Baba’s Old-Fashioned Pickled Beets
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Pickled beets are an excellent way to preserve beets while they’re in season and add another layer of flavour to this earthy and complex root vegetable.
I’m Ukrainian. Well, I’m actually Canadian… Fifth generation Canadian, in fact. But nevertheless, my Ukrainian heritage is very much a part of my family story and I am not allowed to forget that.
As such, I come from a long line of farmers and homesteaders, by necessity if not by choice. And those ancestors of mine relied on many of the same staple from scratch recipes and preserved foods that I and my relatives still enjoy today.
Pickled beets are one such food, and they’ve been a thing in my family for generations. My babas made them, and most likely their babas made them before that. (Baba means “grandma” in Ukrainian/Russian).
We’ve always enjoyed pickled beets alongside perogies, sauerkraut and cabbage rolls at holiday dinners. Because no turkey dinner involving my family is complete without all of the above accoutrements.
But while certain traditional Ukrainian dishes like cabbage rolls and sauerkraut and even borscht have all been tastes I’ve acquired over my lifetime, I’ve always loved pickled beets. In fact, I like pickled beets more than I like fresh beets. I find the tang of the vinegar and pickling spice adds depth and flavour to these already deep and rich tasting root veggies. Plus, it’s a quick and easy way to preserve beets fresh from your garden or from the farmers market when they’re in season and enjoy them all year long.
How to Prepare Beets for Pickling
You can peel beets very easily if you cook them first and then run them under cold water and remove the peels by rubbing them off with your fingers.
Start by chopping off the beet greens*, leaving about two inches of stems at the top of your beets and leaving the root end in tact. Doing this instead of cutting the stems and roots off completely helps to prevent the beets from “bleeding” too much when you cook them which can cause them to lose colour and flavour.
Then, wash beets and scrub off any dirt.
*Save the beet greens and stems to sauté or add to soups and stir fries.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil and add beets. Boil for about 20-25 minutes (longer for large beets) and then strain beets into a colander. (I like to reserve the beet liquid, let it cool and then add it to my compost for added nutrients). Run some cold water over beets to stop the cooking process.
One by one, peel the beets by slipping off their skins with your fingers. They should come off easily. Run beets under cold water if you’re having trouble peeling them. Break off the stem and root and compost.
Once all beets are peeled, cut them into equal sized pieces. I usually quarter my medium ones, cut large ones into eighths and leave little ones whole or I slice them into rounds about ¼-inch thick.
They’re now ready to add to your pickling brine.
Pickling Brine for Pickled Beets
My family’s recipe follows the 2:2:2 ratio of water to vinegar to sugar… Two cups of water, two cups of vinegar and two cups of sugar, to be precise. Throw in a spice bag full of pickling spice and a hot pepper and you’ve got all you need to make a wicked brine.
I’ve tweaked the ratios a bit to lower the sugar content and align with up-to-date safe canning guidelines, so I use two cups of vinegar to one cup of water and have cut the sugar content in half by adding only one cup instead of two. So I follow the 2:1:1 method:)
Combine vinegar, water and sugar in a large saucepan and stir to combine.
Add ½ cup of pickling spice along with one whole hot chilli pepper (or about ¼ teaspoon dried chilli flakes) to some cheesecloth and tie it up tight. I buy prepared pickling spice, but you can make your own if you like.
Place spice bag in vinegar, water, sugar mixture and bring to a boil, stirring constantly to dissolve sugar. Reduce heat to medium and boil gently for about 15 minutes. Discard spice bag (or remove spices and add to compost and dispose of bag or cheesecloth).
How to Make Canned Pickled Beets
Once you’ve prepared your beets and your brine (and sliced some onions if you’d like to add them), it’s time to actually pickle your beets.
Add prepared beets to vinegar brine. My family adds onions to our pickled beets, so now is the time to add sliced onions to your brine too if you choose to use them in this recipe. I slice onions into thin rounds while my beets are cooking during the preparation stage so they’re ready to go when it’s time to pickle them. If using larger onions, simply slice rounds in half or in quarters.
Simmer beets and onions in brine on medium low for another 10 minutes. Then scoop beets and onions into prepared jars and cover with brine. Pop lids on jars and process in a hot water bath canner for 30 minutes. Let cool and store:)
Serve pickled beets alongside other Eastern European dishes like homemade perogies, sauerkraut, kielbasa, cabbage rolls, and dense, heavy breads. Or try with a variety of other “western” dishes like roast beef, alongside venison or steak and as a side dish to your turkey meal at Thanksgiving or Christmas.
Or simply eat them out of the jar with a fork:)
Canning tools I use and love: