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Earthy, Dirt or Sweet: What Do Beets Taste Like?

Written by Luisa Davis on . Posted in food

To a beet-lover, beets taste like earth: a sort of rich, earthy flavor. To someone who knows the right way to spice things up with beet, beets taste sweet, while to the haters, beets taste like dirt. So the answer to the question of what do beets taste like? depends exactly on who is being asked.

That said, if you are not a beet-lover, you should still give this vegetable a chance to delight your taste buds. And if after this you still aren’t a fan, then you can throw in the towel. Though I have a feeling you won’t because you’re about to fall madly in love with this vegetable.

Beets: What’s Up With This Vegetable

Beet or beetroot is a vegetable that serves humanity well. This edible taproot vegetable originated in North America and is used as food, food colorant, and even medicine. The vegetable is widely known for its red edible root, though the root can also be other colors.

Apart from red, other colors that the root can come in, depending on the species of the beetroot, are white, gold, and yellow, though at times these appear to be of a deep purple too. A natural pink dye can be gotten from the red variants when used as a food colorant.

Some common variations of this crop are Detroit Dark Red, Golden beets, Chioggia, Touchstone Gold, and Early Wonder.

The Chioggia variation is an interesting type. It has a striped red and white interior, so it can add some extra color if used in salads, and it also has a sweet and mild taste.

The Touchstone Gold and the Golden beets have yellow roots with a milder flavor. The Detroit Dark Red and Early Wonder beets are red and have a sharper taste compared to the other variations but they taste good too.

As sweet as this vegetable is and can get, it’s not an American favorite, and the reason for that isn’t far-fetched. Beets taste like dirt. That’s the sad stereotype and not a line I would use to qualify the taste. But understandably, this stereotype has prevented so many people from even trying them out.

So do beets really taste like dirt?

No, beets don’t exactly taste like dirt. This belief is firmly held on to because the vegetable grows in the soil, so most people think that the dirt washes into the beet and gives the vegetable its characteristic taste and smell. That’s not entirely true. What is true is that beetroot is rich in geosmin.

Geosmin is a compound that is produced by some microbes that live in the soil, and it’s actually the microbe responsible for the peculiar beet taste and smell. This compound is completely harmless and thus fit for consumption, so there’s no need to start worrying about just how safe it is to eat beetroot.

Besides, beetroot is actually a very healthy crop and one of the top reasons it’s still around is because of its many health benefits.

The smell and taste that the compound geosmin bestows on the beet is reminiscent of a freshly plowed field, or of a field that just got drenched in rain after a long summer dry spell. I for one love the smell of the earth after it rains, especially when it hasn’t rained for like forever—and that smell is somewhat exactly like how beets smell, which is worth digging.

Well, no harsh feelings if you’re not a fan of that awesome earthy aroma. In which case, you can reduce that earthy flavor and make your beets taste however you would like them.

Lest I forget, I should mention beets are not the only vegetable blessed with this compound. Sufficient amounts of Geosmin are found in lettuce, mushrooms, and spinach. So if you love those veggies, give this veggie a try too.  Hence the reason “earthy” is a better word to use when qualifying the taste of beet, rather than “dirt.” Dirt is just gross.

If you are still having trouble deciding if you would like this earthy flavor, relax, for as I mentioned, there are actually ways you could reduce this earthy flavor and make it a bit sweeter so you can still enjoy beetroots. We’ll get to that part soon.

Raw Beetroot – Is it edible?

Beets are one of the only root crops that you can eat raw. Even without boiling, steaming, roasting, pickling, or doing whatever else a person can do with a beetroot, it can be enjoyed raw. Though raw beets are earthy too, they are also surprisingly sweet.

In fact, the root crop is best eaten raw—that’s when you get to enjoy every health benefit it has to offer, and as a bonus, it is argued by some that raw beets taste better than cooked beetroot.

The root of this crop is not its only edible part: the leaves and stem are also edible and can be eaten raw too. The leaves can also be sautéed, steamed, or boiled. Collectively, the leaves and stems are referred to as beet greens and they are also packed with nutrients.

