Peeling vegetables isn't especially difficult, as a rule, but size and toughness can make some more complicated to peel than others. Winter squashes are often notorious on both counts, with their large sizes and extra-hard skins. So are turnips, to a lesser degree. Their skins are thick, rather than hard, but that plus their large size can make them awkward to deal with.
Two Kinds of Turnips Turn Up
The big purple ball you have sitting on the counter in front of you may or may not be a turnip at all, depending on its color. Real turnips are purple at the top but white on the lower part of the root, and their flesh is white when you cut into it. If your turnip is a pale yellow color at the bottom and on the inside, then it's actually a rutabaga.
They're very similar vegetables, and a rutabaga is just a hybrid of a turnip and a cabbage. Rutabagas are a bit sweeter, and they tend to have thicker skins, but the two vegetables taste much the same and you can use them interchangeably in your favorite recipes. More to the point, they're similarly clumsy to peel.
Peel Turnips Whole
If you're going to use the entire root at one time, you might opt to peel the turnip or rutabaga whole. You can use either a peeler or a knife, whichever you're more comfortable with.
If you have more than one peeler, choose the most substantial one you've got. Ideally you want a relatively wide peeling blade, so it doesn't take forever to peel the vegetable, and it should also make a thicker cut than the peeler you use for potatoes or carrots. You can "eyeball" this by looking at the width of the space between the two sides of the cutting blade – the wider the space, the deeper the cut.
If you prefer a knife, use something sharp and short enough to handle easily. Usually a paring knife is the obvious choice, but those often have a degree of flex that makes peeling turnips awkward. A rigid boning knife or utility knife can sometimes make the job easier.
In either case, start by cutting the top and bottom flat, so the turnip will sit still as you peel it. Work methodically from top to bottom, either vertically or in a spiral, and then flip the turnip from top to bottom once you reach the mid-point.
Cutting Turnips Before Peeling
These are typically big, dense vegetables that take a long time to cook, so most turnip recipes and rutabaga recipes call for them to be cut up before cooking. If you're cutting the turnip anyway, it makes sense to cut it first and then peel the resulting smaller pieces afterwards.
Start by cutting the turnip in half vertically, from top to bottom or bottom to top. Lay the halved vegetable on your cutting board and cut it crosswise into strips, the width of the finished pieces you want for your recipe. Pick up each half-moon piece of turnip in turn, and cut away the rind of skin from the curved side with your chosen knife or peeler. Once you're done, it's ready to cut into whatever sizes and shapes your recipe calls for.
Don't Peel It at All
One of the key differences between turnips and rutabagas is seasonal. Rutabagas tend to be a long-storage fall crop, and they're relatively large. Turnips are an early-season crop, and you'll start seeing baby turnips surprisingly early in the spring. Some may only be radish-sized, and can be used just like radishes in your salads.
There are two bonuses to buying those relatively small spring turnips. One is that they often come with the greens attached, giving you two vegetables for the price of one. Trim away the greens and prepare them like kale or chard, and serve them separately or at the same time. The second bonus is that young turnips have relatively thin and tender skins, and can be eaten with the peels still on.
If your baby turnips are small enough, you can even cook them with the greens still attached for an especially elegant presentation. Just trim away any fine, hair-like roots, and use your paring knife to shape the tip of the turnip neatly. Rinse them carefully to remove any soil trapped in the greens, then simmer until the roots are tender. Drain well, and serve them as a side dish.
Fred Decker is a trained chef, former restaurateur and prolific freelance writer, with a special interest in all things related to food and nutrition. His work has appeared online on major sites including Livestrong.com, WorkingMother.com and the websites of the Houston Chronicle and San Francisco Chronicle; and offline in Canada's Foodservice & Hospitality magazine and his local daily newspaper. He was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.