Homemade Pickled Beets
It’s Like Eating Candy From a Jar
By Jerry Hourigan
I watch the Food Network channel a lot and I have yet to see my old buddies Alton, Ina, Paula or Rachael ever add beets to their menus. Not once has it been the secret ingredient for the Iron Chef competition. I think I saw Emeril give it a mention once. What is the matter with these people? Beets are probably the most neglected, unappreciated and underused vegetable in the American diet. It’s a shame really. So many are missing out on the economy, nutrition and great taste of this vegetable. I hope these food gurus are paying attention.
The humble beet has provided earthy subsistence to peasants and kings since prehistoric times, and many gardeners and cooks today remain passionate about the crop because of its easy culture, unique flavor and exceptional nutrition. They keep as well as potatoes and carrots. The whole plant is edible. Many people love the young tender green leaves which are even more delicious than spinach, Swiss chard or kale.
Beet Nutrition 101
Nutritionally speaking, beets are exceptional sources of essential vitamins and minerals. They are rich in calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, vitamin C, thiamin, riboflavin, vitamin A, and vitamin K. Beets store most of these nutrients in their leaves — which beet-eaters sometimes neglect—but also quantities in their roots. Beet greens and beetroots are one of the best dietary sources of folate, which is one of the B vitamins. Pregnant women should take note of this and add beets to their diet. Beets boast the highest natural sugar content of any vegetable, even more than carrots or sweet corn and yet have very few calories. Their relative, the sugar beet, accounts for roughly 30 percent of the sugar production in the world.
Many still view beets as an old world vegetable, dumped straight from the can onto Grandma’s Sunday dinner table or served as borscht, a dish so popular with Russians that they packaged it for their cosmonauts to eat in space. (More borscht in a tube, Comrade? No thanks.)
It’s all about how you prepare them. Beets complement other foods and are just as easy to prepare as most other vegetables. If you love the earthy taste of beets as I do, eat them simply with a generous drizzle of your best olive oil and a tiny pinch of sea salt. But beets’ biggest strength may be how well they blend with other ingredients. They harmonize with other flavors into something familiar, something entirely new, like a new arrangement of your favorite song melody. The flavor= of roasted beets is enhanced when mixed with oranges, salads, onions, nuts, bleu, and feta cheeses. The dark red color adds to the beauty of any dinner plating. And for you juicers out there, they are great when mixed with other raw vegetable juices and help to sweeten the mix.
For the home gardener, it’s a perfect addition to the garden. Beets can be planted as early as the soil can be worked. They grow fast in early spring conditions and are relatively maintenance free once established. They thrive in cool fall conditions as well.
The tender young leaves can be harvested after about two weeks and make a highly nutritious and tasty addition to salads or as cooked greens. The beetroot is best wrapped in tin foil and roasted in the oven. Using disposable kitchen gloves, take the beetroot out of the foil and properly roasted, the skin will slide right off—and you’ll be left with a crimson jewel firm enough to hold up to slicing with a knife or mandoline, but soft enough to yield in your mouth. You can also boil the beets in water for a few minutes and the skin will come off easily. But don’t use a paring knife to remove the skin like you would a potato or turnip. Beets bleed and it’s just too messy. Don’t be intimidated by beet preparation just because it’s done at fancy restaurants. Beets may be ugly, with their wispy taproot resembling the tip of a witch’s nose, but they are the Rasputin of root vegetables—incredibly hearty and nearly impossible to kill in the cooking process. When properly prepared they become soft and buttery.
Plant a row or two of beets next spring. Grow enough to be able to enjoy the green tops as well as the root. There are several varieties to choose from wherever you buy your seeds. Experiment with different recipes on preparing and serving this tasty vegetable. Beets can also be pickled and when done correctly it’s like eating candy from a jar. You have probably tried beets and beet pickles on the salad bars at restaurants and probably weren’t too impressed with them. Well, they are not very good, just like those that Grandma dumped out of the can on Sunday, bless her heart. Like the canning factories, she just didn’t know any better.
Making pickled beets is very simple, and believe me, well worth the effort and time it takes to prepare them. None that you buy already canned will be as good as what you can make in your own kitchen. Of course, it helps if you already have some experience with home canning, but even a novice can do this. If there are more than two in your family don’t bother with using pint jars with this one. Use the large mouth quart jars. They are that good.
Preparation is important. First get your work area cleaned, sanitized, and organized. Gather your tools and supplies. You will need canning jars with lids and rings, white distilled vinegar, granulated sugar, jar tongs, and an assortment of pots ranging from small to large.
