The beet (Beta vulgaris) is a plant in the Chenopodiaceae family. It is best known in its numerous cultivated varieties, the most well known of which is probably the red or purple root vegetable known as the beetroot or garden beet. However, other cultivated varieties include the leaf vegetables chard and spinach beet, as well as the root vegetables sugar beet, which is important in the production of table sugar, and mangelwurzel, which is a fodder crop. Three subspecies are typically recognised. All cultivated varieties fall into the subspecies Beta vulgaris subsp. vulgaris, while Beta vulgaris subsp. maritima, commonly known as the sea beet, is the wild ancestor of these and is found throughout the Mediterranean, the Atlantic coast of Europe, the Near East, and India. A second wild subspecies, Beta vulgaris subsp. adanensis, occurs from Greece to Syria.
The beet has a long history of cultivation stretching back to the second millennium BC. The plant was probably domesticated somewhere along the Mediterranean, whence it was later spread to Babylonia by the 8th century BC and as far east as China by 850 AD. Available evidence, such as that provided by Aristotle and Theophrastus suggests that the leafy varieties of the beet were grown primarily for most of its history, though these lost much of their popularity much later following the introduction of spinach. The beet became highly commercially important in 19th century Europe following the development of the sugar beet in Germany and the discovery that sucrose could be extracted from them, providing an alternative to tropical sugar cane. It remains a widely cultivated commercial crop for producing table sugar.
Beta vulgaris is a herbaceous biennial or rarely perennial plant with leafy stems growing to 1–2 m tall. The leaves are heart-shaped, 5–20 cm long on wild plants (often much larger in cultivated plants). The flowers are produced in dense spikes, each flower very small, 3–5 mm diameter, green or tinged reddish, with five petals; they are wind-pollinated. The fruit is a cluster of hard nutlets.
Spinach beet leaves are eaten as a pot herb. Young leaves of the garden beet are sometimes used similarly. The midribs of Swiss chard are eaten boiled while the whole leaf blades are eaten as spinach beet.
In some parts of Africa, the whole leaf blades are usually prepared with the midribs as one dish.
The leaves and stems of young plants are steamed briefly and eaten as a vegetable; older leaves and stems are stir-fried and have a flavour resembling taro leaves.
The usually deep-red roots of garden beet are eaten boiled either as a cooked vegetable, or cold as a salad after cooking and adding oil and vinegar. A large proportion of the commercial production is processed into boiled and sterilised beets or into pickles. In Eastern Europe beet soup, such as cold borsch, is a popular dish. Yellow-coloured garden beets are grown on a very small scale for home consumption.
Beetroot can be peeled, steamed, and then eaten warm with butter as a delicacy; cooked, pickled, and then eaten cold as a condiment; or peeled, shredded raw, and then eaten as a salad. Pickled beets are a traditional food of the American South. It is also common in Australia and New Zealand for pickled beetroot to be served on a hamburger.
One increasingly popular preparation involves tossing peeled and diced beets with a small amount of oil and seasoning, then roasting in the oven until tender.
A traditional Pennsylvania Dutch dish is Red Beet Eggs. Hard-boiled eggs are refrigerated in the liquid left over from pickling beets and allowed to marinate until the eggs turn a deep pink-red color.
Betanins, obtained from the roots, are used industrially as red food colourants, e.g. to intensify the colour of tomato paste, sauces, desserts, jams and jellies, ice cream, sweets and breakfast cereals.
Beet pulp is fed to horses that are in vigorous training or conditioning and to those that may be allergic to dust from hay.
Beetroot can also be used to make wine.
The consumption of beets causes pink urine in some people.
Jews traditionally eat beet on Rosh Hashana (New Year). Its Aramaic name סלקא sounds like the word for “remove” or “depart”; it is eaten with a prayer “that our enemies be removed”.