How To Make Pickled Beets

Nov 25, 2013 1:00 pm

Make your own pickled beets in five easy steps

Making your own pickled beets is a cinch. Getting the purple stains out of everything, less so. Worth it, though.
Making your own pickled beets is a cinch. Getting the purple stains out of everything, less so. Worth it, though.

Tom Robbins opens his novel Jitterbug Perfume with a meditation upon the beet, calling it “the most intense of all vegetables…the melancholy vegetable…the murderer returned to the scene of the crime.” It isn’t hard to see where he’s coming from: beets are brutal, meaty orbs, embattled bruisers with a flavor that lands somewhere between blood and dirt. While some foods need to be coddled lest they lose their flavor or go bitter or get cranky, beets need to be conquered, their bloody beetiness beaten back in order to let other tastes come to the fore.

It took me a while to come around to beets. Most of the time, they’re too intense, too earthy, just too much. But, somewhere between a perfect bowl of borscht and a perfect pickled egg, I discovered that beets do, indeed, have their place. If they could be tamed, I realized, they could harmonize beautifully with a bunch of other flavors.

Once I found a solid recipe, mastering borscht was easy, but perfecting the pickled egg has taken a bit more doing. To make a good pickled egg, you need to start with pickled beet juice, which means you need to start with pickled beets. Unfortunately, most commercially available pickled beets are loaded with corn syrup or other fake sweeteners, and most recipes are heavy on the herbs and sugar, leading to an excessively complicated flavor. I soon realized that my first step toward mastering pickled eggs would be mastering pickled beets.

For a relatively common recipe, pickled beets have a surprising amount of lore, and there are more ways of making them than one would expect. After a lot of experimentation, I came up with this recipe, which uses an initial boil to tamp down the beet flavor, then hits the veggies with a one-two wallop of brown sugar and apple cider vinegar. The spicy fall flavors make it perfect for this time of year, either as part of a green salad or as the perfect complement to goat cheese – a flavor whose slight gaminess further evens out the beet punch.

I still haven’t mastered pickled eggs, but these beets are, admittedly, a major consolation prize. And, as I continue to search for the perfect pickled eggs, I can console myself with another Robbins quote: “a tale that begins with a beet will end with the devil.” In other words, I can only imagine where my pickled egg story will end.

Here's what you'll need for 3 small jars:

  • 6 medium to large fresh beets
  • 1/3 cup white sugar
  • 2/3 cup brown sugar
  • 2 cups cider vinegar
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 3 cinnamon sticks
  • 1 tablespoon whole allspice
  • 3 tablespoons pickling spice 
  • ½ teaspoon cloves
Trim the beets
Trim the beets

Scrub the beets, then cut off their tops and ends. Put them in a large stockpot and add enough cold water to completely submerge. Bring water to a boil, then turn heat down to maintain a slow boil. Cook until beets are tender when pierced with a fork, about 50 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, remove beets to a cutting board. 

Peel the beets
Peel the beets

Let beets cool completely, then slip skins off. They should slide off pretty easily. Cut beets into quarter inch slices and set aside.

slice the beets
Slice the beets

Slice beets into quarter-inch slices and set aside.

Make the brine
Make the brine

Mix the sugar, brown sugar, cider vinegar, water, salt, and spices in a smaller saucepan. Bring to a rolling boil, then reduce heat to a simmer and allow to cook for twenty minutes. Remove from heat and pour into three two-cup glass jars.

Pickle the beets
Pickle the beets

Fill jars about halfway to the top, then drop in beet slices. Allow to cool, cover with a lid, and refrigerate. Allow to refrigerate for a week before using.


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