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