Though you might not realize it, beets are one of the most commercially important plants in the world today. Literally, hundreds of millions of tons of beets are cultivated across the globe on a yearly basis, and their production is of paramount importance to the agricultural economies of a number of countries in different parts of the world.
The modern beet is descended from the sea beet, which grew (and continues to grow) wild throughout parts of Asia, Northern Africa, and the Mediterranean region. There is evidence that the beet was grown by farmers in Ancient Egypt as early as 2200 BC, and some researchers believe that it was cultivated in China and India even earlier. A commonly grown vegetable throughout Europe by Medieval times, the beet was introduced to the New World by the early European settlers.
At their most basic, beets (technically called beetroot) are the consumable root of the Beta vulgaris plant in the Amaranthaceae family of edible plants. A very hardy and adaptable plant, beets will grow in all but very hot and very cold climates and are cultivated on every continent except Antarctica. Most beets have a very sweet flavor due to their high natural sugar content.
Generally speaking, beets can be divided into two categories: sugar beets, and garden (or table) beets. The beets that you have eaten as a vegetable will almost certainly have been one of the garden varieties.
While beets are widely cultivated commercially in several dozen countries, the garden varieties are also a favorite with gardeners and home vegetable growers across the globe due to both to their relatively high yield and low maintenance. In recent years, a number of hybrids have been developed specifically for home growing.
So what are some of the most common types of beets grown today?
The sugar beet is without a doubt the most widely commercially cultivated beet in the world, and by a wide margin. By some estimates, sugar beets account for almost 80% of worldwide beet production. Over 250 million metric tons of sugar beets are produced each year with Russia, the United States, France, Germany and Turkey accounting for over half. Sugar beets are also widely cultivated in Eastern Europe, South America, Central Asia, the Middle East and Central Africa. In some developing nations, sugar beet production is central to their economic growth.
Though they account for such a high percentage of beet production, widespread cultivation of sugar beets only dates back a little over a century when a commercially practical process for extracting and crystallizing the natural sugar (sucrose) found in the beets was developed in the mid-19th century. In its crystallized form, beet sugar tastes almost identical to that extracted from the Sugar Cane plant and currently accounts for over 30% of sugar production worldwide and 50% of the sugar found in the United States. Sugar beets are one of the most widely genetically modified (GMO) crops grown; in the United States, 95% of all sugar beets are produced from GMO seeds.
The sugar beet is normally white (as opposed to the red or purple varieties you will find in the supermarket) and is actually shaped more like a turnip than a beet. Almost never consumed by humans as a vegetable, along with its use in producing crystallized table sugar the sugar beet is used in the production of syrups, soft drinks, liquors and beers, sugary snacks – pretty much anything that is sweetened. The pulp and greens are often used in the production of animal feeds. In the last few years, sugar beets have also been used to produce biobutanol – a type of biofuel.
Garden beets are what you will find at the grocery store or farmer’s market, and are what you probably think of when you think of a beet. In most cases, all of the garden beet plants is edible, and some varieties are grown specifically for their leaves and stems (called greens). Garden beets can usually be consumed raw or cooked, and they are often juiced, canned and pickled. Beets are packed with dietary fiber, vitamins C and B6, folate, manganese, potassium, magnesium, and antioxidants. In traditional medicine, garden beets have been used in the treatment of constipation, fever, kidney stones and stomach problems. Today, the consumption of garden beets is believed to help lower blood pressure, aid digestion, and reduce intestinal inflammation along with providing other health benefits. While most garden beets are red or purple in color, this is not always the case.
Detroit Dark Red
One of the most popular and widely available varieties out there (and considered the standard beet by some), the Detroit Dark Red was developed in the early 1880s in Ontario, Canada and first introduced to the market in 1892. The beet is usually a round globe shape, an almost burgundy red color both inside and out, and will normally grow to about 3 inches in diameter. The leaves are usually a dark green striped with red and will often grow a foot high. Both the beet and greens are widely used in fresh salads. The beet itself is very sweet and is often roasted or steamed and used as a vegetable side dish, as well as in soups and stews. The Detroit Dark Red is considered an early season vegetable and is a relatively long lasting, durable beet that is often canned or pickled.
