Pickled or otherwise, beets are polarizing. But a Badger State variety aims to make the root vegetable more palatable to those who would normally pass.
The earthy flavor is the reason people either love beets or hate them, according to Irwin Goldman, a plant breeder and professor of horticulture at UW-Madison.
“A lot of people know them as a canned vegetable and a lot of people don’t like them as a canned vegetable, in part because beets are earthy,” Goldman said April 6 during his Badger Talks webinar, “Breeding Root Vegetables for Wisconsin.” “Some people say eating beets is like licking a playground or eating dirt. It tastes like soil.”
In fact, Goldman said, beets are the only vegetable he is aware of that has its own board game, the object of which is to give away all your beets in order to win.
The Badger Flame beet took Goldman and researchers at UW-Madison about 16 years to develop. Badger Flame was selected for its low levels of earthiness and astringency and was released as a finished variety in 2012.
“One of the things we’re trying to do was create a beet that you could essentially eat raw ... just like a sweet, crunchy root vegetable,” Goldman said. “It’s sweet and crunchy and non-earthy and people have been able to use it in all sorts of interesting ways.”
Beets are a healthy food, high in fiber, folate, and vitamins A and C. Eastern Europeans brought beets with them when they immigrated to North America in the 1800s and early 1900s, along with carrots, onions and other root vegetables.
Goldman’s lab breeds carrots, onions, and beets, but he started his efforts at making beets more palatable in the early 1990s, when celebrity chefs like Martha Stewart began rediscovering root vegetables and doing new things with them.
“Beets did have a bit of a moment the last 20, 25 years or so,” he said. “But we became aware of people’s concerns about them having to do with their earthiness.”
The molecule causes beets’ earthy flavor is geosmin, the same compound that exists in soil, Goldman said.
“So when you go out to your garden this spring and you put your shovel in the soil and you turn over the soil, you get that just that incredible whiff of earth. That earthy smell, what you’re smelling is geosmin,” he said.
Knowing that, he got to work as a plant breeder.
“We said, ‘Alright if beets make their own earthiness, could we reduce it through breeding?’” he said. “Could we make a beet that’s a little less beet-y and that might attract consumers who would be interested in a sweet kind of root vegetable.”
Badger Flame was selected for its low levels of earthiness and of oxalic acid, which gives an astringent taste to the beet.
“In essence, it’s created a kind of separate category of beet that doesn’t need to be cooked,” he said.
Plant breeding is an ancient practice of crossing, selecting, and improving crops for traits of value to humans. It is also a way to modify and improve plant species to achieve the needs and wants of humankind, Goldman said.
“The goal is to make new strains of crops that are better and more useful for farmers and gardeners to grow and desired by consumers,” he said. “It’s always exciting for us when a farmer or gardener says, ‘Oh, I grew this variety,’ and then we can say, ‘... We had a hand in breeding the material that went into that variety’
“In this way, we’re connected to the consumer and we’re connected to the farmer.”