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Harvard Beets History

Harvard Beets 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.

Here’s 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

Photo/Art by Aimee Seavey
After roasting, the beet skin peels off easily.

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

Photo/Art by Aimee Seavey
Beets roasted and ready for simmering.

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

Photo/Art by Aimee Seavey
The unmistakable hue of roasted beets.

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

Harvard Beets Recipe Links
View and print the recipe for Harvard Beets
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Aimee Seavey


Aimee Seavey


Assistant Editor Aimee Seavey is a staff writer for Yankee Magazine and assists in the development and promotion of content for through blogging and social media outlets.
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3 Responses to Harvard Beets History

  1. Kathleen May 30, 2013 at 9:28 pm #

    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.

  2. Jen October 11, 2014 at 2:23 pm #

    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”…

  3. Jim November 8, 2014 at 11:44 pm #

    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.

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