Ok…I’ll admit it, I am peeved. There are a lot of well known bloggers out there who have recently posted a recipe using “roasted beets”. Some use red beets, some use golden beets, some use baby beets, and all of the recipes look good except for one small detail…they all say to wrap the beets in aluminum foil. That is not how you roast a beet and that goes for potatoes as well. I am sick and tired of going to my local grocery store and seeing piles of russet potatoes pre-wrapped in pretty gold foil, for “your convenience” ready to be steamed in the oven.
That’s right, I said steamed. According to Rombauer, Becker and Becker in the Joy of Cooking, 75th Anniversary Edition on page 1046 “Roasting is a term synonymous with baking, where the food is surrounded by dry heat.” It does not mean that you should wrap the item to be roasted in aluminum foil where the moisture from within the food item will be trapped, steaming it in it’s aluminum prison. This is steaming, whether it is done in an oven or on a rack in a covered pot set above boiling water it is still steaming. Steaming something in its own juices probably will concentrate the flavors a little, but nothing like the matured, caramelized, toasted flavor you get when food is placed in direct contact with Hot, Dry Heat. Dry heat concentrates all of the flavors by removing water from the food and the high heat it is exposed to caramelizes the natural starches and sugars. It makes a crisp skin on the outside and just under that skin will reside the most exquisite concentrated flavor.
I decided that I had to prove that there was, in fact, only one way to roast beets so I bought two bunches of beets. One to be roasted properly (in my humble opinion) and the other to be wrapped in foil and baked the way many others have suggested you do. I did this to see (once and for all) if there was a difference in flavor or appearance and which way was better. Who knows maybe these other bloggers were going to prove me wrong and convert me to the “wrap your beet” school of roasting, but I didn’t think so…
I cranked my oven up to 450°F (I suspect it is really only 400°F when I set it to 450°F, but I am too cheap to buy an oven thermometer. I prepared the beets in identical fashion, washing each bunch carefully, reserving the greens (they were great too). I prefer to buy my beets with the greens on because they are an excellent indicator of freshness; if the greens look good and crisp (not wilted) the beets are fresh…very hard to fake. I cut the greens from the beets leaving about an inch or so of the stems still attached (I have to confess that I really don’t know why, I thought it might help to keep some of the moisture in the beet but I really don’t have any proof of that). The first set I simply placed into an oven-proof casserole dish. The second bunch I carefully wrapped like a beautiful corned beef sandwich from a New York deli except in aluminum foil instead of deli wax paper. Once the oven was up to temperature I placed them both on an half sheet pan and set the timer for 1 hour. At 1 hour the beets still felt hard so I let them cook. At an hour and a half the whole house was filled with the aroma of roasted beets, I knew they were done. I pulled them out of the oven and let them sit at room temperature for half an hour to cool…one could run them under cold water, but that would defeat the purpose of roasting them. Here is what I observed…
The naked beets skin looked dry and leathery like the skin of three 70 year old nudist sunbathers who never heard of sunscreen ( I hoped I hadn’t overdone them). When I opened the foil package steam issued forth with enthusiasm, there were even puddles of dark red beet juice in the bottom of the package and the outside of the beets was smooth and wet.
My background in physics comes in handy sometimes…in this case the liquid in the package and the wet appearance of the beets indicates to me that the actual temperature inside the package never rose much above 212°F even though the oven was around 400°F-not much different than boiling the beets. On to peeling…
This turned out to be the part where the wrapped beets out-performed their dryer counterparts. The wrapped beets slipped easily out of their skins, easier than a molting snake while the naked beets took some coaxing. When they were all peeled the packaged beets looked perfect, round, smooth and perfect while the other beets were like hard boiled eggs that would not let go of their shells and what was left was rough but still whole. The outside of the naked beets were noticeably darker too.
Both sets of beets were completely cooked and cut easily. I cut both sets of beets identically, each beet into eighths and seasoned them alike as well. The seasoning were:
⅛ tsp sea salt
1 tsp red wine vinegar
3 tsp extra virgin olive oil
The vinaigrette was combined, poured over the beets which were tossed gently with a spoon to season without breaking the tender beets (after 2 and a half hours of photos and cooking I wanted some good shots at the end).
The beets that were wrapped in foil were truly excellent. I’m happy to report (I think) that the beet flavor had indeed intensified and I would definitely choose roasting them this way over boiling if I had the time and the oven was already on. Boiled beets take about 45-60 minutes to cook. The skins came off easily and from there you can cut them as you please and season them any way you wish.
I still would not call these roasted beets and here is why…the real roasted beets tasted of dark caramel and toasted potato skin. Their texture gave you the impression that they were some sort of candy melting in your mouth.Their flavor was that of ROASTED beets rather than oven steamed beets. They were a bit more difficult to peel, but I suspect putting them in a paper bag when they come out of the oven (much the way you treat roasted peppers) will make them easier to peel.
This post is all about flavor! (if you need the nutritional data you can find it here.) Did you ever have a roasted yam that actually had caramelized yam juice just under the skin or a baked potato that had a crisp skin, right out of the oven, that made a crackling noise when you opened it and just under that skin was golden brown potato that reminded you of the brown bits of potato au gratin that were stuck to the edge of the dish? I have and it does not happen when you use ersatz cooking methods. I know, I take this stuff way too seriously and I spent way too much money on my classical culinary education, but come on, you can’t call those oven steamed beets, roasted beets. Interestingly, both James Beard’s American Cookery and The Joy of Cooking say nothing of wrapping your beets before roasting them while The Gourmet Cookbook, edited by Ruth Reichl, does say to wrap your beets (Ruth should have read the Gourmet Cookbook published in the 1950’s which does not). I recommend roasting beets, potatoes and yams naked, in a hot oven (400°F) for an hour or more until they are soft and have a well caramelized aroma. Your taste buds will reap the benefits. Whichever way you decide to do please remember to roast responsibly and ENJOY!