetroot is of exceptional nutritional value; especially the greens, which are rich in calcium, iron and vitamins A and C. Beetroots are an excellent source of folic acid and a very good source of fibre, manganese and potassium. The greens should not be overlooked; they can be cooked up and enjoyed in the same way as spinach.
Beetroots have long been used for medicinal purposes, primarily for disorders of the liver as they help to stimulate the liver’s detoxification processes. The plant pigment that gives beetroot its rich, purple-crimson colour is betacyanin; a powerful agent, thought to suppress the development of some types of cancer.
Beetroot is rich in fibre, exerting favourable effects on bowel function, which may assist in preventing constipation and help to lower cholesterol levels too.
Good quality, fresh beetroots should have their greens intact. The greens should be fresh-looking with no signs of spoilage. The beetroot should be firm, smooth, and a vibrant red-purple, not soft, wrinkled or dull in colour. Fresh beets with the greens attached can be stored for three to four days in the fridge, but beets with the greens removed can be stored in the fridge for two to four weeks. Raw beets do not freeze well since they tend to become soft on thawing. Freezing cooked beetroot is fine as it retains its flavour and texture.
Wash beets gently under cool running water, taking care not to tear the skin. It is this tough outer layer that helps keep most of the beetroot’s pigments inside the vegetable. The leaves can be steamed lightly to retain their nutritional quality. When boiling beetroot, leave the beets with their root ends and one inch of stem attached and don’t peel them until after cooking since beet juice can stain your skin.
If your hands become stained during preparation and cooking beetroot, rub some lemon juice over them to help remove the colour.
Though available year round, beets are sweetest and most tender during their peak season, from June to October. Beets are enjoying a resurgence in popularity among modern chefs. While heirloom varieties like white and golden yellow beets make for pretty dishes, only red beets have the cancer-fighting compound betacyanin.
For more information, check out Jo Lewin’s article in BBC Good Food. You can also check out a stack of beetroot recipes here!