This is How You Really Roast a Beet


(This story first appeared on Tastebook, where I'm doing an occasional cooking column. Check 'em out.)

Beets can be as divisive as politics.

I’m in the fan camp. Something about their odd sweetness, tinged with an unmistakable hint of soil, does it for me. Others think the intensely hued roots taste like, well, dirt.

This recipe—actually, it’s not even a recipe: Let’s call it a collection of cooking light bulb moments. These cooking light bulb moments are for other beet appreciators. One trick has to do with actual cooking, and the other is all about seasoning.

If you’ve cooked beets at home, it’s likely you’ve made what is commonly referred to as “roasted beets.” Scrub the beets; wrap them in foil; place them in a hot oven. When they’re done, the peel comes off easily. Then you chop and season at will.

Trouble is, those beets are not truly roasted. They’re more steamed. The beets turn soft and luscious, yes. But the beets leave the oven without the charred sweetness of a good roasting. So next time you decide to cook beets, consider peeling and chopping before cooking.

I hear you now: “But the stains!” True, the likelihood of a magenta takeover is exponentially higher when peeling a raw beet, rather than a cooked one. Three tips:

·      #1 Wear gloves: If you have rubber kitchen gloves, don them when peeling the raw beets. The would-be stains slip off the gloves with a quick rinsing in the sink.

·      #2 Choose a different color: Red beets are the true staining culprits. If you are able to find yellow beets or pink-and-white striped Chioggia beets, those varieties tend to stain much less intensely.

·      #3 Grin and bear it: Wear your stained fingers like a badge of honor. You love beets. Prove it.

These real-deal roasted beets taste, to me, like beets squared. The roots’ essence concentrates: all of the flavor, but intensified. Then it’s time to season them.

Beets like to play with opposites. While they’re still warm, toss them with something acidic, like vinegar, and something sweet, like maple syrup. When I first stumbled on this combination, I grabbed for what was around: some boiled apple cider syrup loitering in the fridge and plantain vinegar I conveyed home from a visit to Mexico City.

It sounds counterintuitive to add another sweet component to an already sweet vegetable. But the additional sweetness heightens the beet’s beetness, like a crackle of lightning throws a twilight sky into sharp relief.

Finally, some richness is in order. Once the beets are popping with sour and sweet, add a knob of butter. Fat carries flavor.

A little butter never hurt nobody.

A little butter never hurt nobody.

Real-Deal Roasted Beets

  • Whole beets
  • Oil, like extra-virgin olive oil or a neutral oil
  • Salt
  • Freshly ground pepper
  • Vinegar or some other acidic element, like lemon juice
  • Maple syrup, or some other sweet element, like honey
  • Butter

Preheat the oven to 400°.

Peel the beets using a sharp paring knife of a vegetable peeler. Chop the beets into small chunks. Toss the beets with oil and salt and pepper to taste in a bowl.

When the oven is heated, place the beets on a baking sheet or roasting pan in a single layer. Cook, stirring or shaking occasionally, until the beets are tender, about 45 minutes. (Two easy ways to check if the beets are done: Use a sharp knife to see if the largest pieces gives easily when prodded. Or take one of the largest pieces and bite into it, carefully.)

While the beets cook, stir together some vinegar and maple syrup in a bowl big enough to fit the beets. You’ll need to eyeball the amount for how many beets you prepared. Taste it. It should pop with both tang and sweet.

Toss the hot beets in the sour-sweet mixture. Taste. Add more sour or sweet, as needed. Throw in a sizable portion of butter and toss again. Serve.