Pickled beets are a great way to enjoy the root vegetable. Credit: Courtesy of Sandy Oliver, Taste Buds

As the growing season winds down and summer favorites like tomatoes and corn thin out in the garden, we look next to root vegetables and other winter keepers. Beets, for instance, emerge as a surprisingly controversial vegetable with strong adherents and adamant resisters. Maybe resistors will be charmed by the pickled version.

When I was growing up, mom fixed beets three ways and always began with canned ones. 

First, plain, heated with butter (margarine in my youth), salt and pepper. Second, Harvard beets with cornstarch-thickened sugar and vinegar sauce. Third, cold and cut up in a salad with mayonnaise. While there’s nothing wrong with any of these dishes, there’s so much more that we can do with beets. 

I harvest beets for over-wintering in the cellar, choosing slightly larger ones that keep well. Mediums keep for a while for sure, but ought to be eaten up more quickly. The littles — including, if you grow your own, the marble-sized to slightly larger ones that haven’t had a chance to fill out before cold weather — are best canned or pickled. I greatly prefer pickled over plain canned because unpickled beets require pressure canning, while pickling adds the preservatives vinegar and sugar, and can be prepared in a small batch or even as refrigerator pickles. 

Obviously, refrigerator-pickled beets mean you are dealing with a small number of beets, because no one I know wants to fill a whole fridge shelf with jars. To make refrigerator beets, simply follow the pickle recipe below, then pour it hot over cooked, peeled whole, sliced or chunked beets, put the lid on, let cool, then store in the fridge. You can use any old jar, too, and would not have to acquire jars, rings and lids — which are now hard to find. 

For small-batch canning — ideal for small households — two or three pint jars or even half-pint jars, filled with beets and pickling brine, put into a soup pot with a small rack and processed with enough hot water to cover the top by an inch, means you can make pickles without a whole big canner to cope with. You can even process together different kinds of pickles, like a couple jars of beets plus a jar or two of dilly beans. 

Besides just eating them on the side, you can serve pickled beets by chopping or slicing them to add to a salad, to coleslaw — especially one made with purple cabbage — or feature them as a salad by themselves with celery, onion and a vinaigrette or mayonnaise dressing. They are perfectly good used as you might unpickled beets, only zippier. Consider dicing them very small, adding a bit of horseradish and olive oil, with a spoonful of the pickle brine. 

I’m not wild about pickled eggs, but when the beets are all gone, you can drop hard boiled, peeled eggs into the brine to make the brine’s usefulness go farther.

Beets have that charming capacity of turning everything they touch purple, including your fingers, clothes and countertop. However, if you frequent farmer’s markets or grow your own, you can acquire golden beets, which have a slightly milder beet flavor and are so much better behaved.

Pickled Beets

1 cup, or one part, sugar 

1 cup, or one part, vinegar 

½ cup, or a half a part, of water

Whole cloves or whole allspice, to taste (optional)

Enough cooked, peeled beets to fill desired number of jars

Mix together and bring to a boil the sugar, vinegar and water.

If you plan to process them in a boiling water bath, add the beets to the brine and bring that to a boil.

Pack the jars with beets and brine, and if you wish, add a couple of cloves or allspice berries to each jar. Add lids and rings. 

Process jars covered with an inch of water in a canner or pot for 10 minutes. 

Remove and cool, and make sure each jar has taken a seal.

Optionally, for refrigerator pickles, pack one or more jars with the cooked and peeled beets, and pour the hot sugar, vinegar and water mixture over them. Add the lid, allow to cool and then store in the fridge.

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Sandy Oliver, Taste Buds

Sandy Oliver Sandy is a freelance food writer with the column Taste Buds appearing weekly since 2006 in the Bangor Daily News, and regular columns in Maine Boats, Homes, and Harbors magazine and The Working...