How To Eat Beets: History, Planting Instructions, Nutrition and Recipes

Mangles, Sugar Beets, Garden Beets, Chard, and Perpetual Spinach … What’s the diff?

The beet is a master of variety. While plants like lettuce or the tomato might vary in characteristics of its edible part, each beet type emphasizes a different use of the plant. Chard for example emphasizes the edible leaves and so the leaves are huge and the roots are piddly. By comparison, mangles emphasize the starchy root and therefore, the root is the prominent part. So “how to eat a beet” really depends on which type you’re harvesting and eating. Here are the many beet types and their main differences:

MANGLES or Manglewurzels

how to eat beets mangle

Mangles are typically used as a feed for animals, but traditionally, people used them to brew spirits. If small enough, you can eat them too. The larger the root gets, though the tougher it gets, and the harder it gets for we humans to eat it.

Sugar Beets

Table sugar typically comes from two plants, sugar cane or sugar beets. The sugar beet is a large white beet. It is more than likely always genetically modified to resist the herbicide roundup. Read why here. For this reason and others, we don’t eat much table sugar.

If getting granulated sugar out of a beet is still your thing though, Bakercreek sells the non-gmo variety, and there’s always a DIY lurking somewhere to do just about anything. Here’s one that shows how to process beets to make your own table sugar. And here’s another on DIY sugar beet molasses. Otherwise there’s plenty of other sweet options in the marketplace (including honey, maple syrup, organic sugar etc).

Garden Beets

Garden beets are the beets we usually think of, the beets that are displayed in the grocery store; the beets that are found in beet juice, pickled beets, and kvass. We just made a great kvass recipe that uses ginger, orange peels and honey to complement the flavor. Find the kvass recipe here. Commonly garden beets are dark red in color, but they can also be white, yellow, pink, and striped.

Swiss Chard

Chard is the beet in leaf vegetable form. Sure you can eat any beet leaf, but with chard you get leaves that are much bigger. Chard also comes in many colors: red, yellow, orange, purple, and white varieties. Chard is great to eat in pretty much anything. Because the rib lining the center of the chard is tough and stringy, its best to remove it but the whole leaf cooks wells in stir fry, soups, salads, and casseroles. We like to cream our chard. Find our creamed chard recipe here.

Perpetual spinach is a plant you find in gardens but not grocery stores. This is because the picked leaf doesn’t store well and so needs to be eaten right after picking. Perpetual spinach is a great plant that grows dense in its space and unlike spinach, resists bolting the first year. The leaf is smaller than chard but unlike chard, there is no tough midrib; so the entire leaf can be eaten midrib and all.

Identifying Characteristics

As they are a common garden vegetable, beets don’t need any in depth identifying information, but they do grow wild in some parts of North America and many parts of Europe. So it might help to give some information on the identifying characteristics of its family, just to get you that much closer to identifying one in the wild. Beets are in the amaranth family. That means they’re related to cultivated edibles like quinoa, amaranth, and spinach, and wild edibles like lamb’s quarters, poverty weed and saltbush. (We eat lamb’s quarters frequently as a substitute to spinach and poverty weed grows everywhere here in Michigan. Saltbush is a fascinating plant native to places like Australia that I’ve read is so salty it can be used as a salt substitute. I plan on potting some this year, if I can get my hands on the seeds.)

All plants in the Amaranth family have two defining characteristics, their flowers and their soil preferences. Here the flowers of a beet and a green amaranth, for example:

beet and amaranth flowers in post titled how to eat a beet

Notice the globe-like flowers. This is one common characteristic of the family. Ragweed can be misidentified as an Amaranth according to Thomas Elpel in his book Botany in a Day. To distinguish the two, look at their leaves. Ragweed has fern-like leaves and amaranths have lance shaped or diamond shaped leaves.

The other characteristic is that most plants in the amaranth family like an alkaline soil. Some of them even grow in salt marshes. The sea beet which is commonly found along European ocean coastlines is considered the wild relative of the beets. It is known to survive in high-salt environments. This is another edible plant I would like to get and try.

Beet leaves sprout out from the beetroot in what botanists called a basal rosette (which just means the leaves come up from the base of the plant, encircling a central point).

Planting Instructions

beet seed catalog

Beets are a biennial that grow well in cool climates. They like a well drained garden alkaline soil with a PH around 6.0-7.0. Make sure the soil is nice and loose. Because we don’t have super nutrient dense soil, we plant ours 6″ apart to ensure that the plant is getting enough nutrients. We plant them 1/4″ deep and cover loosely with soil. Keep seeds wet until they germinate. If you’ve planted your beets too dense, you can thin them after they emerge. Keep them well watered, about an 1″ every week. Though we can’t prove it, the sweetness of the beet seems to have to do more with the nutrient profile in the soil and watering than the variety. Sun exposure is also a factor. If you’re goal is to have bigger, sweeter roots (mangles, sugar beets, garden beets) plant your beets in the sun. But if leaves are your preference (swiss chard, perpetual spinach) they can tolerate sun or some shade.

History

Some say people started cooking with beets in Persia, now modern-day Iran. The beet that the Persians used was some wild variety of chard. Chard eating continued with the Romans and Greeks. Many websites and books said that Aristotle mentioned a red chard variety in the 4th century; although, trying to find the source of the mention came up empty. According to the Texas Ag extension, no literature mentions the fully developed beet root as a food until the 1600’s in Germany, and it doesn’t really become established as a common food crop until the 1800’s. Also in the 1800’s, the first scientist to extract sugar from the sugar beet establishes the first sugar beet refinery. His name, Franz Karl Achard (Yes his name was a -chard. Really. You can’t make this up.).

Health

vegetable pills how to eat beets

Originally Persian and early European cultures used the leaf as a vegetable and the root as a medicinal. Early Romans used the root both to promote sexual vitality and as a laxative. Beets are high in the phytochemicals betaine and betalaine. Many studies show that betalaine is anti-inflammatory and an antioxidant. It may also help prevent cholesterol from depositing on arteries. Betaine increases nitric oxide in the body which could potentially be beneficial for exercise, increasing oxygen and reducing fatigue. The vegetable is also high in b-vitamins, magnesium and copper.

Other uses

beets on ice how to eat a beet

The sugars in beet juice can make salt more effective at melting ice according to this National Geographic article.

Beeturia, a harmless effect where some of us pee pink after consuming beets, could sometimes be used as an indicator of abnormalities in iron absorption or low stomach acid.

Beets and a diverse diet

girl eating beats how to eat beets

Beets provide an excellent addition to anyone interested in diet diversity. Both as a leaf plant and as a root, both with bitter flavors and sweet, we can prepare them in many ways. People cooking beets make the vegetable into soups like borscht, drinks like kvass and rum, add it to salads, and mix it with fruits.

Here’s a link to many of our favorite BEET RECIPES, including beet kvass and creamed chard. Hopefully, they’ll give you a few more ideas on how to eat beets.

Let us know how you eat beets in the comment section below.


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