You can peel turnips before you cook them, but the step adds extra work and really isn't necessary. Like most other edible roots, turnips sometimes have dirt on their skins, but you can clean them well with a decent scrubbing brush. The peels have a lovely purple color that doesn't carry through to the inside flesh, and they also contain nutrients that it's a shame to waste. However, if you like your vegetables pristine and peeled, you can certainly go ahead and peel them.
Peeling turnips before you cook them is unnecessary, although some turnip recipes may call for this extra step.
Peeled vs. Unpeeled Turnip Nutrition
Like most vegetables, turnips are low in cholesterol and saturated fat. They are also rich in calcium, manganese, vitamin B6 and folate. They are high in fiber, but they have considerably more fiber content when you eat them without peeling them. Their high fiber content not only adds a valuable nutrient to your diet, it also makes you feel more full, so you’re less likely to eat more of other foods that may lack their nutritional punch.
The peel of any vegetable is often richer in nutrition than its inner flesh, and turnips are no exception. In addition to the extra fiber, vegetable peels are rich in antioxidants, which are compounds that help defend your body against some types of cell damage. They may also help protect your body from heart disease and some types of cancer.
Although leaving turnips unpeeled has clear health benefits, there are downsides as well. You’ll need to thoroughly clean the skins of your turnips, especially if you’re eating them raw. As a root vegetable, they grow in dirt, which can contain bacteria and other pathogens. If your turnips aren’t organically grown, they likely have been treated with pesticides, which are absorbed by their edible roots, especially the peels which cover their surfaces.
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The Turnip Family Tree
Turnips are part of the brassica family, also known as “cruciferous” vegetables, because when they get bigger, their stems sometimes split in the shape of a cross. Cruciferous vegetables include turnips, rutabagas, broccoli, cauliflower, romanesco, kohlrabi, kale, collard greens, mustard greens and every variety of cabbage. Although this list may seem to include a wide variety of vegetables with little in common, you can see the similarities in the plants as they grow; the leaves of brassicas such as broccoli and cauliflower are similar to their kale and collard cousins.
Turnip roots and turnip greens have a hint of mustard flavor, a bitterness that some people find unpleasant but can be used to your advantage by cooking them with ingredients that complement and accentuate this flavor element, such as prepared horseradish and even prepared mustard. The mustard flavor becomes especially prominent and even overpowering when turnips are overdone (with or without their peels), so try to cook them to the point where they’re just tender and still a little bit crunchy.
Turnips and Rutabagas
Although there’s no need to peel turnips (or most other root vegetables) before you cook them, you may want to peel your rutabagas because their skins are especially tough. Turnips and rutabagas are close cousins, but they do have some significant differences, including the hardness of their peels.
Turnips have been around since ancient times, while rutabagas were bred relatively recently by crossing turnip with cabbage, believe it or not. The flavor of a turnip shows off the mustard side of the family, while the flavor of a rutabaga is sweeter. The flesh of a turnip is white, while the flesh of a rutabaga has a yellowish tinge. Despite these differences, the two edible roots can be used interchangeably, although the results won’t be precisely the same because of the different nuances in their flavors.
Devra Gartenstein is a self-taught professional cook who has authored two cookbooks: "The Accidental Vegan", and "Local Bounty: Seasonal Vegan Recipes". She founded Patty Pan Cooperative, Seattle's oldest farmers market concession, and teaches regular cooking classes.