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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.
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    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.





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