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What are Root Vegetables?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 16, 2024
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“Root vegetables” is a relatively generic description of vegetables, including starchy ones, that grow underground. Many plants that produce edible roots also have other culinary uses. For instance, turnips, a classic root vegetable, are famous not only for their underground portion but also for the turnip greens, which are a popular food in the Southern United States.

To make matters confusing, root vegetables aren’t always roots. Some vegetables that people eat are actually bulbs instead, like onions, garlic and shallots. Many people may differentiate onions and garlic as more spice than vegetable, but they are often grouped in the "root vegetable" category.

Potatoes are usually labeled as tubers, and again, most people think of them as more of a starch than a vegetable. Despite that, they are a part of the this category. Plenty of other vegetables fall into this group as well.

Other vegetables often included in this group are sweet potatoes, carrots, beets, parsnips, jicama, leeks, and Jerusalem artichokes, to name just a few. Sometimes, certain ones form a major part of a culture’s diet. This is certainly true of roots like yams, taro, and potatoes in certain parts of the world.

Other times, underground vegetables are important to a culture but are used to flavor main meals or as an important accessory to dishes. For instance, carrots are often served as a side dish, but wouldn’t likely be used as a main food. Ginger, on the other hand, which is a rhizome, is delicious when added as a spice, and many cultures enjoy either fresh ginger, pickled thin slices of ginger, or dried powder ginger to flavor foods.

Due to the tremendous variety expressed by the term root vegetables, it may be difficult to know what the term refers to in most conversations. In classic American cooking, people may specifically mean things like carrots, leeks, potatoes, parsnips, and onions, and certainly not things like peanuts, though these are sometimes called groundnuts. One thing that can be generalized about most “underground” foods is that they require especially good washing practices.

Since many foods are grown in manure, dirt, and/or compost, cooks will really want to take their time cleaning root vegetables. They should invest in a good scrubbing brush designed for vegetables to thoroughly clean things like carrots, leeks, beets, or potatoes. Cooks may notice small pebbles imbedded in larger vegetables, which should be cut out during cleaning. Some people prefer to peel things like potatoes or carrots to avoid scrubbing them, but others say it’s much more nutritious to leave the skin intact whenever possible.

DelightedCooking is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a DelightedCooking contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By myharley — On Oct 20, 2012

Turnips are one vegetable that I have never cared for. It doesn't matter how they have been fixed, I just don't find them appealing at all. I remember when my grandma would cook turnips, the whole house would stink. For some reason it was just hard to make myself eat something that smelled that bad when it was cooking.

By John57 — On Oct 19, 2012

Every year I look forward to planting vegetables in my garden. I always leave room for carrots and onions in my garden. We eat a lot of these during the summer and nothing tastes better than the food you grow yourself.

If I am going to be using the carrots in a smoothie, I don't go to the trouble to peel them. If I am just going to be snacking on them or use them in a meal, I will usually peel them.

Once when we were visiting a friend who lived way out in the country, my son asked if they ever ate fast food. The lady replied by saying that she liked her vegetables with dirt on them. She always had a huge garden and grew a lot of root vegetables every year. They were probably much healthier than the people who eat a lot of their meals at a fast food place.

By sunshined — On Oct 19, 2012
When it comes to eating potatoes, I have heard that sweet potatoes have the most nutrition. I really don't know the difference between a yam or a sweet potato, but do know they are both root vegetables.

I have also read that the small red potatoes are healthier for you than something like a russet potato. I do like to leave the skins on my potatoes when I am fixing them. Some say there are more nutrients in the skin than any other part of the potato.

By julies — On Oct 18, 2012

When I think of root vegetables, potatoes are the first thing that comes to my mind. I know that some will say potatoes are not all that healthy for you because they are so starchy and turn to sugar in your body.

I happen to love potatoes though and almost always have some on hand. There are so many different ways you can fix them and I think they are the perfect complement to just about any meal. You can also eat them for every meal of the day including hash browns for breakfast.

I have never grown my own potatoes but consider them an inexpensive food that will easily feed a lot of people. At our house we eat potatoes baked, fried, boiled and mashed, and never seem to get tired of them.

By seag47 — On Oct 18, 2012

@cloudel – I love that recipe! I usually add onions and garlic to my root vegetable dish, though.

I've never thought of onions and garlic as standalone vegetables. I would never just pick up an onion or a head of garlic and bite into it as though it were a carrot. I only use them when I'm cooking.

They are really intense with flavor, so they improve bland dishes. Garlic goes good with just about any savory dish, and onions can totally change the flavor of meat as well as vegetables.

By feasting — On Oct 17, 2012

A sweet potato is the vegetable highest in nutrition. It contains vitamin A, beta-carotene, vitamin C, potassium, and a bunch of other minerals that your body needs.

I'm glad it tastes so good. I recently discovered that I prefer sweet potato fries to regular ones, so I'm getting a lot more nutrition out of them now.

I peel the sweet potato and slice it into thick fry shapes. I toss them in olive oil and sprinkle them with salt and pepper. Then, I bake them on parchment paper for twenty minutes at 400 degrees, turning halfway through.

The difference between these and regular fries is that they never get crispy. Sweet potato fries are meant to be a bit squishy, but they taste so good that this doesn't matter to me.

By DylanB — On Oct 17, 2012

Oh, gross! I desperately need to get a vegetable brush. I never thought about potatoes being planted in manure!

I have been just rinsing them and wiping them off with a paper towel. Brownish-black stuff comes off on the paper towel, but I thought it was just dirt!

I leave the skins on when I make baked french fries, because it enhances the flavor. Now, I see that I may have been eating manure along with the skins!

By cloudel — On Oct 16, 2012

I've never had a garden of root vegetables, but I am a big fan of cooking them. One of my favorite meals is roast beef with root vegetables.

I cook the roast in a crock pot, but the vegetables go in the oven for an hour. I slice up big chunks of potatoes and carrots, and I toss them in canola oil. I add salt and pepper and roast them until they are tender.

This is a great meal for a cold day. It's what I call comfort food, because it reminds me of home.

By anon167641 — On Apr 13, 2011

I looked at this article because I am trying to grow turnips from tops of some I particular like that started sprouting in the refrigerator. I have the tops in earth and they are continuing to grow. Can I divide them? Does anyone know the answer to this?

By OceanSwimmer — On Oct 23, 2010

@dinoleash: Start out with two sweet potatoes from the grocery store. You will grow your slips (the vine cutting from your potatoes) off of those potatoes. Stick toothpicks in the midsection of the potatoes enough to hold it up in a jar of water.

When your slips are 6 to 8 inches long, cut them off. Transplant the slips to your garden when the soil is around 70 degrees and there is no danger of frost. Lay the slips on their sides with the majority of the slip buried half an inch under the soil.

Plant them 12 to 18 inches apart in rows that are three feet apart. Place mulch around them to help retain moisture. Black mulch is best because it draws heat from the sun.

Harvest them before the first frost. Sweet potatoes are ready for harvest after four months in the ground.

By DinoLeash — On Oct 23, 2010

I love all vegetables, especially raw vegetables. Your article was very informative.

Does anyone know how to grow sweet potatoes? I would love to grow some but I am completely clueless! Any information would be appreciated.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a DelightedCooking contributor, Tricia...
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