photo of harvard beets

Easy Harvard Beets

I adore red beets and they usually appear chilled on my table pickled accompanied by hard-boiled eggs which were soaking for days alongside the beets in a flavorful sweet/sour brine. Red-beet eggs are a staple in many Coal Region kitchens.

But I also enjoy hot dishes containing beets and am especially fond of those that are quick and easy, pack a flavor punch — and allow me to take advantage of the convenience of canned beets. I rarely have time to cook and peel fresh beets when the urge for a fast and tasty, last-minute veggie dish hits.

Enter my recipe for Easy Harvard Beets. Harvard beets are cooked beets in a thickened sweet and sour sauce that includes vinegar and sugar (we “Dutchies love sweet and sour dishes!). 

The origin of the dish’s name has been the subject of much speculation and is not clear. One theory is that the dish was created by an Ivy League student and they earned the name for the way their deep red color mimicked the Harvard Crimson football jersey. Another is that they originated in a tavern in England named “Harwood” and the ‘”Harvard” is a mispronunciation of the name.

Traditionally made with fresh beets, my recipe uses canned beets and some of the liquid they come in for enhanced flavor without the fuss.

I prefer diced beets when I can get them, but they can be elusive on the store shelves where I live, so I use whole, cut, or sliced and cut them up into small cubes or matchsticks.

Easy Harvard Beets

Recipe by A Coalcracker in the KitchenCourse: SidesCuisine: Pa. DutchDifficulty: Easy

Beets in a thickened sweet and sour sauce made easy by using canned beets. 


  • 2 (15-ounce) cans diced or sliced beets (or whole cut into cubes), one can of liquid reserved

  • 1/3 cup sugar

  • 1/3 cup white vinegar

  • 2 Tablespoons corn starch

  • 1 Tablespoon butter

  • Salt and black pepper to taste

  • 1/4 cup orange juice OR cold water


  • Drain 1 can of beets and discard the liquid from this can (you will keep the liquid from the second can – see Step #2).
  • In a medium saucepan, place the first can of drained beets and the second can of beets along with the liquid from that can..
  • Add the vinegar and sugar, butter and salt and pepper as desired.
  • Bring to boil then reduce heat and simmer 8 to 10 minutes.
  • Stir cornstarch into orange juice or cold water to make a slurry. Turn up heat to bring liquid in saucepan to a boil then slowly pour in the slurry, stirring constantly. The sauce on the beets will thicken quickly. Remove from heat, stir until any bubbling stops. Serve hot.