Imagine some curious Swede purposely crossing a cabbage and a turnip, and then naming the result “root bag.” Sad to say, that is the historic truth behind the creation of our beloved rutabaga, one of the simplest, most useful (and edible) plants in today’s truck garden. Try growing rutabagas and even cooking rutabagas on time, and you might just be won over for life.
It’s surprising that a simple plant, so fat and round, could be confused with anything else, but such is the case with the rutabaga, which some folks call or think of as a turnip, when in fact a turnip is literally a horse of a different color. For additional confusion, consider that the rutabaga is referred to as “Swede” in much of Eastern Europe. It’s a Swedish turnip or yellow turnip in the United States and turnip in Ireland, but in Scotland it’s called “neep.” In northeastern England, turnips and rutabagas are called “snaggers,” so citizens there won’t confuse them with another large beet known as a mangel-wurzel.
If you have a complete genetic testing lab in your home and are still stymied by the differences between turnips and rutabagas, keep in mind that turnips have 20 chromosomes and rutabagas have 38 chromosomes (20 from their turnip ancestors and 18 from the cabbage side of the family). Lacking such equipment, just remember that, with a couple of exceptions (naturally), true turnips are small and white-fleshed while rutabagas are big and yellow-fleshed. But rest easy, there won’t be a quiz on this.
Telling a turnip from a rutabaga
The true turnip (which has been around for thousands of years and even grows wild in cooler places like Siberia) is fist-sized, bright purple on top and creamy white on the bottom. True turnips are easy to grow, mature in about eight weeks, and are popular spring plants grown as much for their tasty leafy greens as for their sweet white flesh.
The rutabaga, only created and noted since around 1620, requires up to 12 weeks to mature. It is a true fall crop that grows best during the cooler autumn and winter months. Rutabagas, which are dark purple on top with a yellowish bottom, are much larger than turnips (the world-record rutabaga weighs 77.8 pounds) and also provide tasty greens for the table.
Generally considered a substitute (or a complement) for potatoes, rutabagas are big, solid vegetables with very little waste. The skin is quite thick compared to most other vegetables, but the entire root is edible with no seeds, few soft spots, and very little waste in preparation. Because the root is hard and solid, care should be taken when peeling and cutting a rutabaga for the dinner table. It is best to cut the root into quarters or even eighths, and then begin the chopping process with more manageable pieces.
Some folks prefer to cut their rutabagas into thick slices and cook them whole, while others whittle their ‘bagas into bite-sized chunks. Once cooked, rutabagas may be served in slices, cut into cubes, or mashed with copious amounts of butter, salt and pepper. Rutabagas also are combined with other vegetables (potatoes, corn, peas, beans, carrots and other root crops) to add color and texture.
Cooking rutabagas have a signature odor that no other vegetable can match. It’s possible to confuse cabbage, brussells sprouts, broccoli or cauli-flower, but rutabagas produce a unique, heavy odor that is unmistakable – and impossible to ignore.
Most folks prefer their rutabagas chunked or mashed, but in countries where there once was little to eat other than rutabagas, the combinations are limited only by the time and inclinations of the chef. Rutabagas may be roasted, fried, baked, broiled, boiled with carrots or potatoes, or sliced thinly (uncooked) and served as a side dish or on a salad. In Norway, rutabagas are mashed with butter or soup stock, milk or cream to create a puree known as “rotmos.” That may sound awful, but it literally means “root mash,” which isn’t so bad.
When mashed with potatoes, the result is “clapshot” in Scotland, though there are regional twists on the same theme in which onions, peas, carrots or other root vegetables are added.
One could likely spend hours staring at a large, round rutabaga and not come up with a single alternative use for it, and, in fact, the realm of possibilities is rather small. In Britain, Scotland and Ireland, however, it is traditional to carve Halloween jack-o’-lanterns out of rutabagas much as Americans use the pumpkin – which is infinitely easier to carve.
Best grown as a fall crop, rutabagas do best when autumn and early winter include a fairly long, cool period. Most of the common types of yellow-fleshed rutabagas – including the Altrasweet, American Purple Top, Improved Long Island, Laurentian, Pike and Red Chief varieties – require 90 days or more of growing time. Colors and flavors vary only slightly, and most rutabagas produce large, globe-shaped roots with deep purple shoulders that are light yellow below. The flesh is very hard, fine-grained, and yellow in color.
Plant rutabagas after most of your other garden plants have matured. Seeds may be sown or broadcast (and then tamped a half inch deep). Thin to about four inches apart when the plants are 4 inches tall.
Rutabaga (or turnip) greens may be picked when the tops are 4 to 6 inches tall. Boiled with bacon bits and salt pork, and topped with vinegar or butter, they’ll make you want to plant more for later use!
Rutabagas may be left in the ground (after being covered with straw or hay), or they may be stored in the refrigerator or any cool place out of direct sunlight. Rutabagas are best when grown in cool weather and harvested at 3 to 5 inches in diameter, while turnips are most flavorful at 2 to 3 inches.
Rutabagas and turnips resist fall frosts, and some growers insist that the vegetables are “sweetened” by cool weather. Keep them in the ground or covered away from the sun, and they will last well into the winter. Rutabagas that are grown in warm climates tend to be tough and flavorless. Hold off planting until autumn or whenever fall-like weather (40 to 60 degrees F) comes to your area.
To help with moisture retention, some folks dip their rutabagas in warm (not hot) wax. Doing so does not affect the flavor of the root, and the wax is easily removed in the peeling process.
Rousing rutabaga recipes
Although it’s hard to beat the basic peeled, diced, boiled and mashed rutabaga flavored with butter and pepper, folks who plan on eating rutabagas or turnips at every meal tend to branch out and experiment with new, different or more exciting ways of cooking rutabagas. Here are a few tried-and-true recipes to get you started:
Keep in mind that cold, cooked turnips and rutabagas make great sandwiches, too. Add meat, lettuce and dressings of your choice, then add a thick layer of cold rutabagas and enjoy a filling, satisfying snack you’ll never find at a fast-food joint!
Cold, cooked rutabagas and turnips also may be frozen, then reheated in the microwave or on the stove to recreate that festive Christmas or Thanksgiving meal. Coupled with roast beef, chicken or turkey, and slathered with hot gravy, you’ll wonder how you ever lived without your daily helping of “root bag.”
A Maine writer and homesteader, Steve Carpenteri has spent more than 50 years growing, cooking and enjoying rutabagas and turnips.