Wednesday, February 10, 2010

A Beet Primer, part 1

In part 1 of this series of survey articles on beets, we will discuss various methods of basic beet preparation and their advantages. In part 2, we will demonstrate how these methods can be applied to create dishes featuring beets. In part 3, we will discuss the concentration of measure phenomenon, which in its ubiquity surely relates to beets.

The different methods of beet preparation can be broken into three classes: boiling, steaming, and roasting. Another technique worthy of consideration is to leave the beets raw (which can be thought of as the empty preparation). This will be discussed in part 2, but for now we limit ourselves to the three aforementioned classes.

Let us focus our attention on each of these in turn. The most traditional method of boiling beets is to bring a pot of water to a boil, typically by use of a stove, and then to place the beets in the water until they are cooked through. Thus cooked, the beets can be used immediately or stored in the refrigerator for a week or so. A variant of this technique is to cook the beets in a flavorful broth, along with other ingredients, thereby making a soup. We will neglect the former of these techniques in our article, and we will delay our discussion of the latter until part 2.

Steaming can be done in several ways. The next two methods are often classified as roasting, but as neither of them caramelize the beets, it is more accurate to call them steaming. The simplest and most reliable is to put the beets whole and unpeeled in a roasting pan with a small amount (perhaps 1/4 cup) salted water, cover the pan, and cook at 400 degrees. If the beets are quite dirty, it is advisable to give them a quick wash. As they will later be peeled, it is not necessary to be thorough, but leaving them completely unwashed may impart a dirty flavor. Depending on their size, they will need to be cooked from 45 to 75 minutes, with 60 being typical.

Another method of steaming often found in the literature is to wrap each beet individually in aluminum foil and then to place these in a 400 degree oven. It is commonly asserted that this method minimizes work, as the beets can be stored still wrapped in their foil in the refrigerator. In practice, though, this method is more trouble than it is worth. Even though they will later be peeled, the beets must be scrubbed well or they taste dirty all the way through. Despite all the foil, they still need to be placed in a pan, since invariably they drip sticky beet juice (especially when you cut into them to see if they are done). If put in the refrigerator in the foil, they will drip and stain your lovely, clean refrigerator purple, and then you will leave it dirty for the next three months as you wait for a good time to clean it up, all the while infuriating your roommates. Clearly, this is a method best avoided.

Last, we discuss roasting. This differs from the other methods in that the beets must first be peeled and chopped. Then, they are placed in a roasting pan with some salt, pepper, and fat, typically olive oil. Herbs and spices may also be placed in the pan. The pan is then covered and placed in the oven for thirty minutes, after which the cover is removed and the beets are cooked for about twenty minutes longer. In this stage they must be stirred occasionally to prevent them from sticking to the pan and to ensure they brown evenly, and care must be taken that they do not burn.

Out of these methods, there are really only two worth considering: steaming in a covered pan and roasting. The first of these offers unparalleled ease, leaving you with enough time to prepare another dish or write a treatise on, say, the chopping of carrots. In particular, after the beets are cooked with this method, it is child's play to peel off their skin under cold running water. In terms of taste, this method falls short of roasting but still performs adequately. You would probably not want to eat the resulting beets plain (unless you are a real beet aficionado), but when combined with other ingredients and some sort of dressing, they suffice.

The roasting technique, on the other hand, is by far the most laborious. The beets must be peeled, chopped, and carefully washed. But it makes by far the most delicious beets. They brown, and their natural sugars turn into something complex and beguiling. Beets cooked in this way can always be used in place of steamed beets with better results, and they are also delicious eaten plain, perhaps with some rice. They are perhaps worse for storing in the fridge, as they are already chopped and hence don't keep as well. In addition, much of their toasty flavor is diminished when cold.

Thus ends part 1 of our article on beet cookery. To summarize, the steaming method is the least work and it gives good results. Much time can be saved by cooking a large batch of beets in this manner and storing them in the refrigerator for later use. The roasting method is the most work, but it offers powerful deliciousness. In part 2, we will give ideas for what to do with beets cooked in these ways, as well as offer up some recipes that avoid such methods of beet cookery entirely. Stay tuned for more excitement.


Seth said...

Amazing. I look forward to parts two and three, as well as to your forthcoming treatise on chopping carrots.

Lindsay said...

I disbelieve that concentration of measure relates to beets.

Anonymous said...

Hi Toby, This isn't about beets. But I wanted to make sure you knew that Eric Asimov in the NY Times did a recent piece on Hungarian dry white wines. Did you see it? Hope you're well and happy. Ellen Winner

Toby said...


Yes, I saw the article. I liked how enthusiastic Eric Asimov was about Hungarian white wine.


Anonymous said...

!!!!! I don't think the New Yorker would be interested in this one (but who knows). Maybe there's a satirical math journal somewhere. Nancy