Taste test: best way to cook beets

Ready for the oven

Beets ready to go in the oven. Clockwise from upper left: peeled and wrapped, unpeeled to boil, unpeeled and wrapped, peeled and unwrapped

Why boil beets when you can roast them? That seems to be the mantra of many nurturing, comfort-food recipes this days and it makes some sense. Since beets have a high sugar content, roasting should produce a caramelized exterior to add to the texture and taste. So is roasting the best way to cook beets? Let’s find out.

We did a four-way test in which we took golden beets of roughly equal size and boiled one until tender (about 45 minutes), and roasted one in a foil jacket at 400 degrees for 75 minutes. That seems to be the preferred method—don’t peel it first, just rub on a little olive oil and salt, wrap it up and cook. But we also peeled two more beets, rubbed with that same olive oil and salt, and placed it in that same oven pan in the 400 degree oven, one wrapped in foil and the other au naturel.

Before revealing the results, I will tell you that I had a bias. Boiling beets is a very satisfying experience for me. You can simply slide them out of their jackets when they’re done and, as a bonus, you get some red beet water you can use to make pickled eggs. Why would you want to do anything else?

However, boiled beets scored last in the taste test. The flavor was less intense than any of the baked options. You might call them “watery” thought that’s harsh. You don’t always want strong flavor if, for example, the beets are a harmonious component of a salad.

Next best was the beet that had been peeled, then wrapped in foil. The flavor was definitely stronger than the boiled beet. But this edge held up only in that one-to-one comparison.

Cooked and peeled

The beets have now been cooked and (when necessary) peeled

The beet that was peeled and cooked in the oven without foil looked ugly, but tasted pretty good. The surface was beautifully caramelized and the flavor was intense like the other baked preparations. That outer shell is something I’d experiment with in a recipe, but the lack of visual appeal earns a ding.

And finally, the winner… the unpeeled beet, wrapped in foil! Aargh. I’d assumed that any added flavor would be stripped away when the beet was peeled but not so. It didn’t just pack in the sweetness and complexity, it had the equivalent of a barbecue smoke ring. And, though it had been difficult to peel on an earlier trial just out of the oven, this time I let it cool thoroughly and the skin came off with a fingernail.

Cross section of finished beets

Cross section of finished beets. Note the “smoke ring” on the specimen lower right which was oven roasted, unpeeled, wrapped in foil

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2 Responses to Taste test: best way to cook beets

  1. Lorre S says:

    My all time favorite is still to cut them into fat french fry-like pieces and sautee them in butter, salt and pepper. Turnips are also fabulous when prepared this way.

  2. Can’t argue with that. I might sneak in a sprig of marjoram.

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