Redolent of country kitchens and dusty cellars, pickled beets have a nostalgic place in culinary Americana. Once you learn the technique and make your first batch, you'll likely refine your recipe and turn it into a tradition. Learn the standard pickling technique, experiment with different varieties of beets and vinegar, and formulate your own spice combinations to add your signature touch.
Baby beets and beets that measure less than 2 1/2 inches wide work best for pickling. You can pickle large mature beets, but they have an earthiness even vinegar can't overcome, and you can taste it after pickling. Abundant and inexpensive, red beets are synonymous with pickling, but you can choose from other varieties. Yellow beets, white beets and chioggia, or candy-striped beets, all pickle the same as red beets, but the qualities that differentiate them from regular beets -- sweetness and texture -- get lost in the pickling process. For a vibrant jar of pickled beets, use equal parts chioggia, red and yellow beets, or pickle a batch of yellow and red beets; the visual appeal justifies the extra few dollars you spend.
Herbs and spices do more than add aromas and flavors to pickled beets. Pickling spices prevent benign microorganisms from setting up shop in the jars until they find a way to adapt into something virulent. Microbes are nearly invincible; they adapt well and thrive in acidic environments, but they hate certain spices. Cinnamon sticks, mustard seeds and cloves have the most antimicrobial properties, with bay leaf, allspice, coriander seeds, caraway seeds, garlic, sage, thyme and rosemary coming in second. Mix and match your own combination of pickling spices to put your signature on your pickled beets or use a prepared mix; both have the same effect.
Get the beets working on the stove while you build the pickling brine. Trim the beet tops to 1/2 inch and clean the beets under cool running water with your fingers; simmer the beets until tender, about 30 minutes. Drain the cooking water and run cold water over the beets until they cool down, about 10 to 15 minutes. Slide the skins off and slice the beets into 1/4-inch-thick disks. Pack the beets into a clean and sterilized canning jar, leaving about 1 1/2 inches of head space. Work over a bowl to prevent stains on your work surface.
You need a 4-2-1 ratio of vinegar to water to sugar for a basic brine. A 4-2-1 ratio has the acidity needed to preserve; anything less acidic isn't strong enough to ward off the nasties that cause foodborne illnesses.
You can use any vinegar you like: red wine, cider, white wine and white distilled all work. Add the herbs and spices of choice to the brine and bring everything to a boil. Remove the pan from the heat and pour the brine over the beets. Let the beets cool and seal the jars, then set them in the refrigerator for 4 to 7 days to develop their flavor. You can store pickled beets up to 3 months in the refrigerator in an airtight container or jar. For longer-term storage, process the jars in a boiling-water canner.
A.J. Andrews' work has appeared in Food and Wine, Fricote and "BBC Good Food." He lives in Europe where he bakes with wild yeast, milks goats for cheese and prepares for the Court of Master Sommeliers level II exam. Andrews received formal training at Le Cordon Bleu.