By Casey Barber, CNN
Even for vegetable lovers, beets can be a hard sell. Beets are one of those love-’em-or-hate-’em vegetables, with strong opinions on both sides. As beets come into their peak season from late summer through late fall, the debate rages on.
If you fall into the camp of beet haters because of their smell, there’s a scientific reason why you might feel this way. Geosmin, a naturally occurring microbial compound, is responsible for the distinctive “earthy” or “dirty” odor that many people dislike. And because your smell and taste buds are so intertwined, beets may taste like dirt, too.
Horticultural scientists have been examining geosmin levels of various beet varieties to breed specialty beets with less of this aromatic compound, such as the Badger Flame varieties developed at the University of Wisconsin.
For those who don’t want to grow their own beets or can’t find these specialty beets at their local markets, golden or white beets may be more pleasing to the palate.
“If you struggle with the intensity of red beets, golden or white varieties are a good place to start,” registered dietitian Alyssa Pike, nutrition communications manager for the International Food Information Council, a nonprofit supported by the food industry.
Geosmin is less prevalent in these lighter-hued beets, which have a milder and sweeter taste than other red varieties such as the striped Chioggia.
Beyond the earthy taste, beets are powerhouses of nutrition. “They contain a number of beneficial nutrients including potassium, vitamin C, iron and magnesium,” Pike said, and are also a good source of fiber, folate and manganese.
If canned beets or boiled beets have been your only experience with this divisive vegetable, it’s time to branch out and try a few preparations that might change your mind. Use any color beets you like in the following recipes.
Deep-fried, pan-fried or air-fried beets
What doesn’t taste better when it’s fried? Instead of potatoes, you can fry beet cubes or slices for a sweet and crispy snack or side dish. This recipe uses a rice flour for a delicately light coating and pairs the beets with a spicy Japanese-inspired mayonnaise.
In an air fryer, beet chips taste fresher than any bagged brand you’ll find in the snack aisle. (You can also do a similar oven-baked version if you don’t have an air fryer.) As a bonus, these chips can be flavored with any seasoning in the pantry, whether it’s BBQ spice or Cajun seasoning.
Rosti (or roesti) and latkes are the Swiss and Jewish ways of making what are essentially potato fritters. But in both cases, the shredded potatoes can be swapped out for beets.
When making rosti, the shredded beets are pan-fried into one large pancake and then sliced into wedges. For latkes, the beet fritters are pan-fried individually. Whichever you choose, they’re versatile as a side dish at any meal.
Roasted or grilled beets
Remember when we all hated Brussels sprouts — until we discovered how wonderful they can be when roasted? It’s the same thing with beets. The process of roasting at high heat caramelizes the natural sugars in beets, transforming their vegetal sweetness into a nuttier, toastier flavor.
You can simply toss beet wedges or cubes with olive oil, salt and pepper in a bowl, then arrange in a single layer on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet. Roast in a 425-degree oven for about 35-40 minutes, tossing once or twice. You can also accomplish this caramelization with the high heat of a grill or a campfire by cooking beets in foil packets.
To add more complex flavors to the caramelization process, you can add a pinch of brown sugar or a drizzle of balsamic vinegar to the beets when tossing them with olive oil.
Serve roasted beets as a side dish, as part of a grain bowl or tossed in a salad. Roasted beets are also the base for brilliantly pink beet hummus. (Making the hummus with chickpeas and beets will give you a slightly more muted color than using beets alone.)
Beets may not replace zucchini as the sneakiest vegetable to hide in desserts — red beets are sometimes hard to disguise! — but their natural sweetness makes for a surprisingly simpatico pairing in baked goods.
Chocolate beet cupcakes are rich and tender and can be crowned with a naturally and festively pink buttercream frosting. No time to frost and decorate? Grab a loaf pan and bake a chocolate beet snacking cake.
For a slightly more virtuous breakfast or snacking bread, adding beets to banana bread seems like a no-brainer. Even easier are beet-oat-banana muffins that you can whip up in a blender and pour straight into muffin tins.
Or in a drink
If you can’t abide beets any other way, maybe a cocktail will help. A mezcal beet margarita pairs the smoky flavors of the Mexican liquor with homemade beet simple syrup and tart lime juice for an intriguing combination.
If you’d rather try beet syrup with bourbon, mix up a beet Old Fashioned cocktail. Or shake up a beet-ginger martini made with a homemade beet-apple-ginger juice if you’re ambitious, or store-bought beet juice as an easy shortcut.
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Casey Barber is a food writer, illustrator and photographer; the author of “Pierogi Love: New Takes on an Old-World Comfort Food” and “Classic Snacks Made from Scratch: 70 Homemade Versions of Your Favorite Brand-Name Treats”; and editor of the website Good. Food. Stories.