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Down & Dirty: Turnips and Rutabagas

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Every week we get Down & Dirty, in which Nozlee Samadzadeh breaks down our favorite seasonal fruits, vegetables, and more by the numbers.

We'll be focusing on more glamorous cold-weather produce in the coming weeks -- citrus, anyone? -- but today it's all about winter's root vegetable workhorses. Turnips and rutabagas are both in the brassica family (along with broccoli and cauliflower, brussels sprouts, cabbage, and more) and are as hardy as root vegetables can be -- although telling them apart can be tricky!


1. Rutabagas: Rutabagas are a newish crop, bred as a cross between a cabbage and a turnip just a few centuries ago. Maybe that's why the name can be confusing -- you'll find rutabagas sold as Swedish or yellow turnips, and in the UK and Australia, they're just called Swedes. While you can find truly mammoth-sized roots at winter farmers' markets, rutabagas are sweetest and most tender when they're not much bigger than your two fists put together. Their flesh is a brownish-yellow that cooks up into a brilliant orange (check out this mashed rutabaga recipe to see it) -- try subbing rutabaga in for winter squash in your next batch of roasted vegetables or soup. Finally, you'll rarely see rutabagas sold with their tops: their thick, cabbage-y leaves quickly toughen from exposure to the cold and become unpleasant to eat.

2. Young Turnips: Most varieties of turnip can be harvested when still very young, but look out especially for ping-pong ball-sized "salad" turnips like Hakurei. Their crisp texture and mustardy bite make them perfect for salads and slaws. And don't toss their leaves! You can sauté them just as you would radish or beet greens for a quick side dish.

3. Turnips: Turnips, which were first cultivated millennia ago in what is now India, have pure white flesh that turns translucent and milky when cooked. Mild and a little funky-tasting (they're brassicas, after all), turnips hold their shape in wintry, long-simmered stews and act as a well-mannered foil to other root vegetables in soups and mashes. Larger turnips can be woody and bitter, so look out for fist-sized roots at market. The colored ring around the turnip's stem is called the "collar," and is caused by sun exposure to the top of the root -- larger turnips will have more coloring, and salad turnips have none at all. Purple-blushed roots are the most common, but you can also find green, pink, and yellow-tinted turnips!

4. Are they actually different?: Rutabagas are directly descended from turnips, so it can be hard to tell them apart. There are two tell-tale signs: first, a turnip has a single long and thin taproot at its base, while rutabags have a messier, more crowded set of side roots. Second, rutabagas develop a "neck" around the stem -- the root itself tapers upward toward the leaves -- whereas turnips have totally flattened tops. Based on these signs, can you identify the rest of the roots in the photo?

No matter what you call them (other hilarious names include "neeps" and "snadgers"), rutabagas and turnips are worthy additions to your winter root vegetable arsenal. How do you cook with them?

Young Turnip Soup

Root Ribbons with Sage

Savory Tarte Tatin

Photos by James Ransom

Tags: down and dirty, diagrams, infographics, rutabaga, turnip, vegetable, root vegetable, brassicas, nozlee samadzadeh, special diets

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