When first plucked from the ground, beets don’t look that appealing. Their red hue is dulled by dirt that’s caked onto their rough skins. Working with them can be somewhat tedious. When raw they’re hard and dense, and when cut into their bright, crimson juices stain everything in sight. Beets have an earthy and mildly pungent flavor that tends to be quite polarizing. People either love beets or they hate them, but for the chefs and home cooks who do love these oftentimes misunderstood root vegetables, they use them to their full potential.
Patience is a virtue with beets. Their density makes roasting them a slower process than other root vegetables. Though preparing beets for refrigerator pickling is quick, the process can still take a day or two before they are ready. Even dehydrating beets can take anywhere from 8 to 12 hours. They’re certainly a vegetable that needs to be prepped ahead of time before incorporating them in your cooking. But the chefs and home chefs that are up for the challenge and are willing to set aside the prep time are certainly rewarded with a delightfully savory, sweet, and tangy vegetable that can be used in a lot of different ways.
A lot can be accomplished with beets. They’re most popular in salads, tossed with tangy goat cheese and crunchy walnuts, but your imagination is the limit with what can be created with this versatile vegetable. Beets can be roasted, pickled, braised, and stewed. They can be juiced into drinks, mixed into cocktails, pureed into jams, dehydrated and crushed into a powder, and even incorporated into desserts.
“It has the ability to be really savory and umami but there’s also an opportunity to really play with its sweetness,” says Jessica Quinn, co-owner and chef of Dacha 46. The New York City pop-up reimagines Eastern European cuisine and is a way for Jessica Quinn and her wife and business partner, Trina Quinn, to celebrate their heritage.
An Eastern European Culinary Tradition
Because beets tend to grow best in cooler temperatures, they’re a staple ingredient throughout Russia, Ukraine, and other countries that were part of the former Soviet Union. Beets can be used to turn pelmeni a bright ruby red, amplifying the savory flavors of each dumpling’s meat filling. Beets are also the vibrant top layer of the iconic shuba salad, a layered salad made with pickled herring, hard boiled eggs, and vegetables known as a “herring under a fur coat.”
But one of the most prominent dishes featuring beets in Eastern European cuisine is borscht. “Borscht is this foundational, unifying dish that has a lot of crossover with ingredients and cultural significance between a lot of the countries that we draw inspiration from,” says Jessica Quinn.
When Jessica Quinn and Trina Quinn set out to develop a recipe for borscht to serve at Dacha 46 pop-ups, they were a little intimidated by the task. “It seems like a simple nostalgic dish,” says Trina Quinn, “but it’s such an important dish to so many different cultures in Eastern Europe, so we wanted to be careful and try to do the dish proud.”
Where borscht originates has been debated for years, according to the New York Times. Historians, referring to Soviet-era cookbooks, believe that Ukraine is where borscht originates. Some early Russian cookbooks even refer to the dish as “Ukrainian borscht.” Ukraine is also home to numerous cities and towns that have been named for borscht, including the town of Borschchiv, meaning “belonging to borscht.” But after the Soviet Union dissolved, it seemed that borscht’s influence spread throughout the former country, becoming a beloved dish across several nations.
The hearty, bright red beet soup is a significant dish for many Eastern European cuisines, and though the dish is very similar across country borders, there are subtle nuanced differences. For the most part, borscht is a beet soup made with a meat or bone broth, and may include cabbage, onions, potatoes, and other root vegetables. But borscht doesn’t just vary from country to country, it also varies from family to family. “There are no two borscht that are alike,” says Jessica Quinn, “so it’s this nice signature of each family.” For Dacha 46, the couple leaned on Jessica Quinn’s Ukrainian heritage, creating a zesty borscht made with salt roasted beets, tomatoes, and a fortified beef stock with a bit of briny, sour flavor from a bit of pickle juice and lemon.
Drinking with Beets
On East Passyunk Avenue in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania the Beverage Manager and bartender at Ember & Ash, Kristian Fridrych, is bringing beets to his unique cocktails. Ember & Ash specializes in creating dishes that highlight ingredients that are often discarded. They turn offal like beef tongue into a tender beef tongue carpaccio and leaves and stems of produce that aren’t conventionally used are transformed into salads, slaws, and even kimchi. This “snout-to-root” philosophy extends to the bar program where Fridrych has developed a drink menu that sparks conversations around sustainability.
