Why Do Beets Taste Like Dirt?

BeetsNick Collins (via Unsplash.com)

Everyone knows that beets are loaded with nutrients. They’re low in calories and fat, and contain small amounts of almost all the vitamins and minerals you need on a daily basis.

As with many other things that are really good for you, beets come with a character. No matter how you clean and cook them, they always end up smelling and tasting like dirt.

Why is that so?

Beets contain an aroma compound called “geosmin.” Geosmin is produced by Streptomyces bacteria in the ground and is responsible for the smell of wet soil in rainfall. Since we perceive flavor mostly through smell, beets often taste like dirt to us.

There’s even a name for the odor and that’s petrichor. “Petrichor” was coined in 1964 by a group of Australian researchers who were looking for a word to describe the distinct earthy and musty smell when rain falls on dry earth.

Our noses, as it turns out, are extremely sensitive to geosmin. We can detect it in concentrations as low as 5 parts per trillion.

The jury’s out on how geosmin ends up in the beets that you and I eat in the first place.

There are two theories for why and how this happens, and scientists seem unable to find conclusive evidence to confirm one and draw the other out.

According to theory no. one, beets soak up geosmin from the ground along with the rest of the nutrients as they grow. But some scientists believe otherwise. They think that beetroot cells are perfectly-capable of producing geosmin on their own, and claim to have done the research to prove it.

Are Beets Supposed to Taste Like Dirt?

If you made beets and they came out smelling and tasting too earthy, don’t be too alarmed. Chances are you cleaned them correctly and it’s not because you didn’t wash away the mud.

Generally speaking, beets are supposed to smell and taste like dirt, unless you cook them in a way that counters it (which I’ll tell you all about in a minute).

The flavor of beets and the aroma of earth come from one and the same source. That source is the chemical odorant geosmin, which is naturally-found in the ground.

But geosmin isn’t just found in the dirt. It’s the same odorant responsible for the muddy smell of freshwater fish like carp, catfish, as well as saltwater fish like Atlantic salmon.

How to Make Beets Not Taste Like Dirt

I have good news for those of you who want to enjoy the nutritional benefits of beets without feeling like you’re eating dirt.

It turns out that there is a simple and scientifically-proven way to tone down this plant’s earthiness: geosmin, the odorant responsible for beets’ earthy flavor, breaks down into a few odorless substances when exposed to acid.

To make beets taste less earthy, peel and boil them, slice them into small chunks, then marinate in salted vinegar or lemon juice for at least 30 minutes. The longer the marinating time, the less earthiness that remains.

Even better, add 2-3 tablespoons of vinegar to the water you’re boiling the beets in.

Grated beets dipped in vinegar taste the least earthy

Before applying the marinade, cut the beets into smaller pieces. Doing so will make it easier for the vinegar to penetrate into the beets. I like to go the extra mile and grate them on the side of my grater with the largest holes on it.

Seasoning the beets with salt, pepper (black, white, or mixed), and garlic, as well as garnishing them with thin-sliced onions, cilantro, and mint adds additional aromas and flavors for your taste palette to pick up, countering any earthy flavor that remains in the beets after marinating.

How to Boil Beets (A Simple Guide)

Clean the beets thoroughly under running water. Don’t try to peel them raw as their skin is too tough. They’ll be much easier to peel after they’re cooked.

Fill a pot with water, adding 2-3 tablespoons of white vinegar or apple cider vinegar, 2 teaspoons of salt, and 2 teaspoons of sugar.

Turn up the heat on your stove to high and bring the pot of water to a rolling boil. As soon as big bubbles are aggressively forming, moving around, bursting, turn the heat down to medium and add the beets to the pot.

Typically, it takes 45-60 minutes to cook beets over medium heat until they come out soft and tender. The bigger the beets, the longer they take.

The best way to tell when beets are cooked is to try and pierce them with a fork. When your fork sinks into the beets effortlessly, that’s how you know that they’re done.

Strain the beets from the water and let them cool. If you’re in a hurry and want to cool the beets down faster, rinse them under cold running water in your kitchen sink.

Peel the beets, discarting the skin, and continue cooking them based on the recipe that you’ve chosen to follow.

Which Canned Beets Don’t Taste Like Dirt?

Boiling, peeling, and cutting/grating beets can be a… bloody messy thing to do. Save yourself the mess by buying canned beans instead.

By and large, there are two types of canned beets in the grocery store: those boiled in water, and those pickled in vinegar. Beets boiled in water have an intensely earthy flavor and pickled beets typically taste sweet and acidic.

Now that you know how vinegar breaks geosmin down into non-aromatic compounds, you also know how to pick beets in the supermarket.

Always read the ingredients list and select the products with the least additives. Mind the carbohydrate (sugars) and sodium (salt) levels as some producers simply add too much.

In Conclusion

Yes, beets are supposed to taste like dirt. But there is a way to tone down their earthy flavor. 

Whether you’re cooking them at home or selecting a can of beets at the store, just remember that geosmin, the odorant responsible for this whole thing, breaks down into odorless compounds when exposed to acid.

What’s your favorite way to prepare and eat beets? Share your tips and tricks with me—and the rest of this post’s readers—by leaving a comment below.

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