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Food Facts: The Difference Between Pickled Beets & Harvard Beets

As we were writing the previous post, it occurred to us that most people don’t know the difference between pickled beets and Harvard beets.

The quick answer: Pickled beets are made with a pickling technique and served chilled or at room temperature. Harvard beets are coated in a warm sauce. The beets are pre-cooked for both preparations.

  • Pickled beets are made with sugar, vinegar and pickling spices, and are served chilled. Herbs such as fresh dill and/or parsley can be added after pickling; spices such as cinnamon or allspice can be added to the pickling brine. Sliced onion is often added (and in our opinion, is essential!). Garlic lovers add cloves of garlic; the onion and garlic pickle along with the beets.
  • Harvard beets use sugar plus vinegar or lemon juice, but cornstarch or butter is then added to create a thick sauce. The mixture is heated and reduced into a sweet-and-sour sauce called a gastrique (gas-TREEK). Some recipes substitute wine, cider or other alcohol for the vinegar or lemon juice—or add them in addition to the acid. Spices can be used to further flavor the sauce.

    Pickled beets are a delicious side. Photo by Cyhel | IST.

    Gastrique is a classic French sauce that is typically enhanced with fruit and served with meat, poultry or seafood. A gastrique is similar to the Italian sauce agrodolce, which means sour-sweet.

    Learn how to make a gastrique.

    By the way, the story about how Harvard beets got their name is a bit murky. One legend says the dish was devised by a hungry Harvard student. According to the Good Housekeeping Great American Classics Cookbook, the recipe may have developed at the Harwood Tavern in England in the 17th century. A Russian emigre customer moved to Boston in 1846, opened a restaurant named Harwood and served the beets; his accent made the name sound like “Harvard.” A variation called Yale Beets evolved, substituting orange juice for the vinegar and orange zest for the onion.

    Related Food Videos: For more food videos, check out The Nibble's Food Video Collection.

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