It has to be said that turnips have never been the most fashionable of vegetables, and for many, this unfashionable vegetable is often best avoided at the grocery store!
As well as considering what turnips taste like, in this article we take a look at the turnip and its history, including why it was often linked with poverty, and we offer some quick and easy ideas for how you can cook up some delicious meals with turnips.
Although looking like a rutabaga; in fact the two are often confused, turnips are smaller and taste more like a cross between cabbage and radish - a sweet and slightly peppery flavor with a crisp white inner. The taste will vary depending on what variety the turnips are, as well as if they are young or older.
Young, or baby turnips are usually tender, sweet and crunchy, although some turnip varieties may have more of a tangy flavor to them. Baby turnips can be delicious raw or cooked.
As turnips age, the flavor becomes spicier, and because they also become woodier, older turnips should always be cooked. Eaten raw, they will have a very bitter flavor, but once cooked, they have sweetened for eating. The leaves or greens of turnips are also edible, which makes them a zero-waste crop!
Turnips are an ideal potato replacement as they have a similar texture. While one cup of raw potato provides around 22 grams of carbs and 2 grams of fiber, the same amount of raw turnip contains just 6 grams of carbs and 2 grams of fiber.
Turnips are also more nutrient rich than potatoes and can easily replace them in dishes such as gratins and mashes, and you can even twice bake them or cook them as fries. Turnips may not always taste the best when re-heated as leftovers though, so you may just want to cook enough for the one meal and then cook fresh for the next day.
How to Select and Store Turnips
When choosing turnips, look for smaller ones, ideally no bigger than the size of a tennis ball. If bigger than this, they will have more of a bitter taste. If there is a purple crown – the part which was exposed to sunlight above ground – then this should be a vibrant purple. They should have a smooth skin and feel heavy in your hand. If they feel lighter, then they will probably be woodier. To serve four people, look to buy around 2 lbs. of turnips.
If you have never bought turnips before, then do not confuse them with rutabagas. These are much larger vegetables with a dirty white bottom, deep purple top and a waxy coating. Their yellow flesh is also much stronger tasting than turnips!
If turnips are USDA graded, then as No. 1, it means that they are fairly clean, firm, fairly well shaped and smooth and free from various types of damage. The tops or trimmed tops will also be free from damage and decay. No. 2. Turnips will still be firm, not seriously misshapen or have soft rot or other types of serious damage.
If you are lucky enough to buy your turnips with the greens still attached, then separate them when you get home. Both the greens and the turnips can be refrigerated, but the greens should be used in the next couple of days while still fresh. Otherwise, the turnips should keep for about two weeks in the refrigerator.
If you are able to store them laid out not touching each other in a cool and dim area such as a root cellar, then turnips should keep for up to five months.
Turnips are also suitable for freezing. They should be blanched in boiling water for two to thee minutes and then fully cooled in iced water to prevent the enzymes in the turnips from breaking the flesh down. After draining, they can be placed in a Ziplock bag with the air pushed out, or if you have a vacuum sealer then you can use this. Turnips will store frozen for at least six months.
Turnips should always be washed before using, even if you are going to peel them. The peel is fully edible, but you are best removing it from older turnips as it can leave a sharper aftertaste. They can be peeled and prepared in exactly the same way as you would potatoes.
Turnips in History
The turnip is thought to have originally come from central Asia around 4,000 years ago and may have been one of the first vegetables to be cultivated. Turnips migrated to European countries and at one time were a staple for the Roman army, although they were never popular with some Romans - a turnip was usually the vegetable of choice to thrown at unpopular public figures!
During the fifteenth century in Europe, the term ‘turnip eater’ was a derogatory name for someone from the country and even later than that a ‘turnip’ was used as another word for idiot or similar. Turnips were first cultivated in the US in the early 1600s.
For many centuries, turnips were common food for the poor, as well as for livestock, and in countries such as the UK, this meant that turnips had an image problem! During crop failures and food shortages, turnips would often be the only food available, and during Wars, Europeans often needed to turn to turnips due to the shortages of many other vegetables.
