Beetroot is a very strongly flavoured vegetable that tastes of earth or dirt. Blame it on geosmin, an organic compound that is produced by the Streptomyces bacteria in the soil. The human nose can detect the presence of geosmin even when it is less than five parts per trillion. The same compound is part of the chemical cocktail responsible for petrichor, the earthy fragrance that rises from the soil after rain. This is the reason beets smell like wet soil.
The olfactory sensation is fleeting compared to the taste, which is more persistent. Some of us are more sensitive to geosmin than others and tend to hate the taste of beetroot.
Also read | The science of flavour
Cooking beets with some sort of acid, such as in sambhar or tomato-based curries or pickled with vinegar, does away with most of the earthy flavour, making it palatable even for people who don’t like beets.
Borscht, a Russian-Ukrainian soup, is possibly the world’s most famous beetroot dish. Beets have been a dependable vegetable in Russia’s harsh climate since they can be stored in a cellar for over nine months and used in a variety of dishes. The Ukrainian borscht is made with stock, vegetables and fermented beet juice (beet sour) that adds the characteristic tang to the soup. The fermented beet juice, called kvass, takes a few days to make; in its absence, souring agents like vinegar, lemon juice or tart apples are used to lend instant sourness to borscht.
I love beets for the flourish of colour they add to any dish, be it salads, smoothies, hummus, breads or even dal. It is the best ingredient to colour your dishes to fit Instagram’s obsession with millennial pink. Beet powder, readily available online, is an easy way to add the desired shade of pink to your dishes, be it yogurt or cake frosting.
In the fascinating world of plant-based pigments, the vibrant hue of beets comes from a class of pigments called betalains, derived from the Latin name for beet, Beta vulgaris. Bougainvillea, red amaranth and Swiss chard are some of the other plants that derive their colour from betalains. It is the same pigment that stains your hands and chopping board when prepping beetroot. Eating beets can even lead to a condition called beeturia in which the urine is stained pink or red. This is nothing to worry about—it is just the betalain passing out without breaking down in the body.
Also read | How beetroot imparts colour to plant-based meats
Apart from using beet in fermented drinks for the natural sugars and brilliant colour, my favourite way to cook beets is to wrap them in foil and oven- roast for 45 minutes until cooked through. Roasting concentrates the sugars and flavour just as boiling dilutes the flavour in vegetables. Roasted beets can be puréed for a delicious dip along with feta cheese and walnuts or puréed with cooked chickpeas for an Instagram-approved hummus. Gourmet up the hummus with tiny cubes of pickled beet and beet microgreens or a chiffonade of beet leaves.
BEET GINGER WHEY SODA
Makes around 1 litre
This whey fermented beverage is fizzy and refreshing by itself. It also makes a low-sugar base for gin- or vodka-based cocktails.
Half litre home-made yogurt
2 medium-sized beets
2-inch piece of ginger (preferably organic)
1 litre water
Quarter cup sugar
Line a sieve with a muslin cloth. Keep the sieve over a bowl. Transfer the yogurt into the cloth-lined sieve. Let all the whey drain out into the bowl. We need around 80ml (one third of a cup) to make this fermented beverage. Store-bought yoghurt won’t work for this purpose as most of them don’t have live cultures of lactobacillus.
Peel and grate the beets. Squeeze out all the juice from the grated beets into a bowl; the grated beets can be used in a salad. Scrub and wash the ginger well and slice it.
Add the whey, beet juice, sliced ginger, water and sugar to a 1.5-2 litre clean and dry glass jar. Stir well until the sugar is nearly dissolved. Cover the mouth of the jar with a square of kitchen paper or muslin cloth, securing it with a rubber band.
The time taken to ferment depends on the weather. Hot and humid weather favours faster fermentation. Open the jar after 24 hours, give it a good stir and taste to see if it is tangy enough for you. Any time after 24-48 hours, you can filter it out and fill it into a bottle/s with tight-fitting lids, leaving two inches of headspace in the bottle/s for the second round of fermentation, which will carbonate the drink, giving it fizz. Refrigerate these bottles for one-two days. Remember to open the cap slowly and release any gas if keeping it for more than one-two days—or the bottle could explode due to the pressure build-up. Serve chilled.
2-3 medium-sized beets
1 tbsp coconut oil
Half tsp black mustard seeds
1 tsp split urad dal
Half tsp chilli powder
Half tsp salt
2 tbsp fresh grated coconut
Pressure-cook the beets for 15 minutes. Open when cool and peel. Chop into a fine dice. Heat the oil in a pan. Fry mustard seeds and urad dal. Once the dal is golden brown, add the beet, chilli powder, salt and stir well to combine. Turn off the flame and garnish with fresh coconut. Serve with sambhar and rice.
Double Tested is a fortnightly column on vegetarian cooking, highlighting a single ingredient prepared two ways. Nandita Iyer’s latest book is Everyday Superfoods. @saffrontrail