Beets' earthy sweetness and bold color merit a place for them in the arsenal of any creative cook. If your family traditions don't include beets, or don't extend past one or two dishes, you might be surprised to learn how varied their textures and flavors can be. They can be prepared in a number of ways, depending on the end result you're looking for.
Cooking your beets whole preserves their flavor and nutrition best, and results in a vegetable that can be eaten as-is or cooled and used as an ingredient in other dishes. Cut the greens from your beets -- they can be cooked separately, like chard or spinach -- leaving an inch or so of stem, and trim the thin tip of the root from the other end. Steam or boil the whole roots until tender, which can take 20 to 45 minutes depending on their size. Alternatively, wrap your beets in foil and bake them at 400 degrees Fahrenheit for 45 minutes to 1 hour. The skin, root and stems can easily be can easily be trimmed away with a paring knife once the beets are cooked.
Beets baked in foil are sometimes referred to as "roasted," but this is something of a misnomer because they simply steam inside the foil and their own skins. Truly roasted beets are first peeled, then either diced or sliced into rounds as desired. Small young beets can be left whole, or halved as needed. Toss the beets with a thin coating of oil and spread them evenly on a baking sheet. Already-cooked beets can be roasted at 450 F for 15 to 20 minutes, until the edges begin to caramelize. Uncooked beets should be roasted at 400 to 425 F for up to 40 minutes, depending how coarsely they're cut, until tender and caramelized.
Beet chips are a variation on roasted beets, making an unusual but appealing snack or garnish. Slice your beets very thin with a knife or mandoline, and place them on a lightly oiled, parchment-lined sheet pan. Spray them with oil and bake the beets for 25 to 35 minutes, turning once, until they're crisp and lightly caramelized. Drain them on paper towels, season to taste, and serve them warm or cooled.
Perhaps the best-known use of beets is in borscht, the distinctive red soup of Eastern Europe. There are infinite variations of the basic recipe, served hot or cold. Most recipes call for lots of cabbage and root vegetables, shredded and simmered in a rich beef broth, though you'll also see vegetable-broth versions and summery variations made with chicken or ham broth. Shredded beets, cooked or raw -- depending how your grandmother did it -- go in relatively late, simmering just long enough to soften and lend the soup their rich, red color.
A Few Serving Ideas
Sweet-and-sour Harvard beets or tangy pickled beets are fine preparations in their own right but rather limited. Try tossing your beets with balsamic vinegar or pomegranate syrup before roasting them, for a similar tang, then combine them with goat cheese, toasted nuts and flavorful greens as an appetizer. Diced or shredded beets lend vivid color to a potato or pasta salad, elevating it emphatically from the routine. Shredded or pureed beets even pair well in cooked desserts with raspberries or red currants, sweetening them unobtrusively and giving them a surprising depth of flavor.