When You Want Roasted Beets…Roast Them, Don’t Steam Them

by Jeff Berkowitz on February 7, 2011 · 10 comments

in beets,Vegetables

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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…

Naked Beets Ready for the Oven

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…

Well Roasted Beets with Leathery Skins

Finished Foil Wrapped Beets

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…

Peeled Wrapped Beets

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.

Peeled Dry Roasted Beets

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).

Seasoned Oven Steamed Beets

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.

Seasoned Dry Roasted Beets

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!

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Sue September 24, 2012 at 6:21 pm

I’m with you, roast ’em naked. I don’t know why so many wants to wrap them in foil and miss out on all that lovely carmelization. I can appreciate steamed beets too, but if I want steamed beets, I’ll use a steamer.

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2 betty August 10, 2012 at 6:07 pm

I’ve peeled the roasted beets and cut them prior to roasting. Saves mangling them later.

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3 Matt May 6, 2012 at 10:29 pm

Leaving an inch of the stem on the roots prevents nutrients from escaping from the beet root, I’ve read. I’m glad I encountered this post. I knew wrapping beets in foil steamed them. So I don’t bother wrapping the beets in foil and putting them in the oven. I just steamed them over simmering water. Now I’ll have to try actually roasting them.

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4 Sarah November 29, 2011 at 2:14 pm

I saw a guest on The Chew recommend roasting large beets like a baked potato rubbing the cleaned fresh beets with olive oil and salt. The guest left a bit of the top and the tail probably for the same reason as the blogger.To keep the juices in. He did them at 375 I believe for an hour. Much to my horror and his when they took the beets out of the oven instead of cutting the cross and squeezing as he instructed they just whacked them into quarters.! TOTALLY RUINING THE BAKED POTATO PRESENTATION They did use a creme fraiche with horseradish to top them but I think I will stick to the baked potato presentation and let folks decide whether they want to eat the skin or not as with a baked potato…although I never understand why folks leave the skin.

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5 pam September 29, 2011 at 8:57 pm

I looked for confirmation that beets, like potatoes, parsnips, yams, turnips, eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, carrots, aparagus, and other naturally skinned veggetables (which veggies, outside of greens, don’t have natural skins?) are uniquely flavored when roasted, not steamed. If you want them steamed, why heat the oven?? If I want the toasty-roasty flavor (and I do), I roast them.
I’m trying the beets for the first time now. I’ve nuked them , along with some potatoes, just to heat them and reduce the oven time as I ususally do, and rolled them in a bit of olive oil. Now I’ll raost them all.
By the way, if people would try roasted parsnips, we’d have a reawakening of how delicious these vegetables are.

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6 Margie September 22, 2011 at 11:16 am

I usually use the wrapped-in-foil method which I’ve suspected was really more of a steam-roasting, but have wondered about this because I roast other root vegetables without foil. I suspect the foil is to primarily for easier peeling and easier clean-up. I’m looking forward to really roasting up a batch of beets!
.-= Margie´s last blog ..CurryPalooza: Cod Steamed in Banana-Leaf Parcels =-.

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7 pam October 5, 2011 at 3:00 pm

They were wonderful- great flavor, texture, very little bleed. Peeling wasn’t diffcult, but letting them rest in a plastic bag (as with peppers) a couple of minutes made it easier.

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8 IW March 17, 2011 at 8:12 pm

the first time i did this, i hadn’t looked at any recipe and thought i had made a mistake – the skins looked so awful, but the incredible flavor in the beets was the best i’d ever had. Yes, the peeling was not fun, will try your bag method next time, but the flavor is definitely superior.

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9 Miriam February 15, 2011 at 2:10 pm

Roasted beets are the best! I never wrap my beets in anything. I just toss them lightly in a bit of oil, add a touch of salt and pepper and wait patiently with a fork.

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10 Jeff Berkowitz February 21, 2011 at 7:03 pm

Miriam,
I just made roasted beets again and I oiled them before roasting, perfection! They cooked faster too. Thanks for the great comment.

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