Beets come from the ground, but that doesn’t make them vulgar

Beets come from the ground, but that doesn’t make them vulgar

When the term “vulgaris” forms the second half of the given Latin name of a plant, as it very often does, we understandably might think it gives a negative connotation. But “vulgaris” merely means “common” and derives from that very language. “Vulgate” — or “vulgar” Latin — was that spoken by everyday Romans; “classical Latin,” on the other hand, was the Latin of the elite. (And the bane of generations of high-schoolers.)

The issue is compounded when considering root vegetables such as “Beta vulgaris,” the everyday beet (or “beetroot,” as it is called in the U.K.). A foodways hangover from the Middle Ages has us still considering groceries that come out of the ground as lower in status than those grown on or above it.

Red and golden beets, with their greens. (Bill St. John, Special to The Denver Post)
Red and golden beets, with their greens. (Bill St. John, Special to The Denver Post)

“Oh, all that the peasants in the Middle Ages had to eat was turnips,” people say, and so forth. Indeed, many foods that came from the earth, among them onions and garlic, were forsworn at medieval court kitchens in favor of edibles such as roast fowl or game that, as was said of them in those days, “flew freed of the Earth in the pure and open air.”

But an extremely long history has root vegetables such as beets, carrots, radishes and even turnips as crucial to the human diet. Their very structure foreordains this. The root, or bulb, is not only the source and reserve of the plant’s own ongoing nourishment but, because it is, that storehouse also becomes ours when we harvest and eat it.

Beets are especially prized as human food due to their abundant sugar (upwards of 20 percent by weight, one of the higher percentages in the world of plants); for how they retain their firm texture after being cooked; and for their delicious leaves, too oft overlooked as a fresh salad or cooked greens in this country.

For centuries, in fact, earlier humans ate just the leaves of beets — and in abundance. It was only until time’s turn into the Christian era that the bulb or root was discovered to be delectable, given certain cooking methods or preparations.

Beet sugar is its own evolutionary advantage, not just something that tastes good. The high level of sucrose acts as an antifreeze in the bulb, always best grown in cooler or even cold climates and often maturing when fear of frost is tangible. The heavy level of sucrose lowers the freezing temperature of a beetroot, thus preventing water molecules from crystallizing, which would otherwise burst and destroy the root’s cell walls.

There exist four forms of Beta vulgaris: the red (and golden, or striped) globe-like, roundish beet with which we are most familiar; chard (commonly called Swiss chard), a beet — yes — appreciated more for its stalks and leaves than for its taproot; the sugar beet; and the mangel-wurzel, an enormous beet raised almost exclusively as animal fodder.

Sugar beets have figured importantly in the economy of Colorado. In the late 1890s, they became a particularly profitable crop here. The sugar-beet industry commenced after a French-designed sugar-manufacturing plant, which had been brought to America by the Mormons, failed to work in Utah. The soil and climate of Colorado proved to be good for sugar beets, and the factory was moved to Colorado by Russians from the Volga region who had come here to become sugar-beet farmers.

We in the U.S. are more used to the red beet, whereas Europeans prefer golden or yellow beets for both their greater perceived sweetness and that they do not stain (what?) all other foods with which they are cooked, your hands and clothes, it seems everything — as red beets manifestly do. However, non-red beets increasingly curry much favor here nowadays.

Historically, red beets figure in that all-important Ukrainian (and, by expansion, Eastern European) soup called borscht (sometimes borshch or borsch), typically finished, warm or cool, with a dollop of sour cream.

To cook beets ahead, afterward to use or treat in some other way, I prefer to roast them for upwards of 90 minutes at 400 degrees, depending on their size. Trim them top and bottom, coat them with olive oil, place them in a packet of heavy-duty aluminum foil — they’ll resemble large Hershey’s kisses — and rest them on a baking sheet (because sometimes the packets leak).

When cool enough to handle, rub the skins off under running water, using a piece of paper toweling to abrade the skins if helpful.

Watch the juices. They have minds of their own.

Quick-Pickled Beets

From Fatima Khawaja at Makes about 5 cups.


1 pound beets, trimmed and gently cleaned

3 tablespoons olive oil

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

3 tablespoons champagne vinegar

1 teaspoon toasted fennel seeds


Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 375 degrees. On a foil-lined baking sheet, toss the beets with the oil, then season generously with salt and black pepper. Fold the foil around the beets to enclose completely, then bake until soft when pierced with a knife, 60-90 minutes.

When cool enough to handle, unwrap the beets, rub off the skin, and cut them into 1-inch pieces. Transfer to a medium bowl and add the vinegar, fennel seeds and salt and black pepper to taste.

Toss to coat and marinate, refrigerated, for at least 30 minutes before serving. (Refrigerated in an airtight container, the pickled beets will keep for up to 4 days.)

Subscribe to our new food newsletter, Stuffed, to get Denver food and drink news sent straight to your inbox.

Back to blog