Beets just may be the king of vegetable world. No other vegetable gives you the same mix of sweetness and delicious earthiness as a good beet. But no matter how good they are, there is a limit to how many formulaic beet and goat cheese salads one can enjoy in life, right? To that effect, Managing Producer Sally Swift talked with Molly Birnbaum from America’s Test Kitchen about their great new take on the beet salad - Charred Beet Salad.

Sally Swift: Have you noticed how many pre-packaged cooked beets are showing up in produce departments? They are everywhere. I’m going to make a prediction: beet salads are back big time.

Molly Birnbaum: Beet salads are everywhere.

SS: And it seems to me the thing that makes a beet salad great is the cheese. Do you have a theory on why that works?

MB: Beets and goat cheese have always gone well together, and there is a reason. Beets are earthy and sweet. Pair that with a tangy, creamy, salty cheese, and you have a pairing that really works.

Molly Birnbaum Photo: America's Test Kitchen

SS: What makes a beet sweet?

MB: Beets are one of the sweeter vegetables. It’s one of the reasons that people really love them; it’s also a reason why some people don’t love them. The beet’s sweetness is the result of a winter survival strategy. The sugar in beets act like a natural antifreeze. That means they bring down the freezing point of the fluid – the water – that is within beets, making it harder to freeze. That prevents their cells from rupturing due to ice crystals in colder weather.

SS: That is a crazy story; I never knew that.

MB: There are some other vegetables that can do the same thing. For example, kale is sweeter after a freeze while it’s still growing.

SS: I’ve experienced that in my own garden. I want to go back to beet salads. I know America’s Test Kitchen took on a beet salad recipe in effort to make it perfect. Tell me about that.

MB: We developed a Charred Beet Salad, and it is amazing. It puts a twist on the regular beet salad. Traditionally, you’ll have beets and goat cheese.  For this salad, we didn’t go the goat cheese route; instead we decided to mix up feta cheese and Greek yogurt. It still has that tangy and salty creaminess, but it’s a little different. For the beets themselves, we give you two options – because whole beets are really hard and take a long time to cook. One good option for cooking beets is to sous vide cook them – putting them in a plastic bag, taking out all the air, and cooking them in a low-temperature water bath.  You do that for about four hours at 190 degrees and you’ll have beets that are perfectly cooked all the way through.

SS: If you have a sous vide stick, this is what you need to be doing with it.

MB: Exactly. It’s the perfect first recipe for your new sous vide circulator. But if you don’t have one, roasting is an excellent option.

SS: The thing that I noticed about your recipe that I found interesting is that you’re re-roasting the cooked beet. Did I read that right?

MB: You did. We char the beets. After the beets are totally cooked – whether that is by roasting or sous vide – you peel them and cut them into rounds. Then char them in a hot skillet with a little bit of oil. That burns off some of the sugar to help add a bitter note to what is otherwise uniformly sweet; this adds a lot of depth to the flavor of the salad.

SS: Which pairs amazingly with that cheese as you mentioned.

MB: Exactly. We also add radicchio, which is likewise bitter and compliments the bitterness of the charred beets, and pomegranate seeds, which adds a nice, bright pop of acidity.  

Try the America's Test Kitchen recipe for Charred Beet Salad. Photo: Steve Klise

SS: What do you use to dress those charred beets?

MB: That’s a great question because it’s a really interesting component of the salad. When we’re roasting the beets, we’re adding a bit of water, oil, sherry vinegar and salt and pepper to the packet in which we roast it. When you’re done roasting that aluminum foil packet, you use that liquid for the dressing because it’s filled with lots of delicious beet flavor. All you need to do is add a little bit of yogurt and you get this creamy, flavorful beet dressing ready-made.

SS: You also pair some wonderful green herbs at the end of cooking. You use both dill and tarragon, which never would have occurred to me.

MB: The fresh dill and tarragon add this fresh herbal flavor to the salad. What we really want to do here was combine all of these different kinds of taste sensations – the sweetness and bitter of the beets and radicchio, the creamy saltiness of the feta and yogurt, the acid and brightness of the pomegranate, and the freshness of the herbs. They all come together to create a perfect salad.