Farmer's markets and upscale groceries are fine places to find interesting and unusual vegetables, from exotic imports to variations on old familiar favorites. White beets fall into the second category, a pale vegetable that lacks the signature coloration of its commonplace cousins. White beets are cooked in the same ways as other beets, providing an appealingly different winter vegetable.
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Conventional beets are noteworthy for their vividly deep purple-red color. That hue comes from a class of color compounds called betains, which are water-soluble and heat stable. They bring a vivid color to bowls of borscht, and European bakers have long used beet juice as a natural red coloring. Still, that color isn't always welcome. It stains clothing and fingers with equal facility, and can even cause disconcerting results when you visit the washroom a day later. White beet cultivars such as Blankoma and Burpee are sweeter and less earthy than their red cousins, offering all the same culinary virtues but without those often-undesirable side effects.
A standard cooking method for beets is boiling, and it's every bit as useful for white beets as red. Leave an inch or so of the stems in place at the leaf end and 1/2 inch to 3/4 inch of the slender taproot, to prevent flavor loss while they're cooking. Clean the beets under cold running water, then simmer them at just below a boil until they're tender enough for the tip of a paring knife to penetrate them easily. The skins peel off easily once they're cooked, leaving the smooth, round beet. They can be eaten fresh and hot, or set aside for further preparation.
A second common preparation method entails roasting the beets. This works best if you sort the beets by size, grouping them with others of roughly the same dimensions. Wrap beets of comparable size in a double layer of aluminum foil and bake them at 425 degrees Fahrenheit until they're slightly soft when squeezed inside their foil. Small beets can take as few as 20 to 25 minutes, while larger specimens might need an hour or more. Peel the beets once they're cool enough to handle. Roasting concentrates and intensifies the beets' flavor.
A Few Alternative Methods
Most cooking instructions for beets recommend cooking them whole, in part to avoid loss of flavor and in part to prevent the juice from staining everything in sight. That's not an issue with white beets, so feel free to peel and cut them. Slices or wedges of white beet can be steamed or cooked in the microwave, or added to pot roast as part of its vegetable accompaniment. Another option involves cooking the beets in a pressure cooker, which dramatically shortens the cooking time. Sliced beets can be fully cooked in as little as four minutes, while large whole beets might require 20 minutes.
Small and Large
You'll commonly see white beets in two versions, smooth-skinned baby beets -- often sold with their greens attached -- and oversized, rough-skinned large beets. Baby white beets are an early-season vegetable, quick to boil, steam or roast. The larger version is a winter-storage vegetable, just as mild and somewhat sweeter. Big winter beets are often most convenient to cook after cutting. Both kinds can be eaten hot as soon as they're finished, or the initial cooking can be viewed simply as advance preparation. Cooked white beets can be cut and added to soups or stir-fries, seasoned or marinated as a salad vegetable, or caramelized in an oven or skillet to deepen and accentuate their sweetness.