In fact, Woolton Pie, a turnip dish named after the Head of the Ministry of Food in the UK, was created by the Master Chef at the London Savoy during World War II. Woolton Pie soon disappeared from the menus after the end of the war, although the carrot cake, another UK wartime austerity food, still has pride of place on many menus!
During the eighteenth century, turnips contributed to improved crops in the UK. As farmers were encouraged to undertake four-field crop rotation with turnips, clover, barley and wheat, this meant that not only did fields not need to be left fallow for a year, but the turnip crop meant that livestock could be fed during winter rather than having to be slaughtered in the fall.
Advocated by Charles ‘Turnip’ Townshend, this new method of crop rotation also indirectly contributed to the early Industrial Revolution, as more food was now available to feed an expanding population, many of whom then became workers in the factories that were being built.
About the Turnip
Turnips are a cruciferous vegetable and are part of the mustard (Brassicaceae) family, cousin to broccoli, arugula, kale and Brussels sprouts. Best suited to cooler climates, even though the turnip (Brassica rapa) is a root, or more accurately, a combined lower stem and upper portion of taproot, it is not a root vegetable, Instead, it is a brassica.
The turnip is a biennial plant but is usually only grown as an annual. Often grown alongside rutabaga as a cool-season crop, turnips are faster growing than rutabaga, with some varieties being ready to harvest within six weeks of germination.
The most common types of turnips seen in grocery stores are purple top varieties such as Purple Top White Globe. This is a tender turnip with a mild, yet spicy flavor. White Globe turnips are similar in flavor but lack the purple top.
At more specialist grocery stores, or farmer’s market, you can be lucky to find other varieties such as baby bunch turnips. These are very small marble-sized turnips that have white flesh and a flavor that is a cross between radish and apple. You may also find Golden Ball, an old turnip variety, and its name describes it well. With a diameter of between 3" and 4", this is a round and sweet tasting turnip with a gold-yellow color.
The Tokyo turnip is also known as a Kabura-type turnip in Japan. With a round shape and slightly flattened top, this is a smaller turnip and with a diameter of between 1" and 3" it resembles a white radish. This is a sweet and crunchy turnip raw and when cooked, it has a buttery flavor. Snow Ball is another Japanese turnip with sweet and mild white flesh, but this can be bitter if it has been left too long before harvesting.
Seven Top turnips are actually grown for their greens rather than the turnip. Although the turnips are edible, it is the greens of this variety that have all the flavor as the plant’s energy has gone into production of the greens rather than the root!
Cooking Ideas for Turnips
Just boiling turnips in salted water and serving them up is far from the best way to enjoy them!
Instead, mashing them is one of the simplest and tasty ways to serve up turnips. Cook peeled and chopped turnip with potatoes and once cooked, drain and add milk/butter, salt and pepper, and mash. You may also want to add a little cream cheese and bacon for extra flavor. Turnips can also be pan sautéed in olive oil and you can put any greens in at the end of the cooking to wilt them.
Turnips roast very well as they caramelize when roasted uncovered, and roasting can really bring out their flavor. You can roast them with olive oil and seasonings such as garlic and rosemary, or you may want to add some maple syrup or honey for an even better glaze.
Turnips will also roast well with other ‘winter’ vegetables such as carrots and cubed potatoes, or you can leave then in larger chunks, and roast alongside your meat or poultry. Just avoid cooking them overlong as their flavor will intensify which can allow them to overpower other vegetables.
They can also be added to a variety of soups and stews with other vegetables, or if you have young turnips, then they can be grated or shredded and added raw to salads or mixed in with homemade slaw.
Turnips are popular in a number of European countries, including Finland where mashed turnip is bound with breadcrumbs and eggs and a little brown sugar is added. French recipes often use braised or sautéed turnip, and it is a popular vegetable for serving with duck.
