When I was a kid, beets were sweet and syrupy and neon magenta. Gramma C called them “Harvard Beets.” They probably came out of a can. I never knew there was any other kind.
And I loved them.
I’m told that’s unusual – that beets are a taste acquired in adulthood, and that most young eaters (and a lot of grown-ups) are put off by their earthiness. Not me. I couldn’t get enough. (It’s not that I was a palate prodigy or anything. Back then, the only reason I ate beets at all was because my Uncle Mike told me he liked them. Why would I take my food cues from the guy who taught me, at eighteen months, to serve black olives by putting them on all five fingers? Because he taught me, at eighteen months, to serve black olives by putting them on all five fingers. Duh. That’s what Uncle Mikes are for.)
I still adore beets. These days, though, I usually prefer them simply roasted or grilled, maybe cubed atop a salad with a little citrus. Or raw, shredded with carrots and/or fennel into a crunchy slaw.
But once in awhile, when I have the opportunity to grab several bunches at a time (thank you, Pennsauken CSA picker-uppers), I’ll whisk up a sweet brine and put a few pounds into jars.
Pickled beets are pretty forgiving – you can sweeten with sugar or honey (or, I suppose, maple syrup or agave), use cider or white vinegar, and add whatever spices you like. Over the years, I’ve settled on a basic pickling-spice blend I keep in the pantry for whenever the brine-something bug bites.
These honey-tinged beets don’t have the heavy syrup of traditional Harvards (whose base is usually thickened with cornstarch), but they’re bright and fresh – and terrific alongside a fatty protein. For a throwback to ’60s salads, try them mixed in with cottage cheese. And when the beets are gone, use the brine in a vinaigrette.
If you’ve never made pickled beets before, start with a small batch (this one makes 3 pints) so you can decide whether you want to ratchet up or down any of the spices or sweetener the next time. For instance, I’m a big fan of ginger, so I’ll often spike the jar with an extra 1/4 teaspoon of ground ginger or a segment of peeled ginger root. Some people add dill (I don’t).
- 2 lbs beets, roughly the same size
- 1 small onion, sliced thin
- 4-1/2 tsp pickling spice, divided (see below)
- 1-1/2 cups apple cider vinegar
- 1-1/2 cups water
- 1/2 cup honey, or more, to taste
- 1 tsp pickling or kosher salt
- fresh ginger (optional)
Cook and peel the beets
I prefer roasting to coax out all the natural sweetness of the beet roots, but it’s your call if you’d rather steam or boil them. To roast, wash the beets and trim the stems, leaving an inch or so attached (don’t snip the “tails” off the root ends, either, or you’ll end up with an even messier roasting pan). Toss them with olive oil and a pinch or two of salt (add herbs if you want). Load them into a roasting pan, cover it with foil, and bake in a 400° oven for 40 minutes or so, until tender.
When they’re cool enough to handle, rub the skins off. Using a paper towel gives you a little more traction; wearing gloves helps prevent finger stains.
Slice, wedge, or cube the beets.
Prepare the brine
In a small saucepan over medium heat, bring the vinegar, water, honey, and salt to a boil.
Pack the jars
Put 1-1/2 teaspoons of pickling spice into each jar. Sprinkle in a few slices of onion and, if you want, an inch of peeled, fresh ginger. Pack the beets into the jars, leaving a half inch of headspace. Add the hot brine to the jars, still leaving a half inch of headspace.
Gently tap the jars to release any air bubbles. If you see stubborn ones, pop them by sliding a bamboo skewer or a chopstick into the jar.
Wipe the rims with a clean towel, apply the lids. Store the jars in the fridge, or, to make them shelf stable, process them in a hot-water canning bath for 15 minutes.
- 1 tbsp yellow mustard seeds
- 1 tbsp brown mustard seeds
- 2 tbsp allspice berries
- 1 tbsp coriander seeds
- 1 tbsp black peppercorns
- 2 tsp whole cloves
- 2 tsp red pepper flakes
- 2 tsp ground ginger
- 1 cinnamon stick, broken into small pieces
- 8-10 bay leaves, crushed into small pieces
With your fingers, combine all ingredients in a small bowl. Store in an airtight jar for up to two years.