Most times, people only mean the leaves when they to use greens. Historically, it was the leaves that were first consumed, and later on, it was discovered that the root could be eaten also. So when buying your beets, go for one with healthy dark green leaves, not dehydrated.

Beet greens are healthy and versatile—you can steam them, sauté them, add them to stir-fries and egg scrambles, or just tear them into bite-size pieces for a salad. The leaves can be added to salad while raw or cooked first using one of the ways mentioned earlier.

The healthy and versatile greens can be added to stir-fries and egg scrambles.

Just in case you are wondering if the leaves taste earthy too, they do. Unlike the roots, they are less rich in the earthy flavor of geosmin. They taste like Swiss chard, though they are actually sweeter.

The young leaves, which are about 2 inches long, are best eaten raw when added to a salad, especially one containing beets itself. There’s really no need going out of your way to cook the young leaves, but for the 5 to 6-inch mature leaves, you can spice things up a little. Don’t forget the stems, they come in quite handy when making salads.

How To Make Beets Taste Good

Well, some of us think beets already taste good but it’s a debatable kind of good. Since the beet flavor is loved by many but disliked by many others—including those who haven’t given it a try—I’ve come up with some ways on how you can make your beets taste good in a more utilitarian sense of the word.

But before that, let’s take a look at four things that will influence your opinion in either hating or loving this root crop.

  1. Wear gloves: Okay, maybe this wasn’t the first thing you were expecting but it deserves to be first on the list. Why? Because you are most likely not going to remember how good your beets were if your hands get dyed pink, red, purple, or yellow. Instead of saying “beets are great,” you’ll be saying something more like “red, that’s how it was” or “it was okay but it messed up my hands”…and that’s not cool. Wear gloves.
  2. Use a plastic board when peeling, slicing or chopping the beetroots. Do not use a wooden board, as it will soak up the color. Worse still, that color might not come off. If you intend to use a wooden board, line it with parchment papers and be quick to replace them once they get cut through.
  3. Only work with fresh beets: These are firm and not spongy or soft like a tomato. If it’s soft or spongy, then it has probably gone bad. By the way, you can plant a couple of these in your garden. They don’t take more than two months to mature and for harvesting. Canned beets are not fresh beets, so for now, canned beets taste less sweet than fresh beets.
  4. If you have the beets planted in your garden, harvest the ones with green leafy tops. No garden? Okay, still buy the ones that have the beet greens.

That’s number 4, so let’s get down to ways we can make beets taste good.

First, clean and rinse your beets really well. The earthy flavor is not going to get washed off (you can’t wash off geosmin) but this will ensure that your beets do not become gritty.

Now that unappealing skin has to come off. After the thorough cleaning, peel off the skin and remember to do this on your plastic board or a protected wooden board with gloves on.

Boiling: Boil the beets. You can do this with or without the skin. Most people tend to peel off the skin before boiling, but you can also leave the skin on if you are boiling the beet.

The skin comes off easily when the root is boiled, and this will prevent the colors from washing out while retaining some nutrients that would have been boiled off in the water. Boiling softens the vegetable and as such, makes it easy to mash.

They can be steamed as well.

Tip: The skin generally comes off easily when cooked, either by boiling, steaming or roasting. Blanching beets and then cooking them in coconut or olive oil will tease out their sweetness. This is a great way of spicing up your beet experience.

Roasting: Roasting the beets will significantly reduce the earthy flavor and bring out a pleasant sweetness. They can be roasted whole if they’re not too big but if they are large, just half them. Don’t forget to add herbs, a little salt, and some pepper. Roasting them with cheese and hazelnuts makes for a good treat too.

Use the right herbs. Pick herbs such as chives, ginger, clove, thyme, rosemary or basil, as these herbs will help to reduce the strong earthy flavor.

Grating: Using these edible taproots as a natural food colorant will definitely require you to grate them. After grating the raw beets, soak them in water and leave them for a few minutes. Their color will wash into the water, which can then be filtered out and used in recipes such as our Australian musk sticks recipe. The longer you let them sit, the darker and more flavorful the color will be.

