Turnips, like their botanical relative cabbage, have long been thought of as “plain folks” food. The turnip is economical; it grows well in poor soil; it keeps well; and it supplies complex carbohydrates. One of the cruciferous vegetables in the Brassica genus, the turnip can be cultivated for its root, an excellent source of complex carbohydrates. Turnips are also cultivated for their greens, which are rich in vitamins and minerals.
Rutabagas look similar to turnips, and have a similar sweet-earthy taste, but are a separate botanical species that probably evolved from a cross between a turnip and a wild cabbage.
Of the two, turnips (Brassica rapa) have a much older history. They were eaten by the Romans as well as by the people of Europe during the Middle Ages. Eventually, they were brought to America by both French and English colonists. They are especially appreciated in the South.
Rutabagas (Brassica napus) are comparatively new. The first record of rutabagas is from the 17th century, when they were used as both food and animal fodder in southern Europe. In England, they were referred to as “turnip-rooted cabbages.” Rutabagas became so popular in Scandinavia that they came to be called Swedish turnips, or “swedes.” In fact, the word rutabaga comes from the Swedish word rotabagge, meaning “round root”.
Americans were growing rutabagas as early as 1806. Warm temperatures above 75°F can damage rutabagas. As a result, they are planted chiefly in northern states and in Canada, while turnips are found in every state.
Turnips and rutabagas: nutrition
Turnips and rutabagas are rich in complex carbohydrates, with good amounts of both insoluble and cholesterol-lowering soluble fiber. The sweet, crisp flesh of these vegetables also contains modest amounts of protein and a surprisingly high concentration of vitamin C. One cup of fresh rutabaga cubes provides over 35 percent of the daily requirement of vitamin C, while 1 cup of turnip cubes contains about 20 percent of our daily vitamin C needs. In addition, rutabagas supply some B vitamins, iron, and a sizable amount of potassium.
Yellow-fleshed rutabagas also contain some beta carotene, while white-fleshed turnips have none.
Types of Turnips and Rutabagas
Discover the astonishing array of turnips, as well as the most popular rutabagas.
How to choose the best turnips and rutabagas
Newly harvested turnips are sometimes sold in bunches with their leaves, which should be crisp and green. If in good condition, the leaves can be cooked and eaten.
Turnips should always be firm and heavy for their size, with a minimum of fibrous root hairs at the bottom. Their surface should be smooth, not shriveled or bruised. Smaller turnips are sweeter and more tender than large ones, which may be bitter and pithy. Bunched turnips are usually about 2 inches in diameter. Turnips with the tops cut off—usually sold in plastic bags—are about 3 inches in diameter.
Rutabagas are almost always trimmed of their taproots and tops, and are often coated with a thick layer of clear wax to prevent moisture loss. The skin that’s visible through the wax should be free of major scars and bruises. Watch out for mold on the surface of the wax. Rutabagas should feel firm and solid, never spongy. For the sweetest flavor, choose smallish rutabagas, about 4 inches in diameter.
How to store turnips and rutabagas
Both turnips and rutabagas keep well. Cut off turnip greens and bag them separately for storage. They keep for just a few days.
Cooking with Turnips and Rutabagas
The sweet, somewhat peppery flesh of turnips and rutabagas makes them an excellent side dish and a tasty addition to salads, soups, and stews.
Published December 15, 2015