Kitchen garden harvest: A brief history of beets

Posted by Jordan Laio | Aug 10, 2011
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La Grande Farmers' Market/FlickrThe stereotypical beet of today is a large, sweet, crimson bulb. There are in fact many varieties of beets which come in different colors, from golden to alternating white-and-pink, to white, and each variety has its own nuanced flavor and lends itself to different methods of cooking, including roasting and sautéing.

Beets, Beta vulgaris, are in the Chenopodiaceae or "Goosefoot family" and are closely related to chard. The ancestor of modern cultivated beet varieties is known as "sea beet", which still grows wild throughout the Mediterranean. However, it doesn't have much of a root bulb to speak of – it is harvested for its leaves.

According to William Woys Weaver in 100 Vegetables and Where They Came From, the beet was domesticated by 800 BCE but hadn't yet fully developed some of the characteristics by which we know it today. By 100 CE there are records of round, red bulbous beets, but farmers were still developing it into our modern varieties. By the 16th century, fodder beets are recorded as existing in Europe. These are large and coarse beet roots used mainly as livestock feed. The bulbs can sometimes grow to 15 pounds.

The modern sugar beet was created in the 18th century in Europe as a reaction to Europeans' addiction to sugar. The stage had been set by Andreas Marggraf discovering the ability to isolate sugar from beets in 1747. Another European, Moritz Baron von Koppy, had developed the “white Silesian,” the ancestor of all modern sugar beets, around 1800. When the English blocked the shipment of sugar into Europe during the Napoleonic wars in the beginning of the 19th century, the beet sugar industry, of necessity, was born. The sugar beet first made its way to the United States later in that century and is still enjoyed to this day.

Beets are a hardy garden vegetable and will grow in all types of soil. Seeds germinate after 8-10 days. They are considered a cool weather crop but will bolt if exposed to temperatures below 40 to 50 degrees for too many days.

A look through any heirloom seed catalogue reveals the diversity in beets available. Some popular varieties are the flat Egyptian beet, Chioggia, and Bull's Blood. Unfortunately, many people think they don't like beets because their only experience has been with canned beets. Most people do not even know that beets also have edible (and quite tasty) leaves.

There are many variations on Moroccan beet salad, but this is a good beet recipe with which to start: Use high quality, fresh, organically grown beets if you can get them.  This recipe is inspired by a recipe in Faye Levy's 1,000 Jewish Recipes.

Moroccan Beets

Yield: 2-3 servings


4-5 small beets, or 2-3 large

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

1 medium clove garlic, pressed or finely minced

2 tablespoons olive oil

How to

Chop stems and leaves off beets if present. (These can be used in the same manner as chard.) Rinse beets and put in saucepan covered by at least one inch of water, bring to a boil. Cover and simmer on low heat for 30-40 minutes, or until tender (shorter for small beets, longer for larger).

When tender, pour out hot water and replace with cool water in order to cool beets. Once cool enough to handle, peel skins. They should slip off easily. Cut beets into 1/2-inch cubes, or a different size as you prefer.

Mix lemon juice and other ingredients in a bowl and pour over beets. Toss gently and serve cold or at room temperature.

Jordan Laio is a Hometalk - - writer.  Read more articles like this one - - or get help with your home projects on

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