Use it in recipes—there are a lot of recipes that make use of this veggie, hence your leftovers can always be used to make something delicious. For soups, you could boil and mash them up or you could cut them up into any shape of your choice and yes, that includes dice shapes. Your options are unlimited and one tasty soup recipe is the Russian borscht.

The vegetable can also be used for purées. 

What else? They can be made into chips, used in burgers (one thick slice is all that’s needed), in jam, on pizza, in popsicles, salad (either raw or cooked), beet hummus, smoothies, and even in cookies and cake dough.

Pickling: Pickling this veggie is an excellent way to make it taste good. Pickled beets are used in salad, burgers, and other recipes that require them. By the way, there’s an amazing recipe coming up soon on how to make the best pickled beets ever.

Finally, I can’t end this section on how to make beets without mentioning beet juice. I’ve been waiting to drop that beet juice is a delight. My first encounter with beets wasn’t with the vegetable itself or some tasty meal made with it. It was with beetroot juice, and on that very day, I became hooked on this vegetable.

Heck, I even thought it was a fruit back then. This juice is tasty, and throwing in some ginger and lemon makes the beet juice taste even more nutritious and awesome.

Pickled Beets Recipe – Nice and handy

This is easy though not so fast to make. One reason why pickled beets are almost always preferable is that you can store them for over two weeks in the refrigerator.

Consider that they aren’t just for the now but an investment for the near future of your diet, though you can imagine why canned beets are popular—they come already cleaned and chopped. But once you make them, pickled beets will be really useful and will come in handy when you don’t always have time to go through the cleaning, peeling, and cutting ordeal.

This recipe roasts the beetroots first rather than the conventional boiling method to enhance their sweetness. If baking is not an option for you at the moment, you can stick to boiling. Boil until tender, chop them, keep them in a jar and pour the pickling juice on them.

Before we get started on the steps, here is a list of things you are going to need:

  • 2 pounds of beets, preferably the red variety, with the stems removed.
  • 3 tablespoons of honey.
  •   ½ cup of apple cider vinegar.
  • Olive oil (or coconut oil).
  • Salt.
  • Black pepper (ground).
  •  ½ cup of water.
  • Cinnamon (optional).

Steps:

  1. Wash the beets thoroughly and line them in a baking dish. Drizzle the olive oil on them and sprinkle in a little bit of salt and black pepper. Then, cover the baking dish with a lid or foil and bake in the preheated oven (375°F) for about 90 minutes until soft.
  2. Remove the baked veggie from the oven and allow it to cool. Once cooled, rub the skin off with a paper towel and cut the beets into the desired shape and size. Keep them in a jar.
  3. Whisk the apple cider vinegar, black pepper, salt, honey, cinnamon, and water together to create your pickling juice. Taste the pickling juice and season with a little salt and pepper if not satisfied with the taste.
  4. Next, pour the pickling juice over the beets in the jar. Cover with a lid and allow them to refrigerate overnight. This will ensure that the beets absorb the flavor of the pickling juice. You can let them sit for days so as to be more flavorful.
  5. Serve! This can be eaten as is, used on salad or burger, or eaten as a side dish.

Earthy and sweet, beets are definitely here to stay, and their ability to be incorporated into a lot of recipes makes them a delicious convenience. They can also be sautéed alongside greens. For recipes where they cannot be used, they are yet able to squeeze themselves in as an accompanying beverage when they are used in smoothies and juices. They even serve as desserts when used to make cakes or ice cream.

Thus, beetroots can be used in or alongside every meal if you so desire. Now that you know virtually everything there is to be known about beets, the answer to the question of what do beets taste like? should never be dirt. At least, not to you!

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Luisa Davis

Luisa Davis

Luisa Davis is a frelance writer and foodie based in Portland, California. Though raised on her mother's homestyle Italian cooking, she has spent most of the last five years traveling and immersing herself in other countries' cuisines. Her work have been published in various publications, both online and offline.

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