The Benefits of Beetroot


Beetroot Bunch

Beetroot is a very under-rated vegetable and deserves a much better image. This article shows you how to grow it, cook it, store it, preserve it and if I could I would tell you how to eat it as well!

Beetroot is easily cultivated and has been part of man’s diet for many hundreds of years. Many writers through the ages have sounded its praises both as a food and for its herbal or medicinal properties – TRY IT!

Quick Contents

A Short History of Beetroot and its Types

Beetroot has been part of the human diet since the dawn of time. It was certainly used by Neolithic civilisations and was well known by both the Greeks and Romans, the latter having great regard to the herbal and medicinal properties of the plant, particularly its leaves which are also edible.

Beetroot is not naturally an inland plant. Its origins appear to have been associated with coastal, slightly salty soils. It does, however thrive on most soils and the modern varieties appreciate the clay soils commonly found inland in Europe. Beet has been known in England since before Elizabethan times although it was not as prized a vegetable for human consumption as it was for animal feed as the varieties under cultivation were more of the white rooted or chard varieties.

The original beetroot cultivars were not as deeply coloured as the common very red variety that is usually grown in Western Europe, there being all colours of flesh ranging from almost black through purple, red and orange to white. Ball shaped varieties are most common but there are also tapered, conical and cylindrical rooted shapes. Chard, mainly grown for its leaves is a type of beet and has white tapered roots much like a parsnip with branched roots. Both sugar beet and mangels are varieties of beet and form a very important economic source of sugar and animal feed respectively.

Quick Link List for Further Reading

Cooking Beetroot – Basic Recipes
Basic recipes for cooking beetroot
Bortsch – Beetroot Soup Recipe
The traditional beetroot soup made easy
Beetroot Curry Recipe
An unusual delicious, smooth, velvety textured curry.
Several other Beetroot Recipes Collected here
A collection of beetroot recipes

How to Cook Beetroot

Traditionally in England the default way of cooking beetroot is to boil it but this is not the only way of making this vegetable suitable for the table.

Cooking methods include boiling, baking, microwave cooking, roasting and served raw in salads. Here we only discuss boiling but the quick links above give detailed information on other methods.

Boiling is easy but results can be variable depending on the size, variety and age of the roots. Careful preparation is essential. The root(s) should be washed carefully to remove any obvious soil. Do not remove the skin. Carefully cut off the leaves just above where they emerge from the root, better to leave a small amount of stalk than to risk cutting into the root causing it to “bleed”. Cut any extended root (that is the “tail”) back to about 0.5″ (1cm) to 1″ (2.5cm) long.

Place the prepared root(s) in a saucepan and add water to completely cover. Allow at least 1″ (2.5cm) space above the water for boiling. Do not add any salt. Bring the root(s) to the boil over a moderate to high heat and then reduce heat to simmering level.

Boiling time will vary with the variety, size and age of the roots but average sizes will almost certainly need more than 30 minutes. Very small baby beet may need less, larger, older roots may need up to an hour or more. After the first 20 minutes or so, test the roots for tenderness using a very thin sharp pointed knife or skewer, it should be easily possible to push the knife all the way through the root when they are tender and ready. If they are not ready, re-test every 10 minutes or so. Make sure that the roots remain covered with boiling water all the time in order to prevent uneven cooking.

When cooked, drain away the water and immediately re-fill the pan with cold water. Leave a few moments for the skin to cool and then drain and skin the roots. The skin should rub off fairly easily if they are cooked. Cut away the top where the stalks emerge and the rest of the tap root or “tail”. Remove any badly damaged areas as these may prove harder than the normal flesh.

Cut the roots into segments or slices for serving and keep warm for the table.

Unused beetroot keeps well and several suggestions as to how to store and preserve left-overs are given in the basic recipe link above.

For instructions on how to bake, preserve or make beetroot chutneys or beetroot curry also see the links above.

Growing Beetroot – Cultivation and Storage

Beetroot Seeds (multigerm)

Beetroot Seeds (multigerm)

The most important step in growing any vegetable is to select a variety that will succeed in your soil and conditions. If you have not grown beetroot before, start with a variety that is easy to grow such as “Boltardy” or “Detroit”. These types whilst not producing show-stoppers are almost certainly the easiest to grow. You can progress to some of the more exotic varieties such as Chioggia (it has white and pink striped flesh), Cylindar or F1 hybrid types such as “Pablo”. For leaf beet, start with plain old “Swiss Chard” or “Silver Chard”, “Ruby Chard” or “Bright Lights” varieties can come later!

Cultivation techniques for beetroot, perpetual spinach and chard varieties are very similar and the text below can be used for all types.

Most soil types are suitable but highly acid, very sandy or very stony soils may not give as good results. Clay based soils should give good results. All soil should be thoroughly prepared but do not use areas that have recently had manure added, particularly if the manure was “raw”. Colourful varieties can be grown in flower borders to add long lasting and lush leaf displays as well as contributing to the pot.

Beetroot seeds can be sown from early spring (March in the UK) for mid-summer crops until late summer for autumn and early winter crops or to store. Cultivation should be as part of a normal 3 or 4 year crop rotation wherever possible, beetroot should be included in the root part of the cycle.

Rake the topsoil to a fine tilth and rake in a general purpose fertiliser such as “Growmore” into the top layer. Using the corner of a hoe or similar tool, make a groove about 0.5″ – 1″ deep (depending on variety – see the seed packet for details), lightly water the groove and sow the seeds very thinly about 1″ – 1.5″ (4cm) apart. It should be noted that unless you have bought a special type of seed known as “monogerm” the seeds are in fact clusters of seeds i.e. “multigerm” and will most likely produce clusters of seedlings. It is possible to break up these clusters but you do risk damaging the seed.