Turnip can be found in Italian risottos and pickled turnips are popular in Japan and the Middle East. If you do fancy pickling, turnips are usually done with beets and they can be pickled in a range of brines to give a savory, salty or sweet pickle.
Turnips are often added to Asian recipes, especially soups. It is also popular as turnip cake, a type of Chinese dim sum which is pan fried and served up as slices, or with other dishes.
If you have some turnips that are older and getting past their best, then adding them to curry or similar dishes can help mask any bitter flavor. With older turnips, you can also peel and quarter them and mix them with some olive oil, salt and pepper. If you pop them in a covered container in the refrigerator for an hour this should remove most of the bitterness. You can then cook them as normal.
If you do want to make fries (or wedges) with turnips instead of potatoes, then you will need to boil them for around half an hour before frying. If you do not pre-cook them, they will not be as crispy. Turnips can also be grilled.
What to Do with Turnip Greens
Turnip stalks or greens are often available late spring when producers have thinned out their commercial turnip crops, and if available, these should not be trashed, instead if they are green and crisp, then you can rinse and quickly steam them.
These nutritious greens can also be sautéed with garlic, made into pesto with parmesan cheese and walnuts, added to pasta and noodle dishes. A turnip dip can be made with steamed leaves, garlic, cream cheese and salt and pepper. Turnip greens can also take the place of spinach or chard in recipes.
Turnips for Nutrition
It appears there was a lot of sense in turning to turnips in times of conflict or food shortages, as they are a nutritious vegetable.
Much lower in carbs than potatoes, this makes them ideal for using in lower carb diets and a cup of raw diced turnips contains just 36.4 calories and 0.13 grams of fat.
The amount of vitamin K in one turnip is actually our required daily amount of vitamin K. A group of compounds, vitamin K is essential to stop excessive bleeding in the body as it helps blood to clot. Turnip also contains around 30% of our daily requirement of vitamin C and small or trace amounts of other nutrients such as folate, calcium, phosphorous, magnesium, iron and zinc.
Turnips are rich in fiber which not only aids digestive health, but a high fiber diet is also linked with reduced risk of intestinal disorders such as diverticulitis. A high fiber diet can also play a valuable in role in weight control as it helps us feel fuller for longer and keeps our blood sugar levels stable.
Keeping blood sugar levels is even more important for those who are diabetic. Some early animal studies have shown that turnip extract is able to lower blood sugar levels and increase insulin levels and correct some other changes such as higher levels of bad cholesterol. As yet, this research has yet to be carried out in humans, but the early studies have shown that turnip can have some antidiabetic effects.
A diet rich in fruits and vegetables can have a positive impact on heart health, and as turnips contain dietary nitrates, these may also play an extra role in reducing blood pressure and preventing blood platelets from sticking together as easily. The potassium in turnips may also help keep blood pressure down as it can release sodium from the body as well as assisting our arteries to dilate.
As a cruciferous vegetable, turnips are also linked with lower cancer risk. This is because cruciferous vegetables contain some compounds that may help protect against cancer, or even slow down the progression of cancer cells.
Although turnips are nutritionally valuable, their greens are even better. These contain more vitamins A, C and K, folate and calcium than turnips.
Consuming too many turnips can bring its own problem though. As a cruciferous vegetable high in fiber it can cause digestive discomfort.
If this is a problem for you, then when preparing turnips, cut the top and bottom off and look for a line about a quarter of an inch in from the skin. If you cut away the flesh over this line (towards the center), you will cut away the more fibrous material that is naturally close to the skin of the turnip. Yes, this will reduce some of the fiber content of the turnip, but it will also relieve some of the digestive discomfort that can arise from eating too much fiber.
Yes, The Taste Is Worth Trying
It seems that the role of turnips in history has probably contributed to its lack of appeal to many of us today. If you have never been brave enough to try them, or have made the common mistake of just boiling them up in the pan, then next time you are at the store, why not give them a second chance? Even just mashing them up with some potato and cream cheese will not only add some fresh flavor, but also some essential nutrition to your meal.