Simple Pickled Beets (And How to Grow Them)
‘Tis the season for greens, greens, roots, and more greens. This week in our CSA box, we got a lovely bunch of beets, and I picked up several more pounds of them at the farm market too.
There is something about the New Year that has me in the mood for pickled beets.
History of the Beet
The wild beet, the ancestor of the beet with which we are familiar today, is thought to have originated in prehistoric times in North Africa and grew wild along Asian and European seashores. In these earlier times, people exclusively ate the beet greens and not the roots.
The ancient Romans were one of the first civilizations to cultivate beets to use their roots as food. The tribes that invaded Rome were responsible for spreading beets throughout northern Europe where they were first used for animal fodder and later for human consumption later in the 16th century.
Beets’ value grew in the 19th century when it was discovered that they were a concentrated source of sugar, and the first sugar factory was built in Poland. When access to sugar cane was restricted by the British, Napoleon decreed that the beet be used as the primary source of sugar, catalyzing its popularity.
Around this time, beets were also first brought to the United States, where they now flourish. Today the leading commercial producers of beets include the United States, the Russian Federation, France, Poland, France and Germany.
Today, farmers across the country are fighting the introduction of genetically modified beets into their local agricultural ecosystems. They are deeply concerned that pollen drift from the GMO beets will contaminate non-GMO and organic varieties of table beets, as well as chard and related weeds.
Help support them by avoiding sugar and sugary products made from GMO sugar beets. (Hint: If it’s not organic, and it contains sugar, it almost certainly contains GMO sugar.)
Direct seeding in the garden is the easiest way to grow beets. They can be grown in most types of soil—including containers—but prefer that it be deep, moist, well-drained, and contain plenty of compost or aged manure. Beets need plenty of sun, but they can tolerate partial shade if the climate is warm.
There are tons of interesting, heirloom varieties of beets that have a panoply of flavors, colors and shapes you just can’t get from a grocery store, so have fun selecting your beet seeds from the catalogs. (We are members of the Seed Savers Exchange, and I just love their all-heirloom, full-color catalog.)
Beets are a cool weather crop, and are best sown 3 to 4 weeks before your last spring frost. Sow seeds again in late summer for a fall crop. In frost free areas, you can do a third planting in September for a February harvest.
If you are more like me, and you prefer a smaller, continuous harvest throughout the season, sow some beet seeds every three weeks, instead of all at once. In warm areas like Southern California, you can sow beets almost year round, though the warmer it is at harvest time, the less sweet the beets will be.
To aid germination, soak your beet seeds in pure water for 24 hours before planting. Plant beet seeds 2-3 inches apart, and thin to keep the beets spaced about 4-5 inches from each other. You will probably want 5-10 beets per person in your household, across the season. If you ferment or can your beets for longterm storage and enjoyment (see pickled beet recipe below), you will probably want to plant more.
Beets are seldom bothered by pests or disease. Companion plants for beets include bush beans, anything in the cabbage family, corn, leeks, lettuce, lima beans, onions, and radishes. Do not plant beets near mustard and pole beans. (Where to get the “Bible” of companion planting)
Beets take about 45 to 65 days to mature, unless you are harvesting them early for baby salad greens. Pick the greens anytime, but harvest the roots when they are between 1 and 3 inches wide, for greatest sweetness.
Both beets and Swiss chard are different varieties within the same plant family (Amaranthaceae-Chenopodiaceae) and their edible leaves share a resemblance in both taste and texture. However, unlike chard, attached to the beet’s green leaves is a round or oblong root. Although typically a beautiful reddish-purple hue, beets also come in varieties that feature white or golden roots, as well as rings and stripes.
These colorful root vegetables contain powerful nutrient compounds that help protect against heart disease, birth defects and certain cancers, especially colon cancer. Beets are an excellent source of the B vitamin, folate, and a very good source of manganese and potassium. They are a good source of dietary fiber, vitamin C, magnesium, iron, copper and phosphorus. Beets are also regarded as an excellent liver cleansing, detoxifying, anti-cancer, and anti-inflammatory food.