Whilst talking about the sowing of seed, it should be noted that it is possible to sow beet seeds in modules or small pots filled with general purpose compost and plant out later. This is in contradiction to generally accepted practise for root vegetables. It can work, just make sure that the pots are deep, you thin properly and plant out without disturbing the roots.

Cover the seeds with fine soil or compost, firm the soil and water gently so as not to wash away either the seeds or the soil. Germination will normally take 2 to 3 weeks at normal daytime temperatures of 12 to 18 degrees Celcius. Mild night time frosts will delay germination a little but should not cause failure. Deep or prolonged frosts may prevent germination. Excessive daytime temperatures will also deter growth, particularly if it is dry at the same time. If germination has not taken place within 6 weeks, it is likely that it will not happen at all. Water regularly during the germination period if it does not rain and make sure that the area does not get overgrown with weeds.

It is also possible to grow the plants in a grid pattern, sowing on a grid of about 1″ – 1.5″ (2.5 – 4cm) apart, thinning to approximately 6″ apart later.

When the seedlings are about 1″ (2.5cm) high, thin the plants to individual seedlings at 2″ (5cm) apart taking care that you disturb the roots as little as possible. Grow the seedlings on until they begin to look a little crowded and then thin again to about 4″ (10cm) to 6″ (15cm) apart. If the root balls are developed, thinnings can be used as “baby beet” when about 1″ (2.5cm) in diameter or more and the tender, small leaves can be used in salads. Again, the optimum spacing for individual varieties will vary, consult the seed packet. If growing Chard, the spacing required may be up to 8″ – 1′ (20 – 30 cm) in order to allow adequate space for the leaves.

Continuous care is not necessary during the growing period and provided that the plants are not allowed to dry out for too long, get eaten by slugs, attacked by leaf miners, eaten by birds, trampled by children or dogs, overgrown with weeds or accidentally dug up when hoeing, all should be well and the roots should swell to a usable size in about 3 months. You get the picture. Leaving the plants longer will produce larger roots but leaving them too long may result in bolting (going to seed) or a “woodiness” in the centre of the root. Mulching with fine compost can also help prolong growth.

When harvesting the crop, take care to loosen the soil around the base of the plant so as not to damage the long “tail” or tap root. Pick only what you can use within a week or so unless you intend to store the crop in bulk. Do not leave the roots in the ground over winter as they will almost certainly become damaged and unusable. Fresh roots will store for several weeks in a cool fridge if you have the room.

Long term storage of mature roots is possible provided that they are not exposed to excessive heat or cold and are not allowed to dry out or become excessively wet.

Traditionally an earth clamp would be used to store the crop through most of the winter. An earth (or sand or straw) clamp can be made by digging out a shallow trench in an area that is not prone to water logging and then piling up successive layers of soil, sand (best), or straw interleaved with layers of beetroot roots. The final layer should give adequate protection from frost and be at least 4″ (10cm) thick and covered with a simple waterproof cover of some sort. This method can also be used for carrots, turnips and similar root vegetables.

We hope that all these hints allow you to grow beetroot for yourself – ENJOY!

Nutrition Values and Health

There are many claims for the health benefits of beetroot. Some of these are anecdotal, some have evidence to support them but many are based solely on hearsay. What is true is that beetroot is a rich source of vitamins and minerals and the health benefits of beetroot probably all emanate from this fact alone.

Vitamin content includes:
Vitamin A – medium levels. This vitamin is particularly important for tissue growth and helping the immune system. The body converts beta the carotene found in beetroot and chard, particularly the leaves into Vitamin A.
Vitamin B group – relatively low to medium levels present. This large group of vitamins are essential for maintaining metabolism and the conversion of one food type into another. The group includes Folates which are essential during pregnancy.
Vitamin C – high, particularly in the leaves of both Beetroot and Chard. this vitamin is recognised as being essential to maintain the immune system and help prevent infection.
Vitamin E is present and is recognised as playing a part in reducing cholesterol.
Vitamin K – very high in the leaves. This vitamin is essential to maintain a healthy bone structure and is assoiated with the bodies ability to take up calcium. A typical portion of beetroot may well have more than the recommended daily intake of K but this is perfectly safe.

Beetroot is also a rich source of trace minerals including magnesium, phosphorous, selenium, calcium, copper and iron. The inclusion of iron in in a healthy diet is essential, however, much of the iron is in the leaves of spinach, chard and beetroot and is not easily accessible to the body.

One factor that is not always mentioned is that beetroot, and to a lesser extent chard, can act as a digestive accellerant. This is most noticeable when the roots or leaves are not fully cooked and the degree of effect will vary from one person to another. The symptoms are not dangerous but for this reason we would not recommend unusually high intakes of leaves or particularly the roots.

Beetroot is not Calorie-free!
The food content of beetroot includes a fair amount of sugar as well as fibre, and a small amount of protein. cooked beetroot contains more carbohydrate than raw, about 7% to 8% by weight, around 40 calories (which is not going to break any diet) in every 100g (4 oz.). Chard leaves also contain similar amounts of carbohydrate.

All the above evidence points to beetroot being an excellent food source and we hope that you benefit from its properties!

7 Responses to “The Benefits of Beetroot”

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