“I like that you can utilize the entire root,” says Fridrych, “and beets actually offer quite a lot of juice, which is a really good yield for a cocktail.” Pulling from his Polish and Russian heritage, Fridrych has developed a sour and tangy pickle beet martini made with local Stateside Vodka, house made dill pickle brine, beet juice, and caraway.
The briny, earthly flavors of dill pickles and beets are somewhat familiar to Fridrych. The cocktail is somewhat reminiscent of Chlodnik, a chilled beet soup seasoned with dill which is a popular summertime dish in Poland and Russia. Pickling, not just beets but other vegetables and even fish, is also a big part of the culinary traditions of Poland and Russia, serving as a means of preserving produce for the long winters.
“I love the pairing between the brightness of the pickle brine and the earthiness of the beet itself,” says Fridrych. But beyond the taste of the cocktail, mixing the beet juice with the pickle brine, according to Fridrych, is pretty practical. The pickle brine helps to preserve the beet juice, making the mixture last longer, fitting in with Ember & Ash’s resourceful waste-not-want-not mission.
Making Sweets with Beets
Aside from its traditional Eastern European applications, many chefs are exploring other ways to leverage beets in their kitchens. Ari Miller, owner and chef of Musi in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania finds a lot of inspiration in beets’ versatility. Musi is a restaurant that focuses on sourcing within the non-industrial food system, approaching dishes that pay respect to each ingredient by using every part of the product in creative ways. Beets, Miller says, is a perfect example of Musi’s mission. From fermenting the beet greens to use as a sauerkraut to using the beet skins to make syrups, Miller is constantly experimenting new ways to bring beets to the table. Lately he’s been exploring making sweets with beets.
“I think beets and chocolate exist similarly in my mind,” says Miller. “That sweet, tangy, earthiness is something that I really love. Chocolate and beets have that same kind of savory and sweet.” They seem like an unlikely pair, but when you experience the final product, beets and chocolate are almost interchangeable.
Miller has dabbled with beets in several indulgent desserts. He’ll make a macerated beet jam to use as a topping for pavlova. He’ll cook beets with sugar to create a syrup for beet egg creams. And the beets that don’t end up being used for pavlova or egg creams are pureed and used as a filling for one of Miller’s specialties: hamantaschen.
Served during the Jewish holiday of Purim, hamantaschen are triangular shortbread cookies usually filled with poppy seeds, prunes, apricot jam and other fruit fillings. Inspired by classic beet salads, Miller fills hamantaschen cookies with a beet jam with black walnuts and finishes it with a blue cheese glaze. For the holidays, instead of a blue cheese glaze, he used Christmas tree scraps to create a piney, citrusy glaze for his beet hamantaschen. It’s not his only creative take on hamantaschen, but it’s certainly one of his most inventive.
Beyond Red Beets
Beets come in several different shades, ranging from the deep reds that most home chefs are familiar with to bright, golden yellows and oranges. Golden beets have a milder flavor than red beets, and though they still have that similar earthiness, they also have a bit of an apricot-like sweetness. At Musi, Miller when he can’t get his hands on locally sourced raisins, he likes to use golden beets as a replacement. He recommends cutting them into small pieces, cooking them, and slightly dehydrating them until they’re a little dry but still have that plump juiciness like a raisin.
Miller says that aside from adding rich flavors to your cooking, using other varieties of beets can add beauty to your dish. Specialty beets that you’ll find at a farmers market, like badger flame beets and Chioggia beets (also known as “candy cane” beets) are not only vibrantly colored, but have beautiful stripes when you cut into them, almost like rings in a tree trunk. Though they’re flavorful and are great for roasting and juicing, Miller prefers just cutting them up and throwing them into salads. “It’s an easy trick for making your food look really impressive,” says Miller adding that the naturally gorgeous striations in the beets bring incredible color and texture to your cooking. “They’re a truly conversation piece,” says Miller.