When the beets are ready to harvest (about the size of tennis balls or larger) dig them up and bring them to the house. Don’t cut the tops off or wash them until right before you are ready to start canning. When ready to begin, do this outside with a large tub and water hose. Cut the tops off leaving about a half inch and wash off all the garden soil.
Making Your Own Pickled Beets
1. In a large pot, bring water to a rolling boil. Gently drop the beets into the boiling water a few at a time until the skins loosen and start to come off. This usually takes just a few minutes but it will depend on the size of the beets. Fill the sink with cold water and take the beets out of the boiling water and put into the cold water. After the beets have cooled enough to handle remove the skins, tops, and taproot, and place them on the counter top to cool slightly. (Place old newspaper or towels on the counter to soak up the excess water and any beet juice.)
2. Repeat the process until all the beets are cleaned and peeled.
3. Wash the jars in the sink or dishwasher. In another large pot of boiling water sterilize your jars. Submersed for 10 minutes. Remove jars with sterilized tongs, allow water to drain out and place on towel-covered countertop. Do not touch the rim of the jars or lids.
4. Put lids and rings into the boiling water to sterilize and soften the rubber on the lids. Reduce the heat to a simmer. Take them out as you use them.
5. Slice beets into one-quarter inch rounds or cut into quarters and fill jars. Small beets can be left whole. Leave about 1/4 inch space from top of jar.
6. In a smaller pan mix equal parts vinegar and sugar. Example: 1 cup of vinegar to 1 cup of sugar. The amount needed will vary according to how many beets you have. Bring mixture to a boil. You can keep adding to the mixture but let it come back to a boil before using.
7. Ladle boiling mixture into the beet filled jars, leaving about 1/4 inch space at the top.
8. Clean the rim of the jar with a clean paper towel and place lid on top and lightly screw on the ring. Hand tight is fine. Repeat until finished.
9. Put the jars back into the boiling water for 30 minutes and then remove back to the counter. This is called a water bath and will ensure a good seal.
10. Allow jars to sit undisturbed until they have cooled. During the sealing process, you should hear the lids click. This is a good sign.
11. When the jars have cooled overnight remove the rings and press the center of each lid. The lid should be slightly indented and should not click. If a jar did not seal properly place it into the refrigerator and start eating right away.
12. Store jars in a cool dark undisturbed place such as a cellar, basement or closet. The rings do not need to stay on the jars.
13. Check the seal of each jar carefully when you want to use them. If the seal is loose or the contents look odd or smell off, then discard.
Pickled beets in a jar. Beautiful to look at and a delightful, nutritious treat to eat. They are easy to grow, easy to prepare and easy to preserve in jars. They also make great homemade gifts for the holidays if you can bear to part with a jar or two. For another treat do as the New Zealanders and Australians do. They add a slice of pickled beet to their hamburgers! Get creative and begin enjoying the beet.
Of course, you don’t have to grow them in your garden to enjoy beets. Check out your local farmers markets and grocery stores. If you don’t have the time or resources to make your own you could try buying canned beets at the grocery store. Drain the liquid and place the beets in a jar and cover with equal parts of boiling vinegar and sugar, and keep in the refrigerator. They still won’t be as good as homemade, but certainly better than they were.
I promise the pickled beets won’t be like anything you can buy, have ever had before, or the ones Grandma served at her Sunday table. They are so good you will just sit and eat them right out of the jar.
Jeweled Beet Salad
• 4 medium-size beets with greens
• 1/4 cup rice vinegar, plus more to taste
• 2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives
• 2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint
• 1 tablespoon fresh orange juice
• 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
• Salt and freshly ground black pepper
• 4 ounces soft fresh goat cheese, crumbled
Separate the beet greens from the roots. Discard any bruised or damaged leaves. Chop the stems into ¼-inch pieces and the leaves into ¼-inch ribbons. Peel the roots and grate with a box grater or food processor.
Combine the greens and grated roots in a steamer and steam over boiling water for about 5 minutes, until tender. Immediately plunge into cold water to stop the cooking. Drain well.
Whisk together the vinegar, chives, mint, and orange juice in a medium bowl. Whisk in the oil until it is fully incorporated. Season with salt and pepper. Add the greens and beets and toss to mix. Taste again and add more salt and pepper or vinegar if desired. Crumble three-quarters of the goat cheese over the salad and toss to mix. Garnish with the remaining goat cheese and serve.
From Serving Up the Harvest, available from the Countryside Bookstore.
Originally published in the March/April 2008 issue of Countryside & Small Stock Journal.