Early Wonder Tall Top
First introduced in 1911, the Early Wonder Tall Top is one of the fastest growing beets out there, usually reaching maturity in 45 to 50 days (which accounts for the Early Wonder part of their name). They are called Tall Top due to their leaves, which can reach up to 18 inches high and are bright glossy green with beautiful purple stems. The beet itself is dark red, semi-round, and will usually grow to between 3 and 4 inches in diameter. The flesh is red, sweet and quite juicy. Valued by gardeners as much for the greens as for the beetroot (as well as its fast-growing time), the Early Wonder Tall Top grows best in milder climates throughout the world. The greens are often used as a replacement for lettuce in salads, or cooked and served like spinach. The beetroot can be eaten raw or cooked in any number of ways and served as a side dish, used in soups and stews, canned or pickled.
A native of Denmark, the Cylindra (also called the Formanova and Butter Slice) beet was developed in the mid-1880s. The elongated beetroot is narrow (usually about an inch to an inch and a half in diameter) and will usually grow to about 6 inches long. The Cylindra normally has a smooth maroon skin and a deep red flesh that is slightly less sweet and more earthy tasting than many other beets. The greens, on the other hand, are sweeter than most other beet varieties and are very popular for use in salads. The Cylindra is loved by chefs around the world due, in part, to the fact that its finely grained flesh allows it to stand up to being sliced quite thin. They are also widely used in commercial canning and processing due to their mostly uniform shape.
Also known as the Bassano, Striped, Candy Cane, Candy Stripe and Bull’s Eye, the Chioggia beet is a native of Italy that first appeared on the beet scene in the mid-1840s. The almost circular beetroot has a dark pink to light red color skin and flesh that, when sliced, reveals bright pink and white rings in a ‘bull’s eye’ pattern that will fade (and in some cases disappear) when the beet is cooked. Used widely as a decorative addition to green and other types of salads, the Chioggia has a very crisp texture and a mild, sweet flavor.
Originating in Europe in the 1820s Gold (also called Golden or Yellow) beets are something of a specialty item in the market, although some cultivars (Burpee’s Golden, Golden Detroit, Forno Gold) have been quite popular with gardeners since the 1940s. The beetroot is usually a medium to light shade of orange, while the flesh is a dark yellow or golden color. They have a fairly mild flavor, although they will become considerably sweeter when grilled, roasted or braised as the cooking process will release the beet’s natural sugars.
The White Albino is generally considered to be the sweetest of all table variety beets. Closely related to the sugar beet, the White Albino is a native of Holland and is usually pure white inside and out. A round beet, it will usually grow to around 2 inches in diameter and produce medium size greens. Considered by many people to be too sweet for use in pickling, salads or other fresh applications, the White Albino is most often used in cooking as a component of stews or soups, or sometimes as a roasted garnish for savory dishes. In recent years, it has also been grown by home gardeners and used to make homemade, non-GMO sugar and molasses.
Roughly translating from the French to ‘lady toad’, the Crapaudine is probably the oldest variety of beet still commercially cultivated today. A native of France and dating back to at least the 9th century, the Crapaudine grows deeper in the ground than most other beets. It is both elongated and relatively thick, often reaching between 5 and 7 inches in length and 3 to 4 inches in diameter. The skin is very dark and almost bark-like, while the flesh is a deep maroon and quite sweet. The greens (which grow about a foot high) are excellent in salads. The Crapaudine is served both raw and cooked, and is sometimes pureed and used in sauces in some European cuisines. A very durable and long-lasting beet, it will often keep for up to three months.
From probably the oldest to one of the most recent, the Shiraz beet was developed in the early 2000s in the United States. The result of a collaboration between growers and the Organic Seed Alliance, the Shiraz hybrid was developed to be a disease-resistant, high yield beet that would fit in well with the US market. The Shiraz is a large, round beet that will usually reach 3 to 4 inches in diameter and produce mild-tasting greens that will grow up to about 15 inches in height. The beetroot has a smooth dark purplish skin and a deep red flesh that is quite firm and crunchy, and relatively sweet. Designed to be used in both raw and cooked applications, the Shiraz is an all-purpose, quite durable beet that is rapidly gaining ground in both the commercial food production and gardening communities.
Widely sold in markets throughout the world both fresh and canned, baby beets are essentially any type of beet that is harvested before it has reached its full growth potential. In many cases, baby beets are pulled from the ground early so as to make room for another planting of mid- or late-harvest beets, thereby allowing the grower to increase their seasonal beet harvest. Baby beets will often be slightly less sweet than adult beets, although they will get sweeter during cooking. Fresh baby beets will usually be available in the United States in the mid-spring and early summer months.