Harvard Beets Recipe and History

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If you like your beets a little bit sugar-sweet and a little bit vinegar-sour, flavored with a hint of cloves and smoothed with a little butter, then this recipe for classic Harvard Beets is for you!

I confess I was nearly 30 by the time I tried my first roasted beet, but I was immediately pleased with its sweet flavor and firm (but not crunchy) texture. After a few years of happily ordering the occasional beet salad for lunch, I was looking to expand my beet-palate, which naturally led me to the most popular beet dish of all (and a New England classic to boot) — Harvard Beets!

Harvard Beets

So what’s the history of Harvard Beets? Like a lot of things, we don’t really know for sure. Some say they earned the name for the way their deep red color mimicked the Harvard Crimson football jersey hue. Still others say they originated in a tavern in England named “Harwood” and somewhere along the way the name was mispronounced in America until it became “Harvard.”

Though dishes made with beets cooked in a sauce made from sugar and vinegar had probably existed for years, the addition of the cornstarch (a thickening agent) in the early 20th century is likely what made this dish spike in popularity, and it’s been enjoyed ever since.

How to make Harvard Beets:

I picked up my beets from the local co-op and they were (unfortunately) already stem-less. If you can, track down beets that still have their stems and root tips.

Roasted Beets Harvard Beets

After roasting, the beet skin peels off easily.

Aimee Seavey

After roasting, the beets are peeled and sliced before going into the top of a double boiler to simmer in a mixture of vinegar, cornstarch, sugar, and salt. If you don’t have a double boiler set you can just rig two pots together or set a stainless steel bowl over a pot of simmering water.

Harvard Beets

Beets roasted and ready for simmering.

Aimee Seavey

After their sweet and sour bath, the beets are boosted with plenty of flavor — perfect for those of us that like our roasted veggies, but really love them with a little sauce.

Harvard Beets are a great side dish but also taste great chilled and pair perfectly with a summer salad for supper.

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  • Forget Harvard Beets, Olive Oil, Salt and put them on the grill. It brings out the natural sugar

  • Hi Sylvia. Cover them up and store them the same way you would any cooked veggie — a few days tops. Thanks! and enjoy!

  • How long can you keep Harvard beets in the frig after they have been opened ?

  • Hi Dawn! So glad to hear that you enjoyed them! Happy beet-eating!

  • Just made these….I am a first time beet maker and these are absolutely AMAZING! Thank You!!!!

  • I’m 70 years and I can remember my first taste of Harvard beets. It was at a church dinner, a Presbyterian church, with a lot of elder members. All the women were great cooks in their own rite. I think I was maybe eight or nine and I had no idea what they would taste like. One of the ladies overseeing the serving table suggested that I try some, and I did. I help myself to them now at every opportunity. and will fix some for this thanksgiving.

  • My first exposure to Harvard beets were of the canned variety. Aylmer’s Harvard’s. My mother bought them on occasion and to a fickle child who despised all vegetables save perhaps canned sweetlet peas the candy sweet Harvard’s were a treat to the palate and to the ear (I didn’t have to listen to the grumbling, “Jenny eat your vegetables”).
    Now at 43 I have a veggie hater of my own. I now make my Harvard’s from scratch and can easily tweak them to his young palate and so once in a while he doesn’t have to listen to the grumbling, “Grifin eat your veggies”…

  • Kathleen

    We like our beets cooled with red onion slices, tuna fish, and olive oil and vinegar. Yummy! Black olives and hot peppers can be added as well.


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