The beet is descended from the sea beet, from which Swiss chard also comes. It gradually evolved and became the beet-root as we know it, probably around the start of the human era.
Its root, sought after for its sweet flavor, was already being eaten in antiquity.
It made its appearance in the peasant diet in France, Germany, and Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages.
During the Renaissance, several botanists described different types of beets with red and yellow flesh. Olivier de Serre pointed to its important sugar content at the time. In time, different species were crossed in order to achieve the three main types of present-day beets: sugar beets, mangel-wurzel (used as animal fodder), and garden beets for human consumption.
Improved varieties were developed in the middle of the 19th century. However, beets have always been subject to certain scorn, probably because they were also used to feed animals.
They probably crossed the Atlantic with Jacques Cartier, who never went without grains or seeds on his voyages. A number of different varieties were later developed in North America.
Small beets with tops are the most tender.
They should have very green leaves that are slightly moist.
Cylindrical and smooth Forono beets make the most uniform slices.
Chioggia beets are very decorative when sliced and left raw.
Fresh: all varieties of beets are sold fresh, often with their stalks and leaves intact.
Cooked: vacuum packed.
Dried: sliced and in powder.
Beets are delicate ingredients. They should be washed carefully, left unpeeled before cooking, and boiled in salted water for about one hour, depending on their size, or oven roasted. They should never be pricked to check if they are cooked, since they risk losing some of their color. The skin can be removed after cooking.
Chioggia beets turn pale pink when cooked. They are very tender and can be eaten raw in very thin, decorative slices. All young and tender beets can be used raw, or even grated.
Beets are widely used in Eastern European cuisines, in the traditional borscht, or marinated in a salad with potatoes. It is also used in India, in curries, pachadi (beet puree), chutneys, chaas (a smoothie with yogurt and spices), and in halwa.
It is commonly used in salads in Europe, often accompanied with corn salad. It can also be cut into thin slices and fried as chips.
The leaves are prepared in the same way as spinach, which they often replace.
Beets can be stored in a cellar for 1–3 months (depending on the variety). They can be kept in a refrigerator or cool room for 1–2 weeks.
For cooked and vacuum packed, their best before date is given on the wrapper.
Beets are high in antioxidants, which is their greatest asset. Despite their sweet flavor, they are low in carbohydrates. They contain a few minerals, but these are mostly found in their leaves, as are their B-group vitamins.
- Globe beet
The most common variety, this beet is large and round, with pink skin and juicy, dark red flesh.
- Crapaudine beet
Elongated, with rough and crackled skin (resembling that of a toad, crapaud in French, hence the name), with very sweet flesh, which is red tending towards violet in color.
- Egyptian flat beet
Round and flat, with firm and fine red flesh.
- Forono beet
Long and cylindrical, with smooth skin and very sweet red flesh.
- Burpee’s Golden
Round, with orangey skin and sweet golden-yellow flesh that keeps its color when cooked.
Round, with red skin and delicate flesh made up of red and white rings.
Beets are available in markets all year round, but especially in winter.