The main ingredient in the traditional eastern European soup, borscht, beets are delicious eaten raw, but are more typically cooked or pickled. Raw beet roots have a crunchy texture that turns soft and buttery when they are cooked. Beet leaves are delicious and can be prepared raw or cooked as you would use spinach or Swiss chard. They are incredibly rich in nutrients, concentrated in vitamins and minerals as well as carotenoids such as beta-carotene and lutein/zeaxanthin. And when beets are fermented (see recipe below), they become little powerhouses of nutrition!
Selection and Storage
Choose small or medium-sized beets whose roots are firm, smooth-skinned and deep in color. Smaller, younger beets may be so tender that peeling won’t be needed after they are cooked.
Avoid beets that have spots, bruises or soft, wet areas, all of which indicate spoilage. Shriveled or flabby should also be avoided as these are signs that the roots are aged, tough and fibrous. While the quality of the greens does not reflect that of the roots, if you are going to eat them, look for greens that appear fresh, tender, and have a bright green color.
Store beets unwashed in the refrigerator crisper where they will keep for two to four weeks. Cut the majority of the greens and their stems from the roots, so they do not pull away moisture away from the root. Leave about two inches of the stem attached to prevent the roots from “bleeding.” Store the unwashed greens in a separate plastic bag where they will keep fresh for about four days.
Pickled or sour beets are a traditional fermented, probiotic food that improves digestion by stimulating stomach acid and bile, and supports your immune system by replenishing the beneficial bacteria in your gut. They are easy to make and hard to keep around!
Simple Pickled Beets Recipe
(Makes 1/2 gallon or 2 liters)
You will need a fermenting crock, an air-lock fermenting jar or a latch-lid type canning jar to make this recipe. (Where to find fermenting tools online)
- 5 pounds beets, peeled (red, golden or striped. Don’t use golden or striped beets with red ones unless you want all the beets to turn red)
- 3 Tbsp. sea salt
- 1 Tbsp. caraway seeds
- Thoroughly clean and sterilize the container and utensils you will be using.
- Wash, drain and then cut your beets into halves or quarters.
- Grate, shred or chop the beets into a non-metal bowl. You can do this by hand or with a food processor. Pieces should be about the size of a quarter, or smaller. I prefer a coarse shred.
- With a wooden spoon, mix the grated beets with sea salt, to taste. (Metal and fermentation don’t mix!)
- Add caraway seeds either whole or crushed. Crushed caraway seeds give a more intense flavor.
- Pack the beets firmly and evenly into a clean crock, glass jar or enamel container until liquid comes out of the beets freely. Leave 2 inches of room at the top of a jar or 4-5 inches of room at the top of a crock.
- Make sure juice covers the beets completely! Once beets are immersed, place a plate on top of the beets (if using a crock) and a large freezer bag filled with water on top of the plate. (I use 2 large bags, one inside the other so that if the bag breaks, it will not water down the beets into a tasteless mess.)
- If you are using canning jars, place a couple small, heavy rocks (boil them first) into 2 doubled-up sandwich bags, and use that to weigh down the beets inside the jar. Latch or screw the lid down loosely.
- The beets must be completely submerged so no air can get in and contaminate the them with unwanted yeasts or molds!
- Put jar or crock in a cool area where the temperature will be around 75 degrees. Fermentation will begin within a day, depending upon the room temperature. If temperature too high or too low, the beets may not ferment and could spoil!
- Cover the container with a clean towel and check after 2 days, releasing some of the carbon dioxide that has built up inside. Scoop any scum off the top (it is harmless), and repack. Check every 3 days and repeat as necessary.
- After 2 weeks, sample the beets to see if they taste ready to eat. The flavor will continue to mature for the next several weeks. Refrigerating the beets will extend their shelf life.
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