Botanical Name: Brassica napus var. napobrassica
The root vegetable rutabaga is not a turnip but a close relative in the Brassica – or mustard – family of plants, which also includes cabbages, broccoli, cauliflower and brussel sprouts. The purple-shouldered rutabaga is sometimes described as a cross between a turnip and a cabbage.
Developing underground as a frost-hardy bulb, like a turnip, rutabagas grow larger and has a sweeter flavor more like cabbage. Cookbooks often refer to rutabagas as yellow turnips, for their yellow flesh, while regular turnips are called white turnips. In turn, yellow turnips – rutabagas – are also known as Swedish turnips
or simply Swedes.
Another name for rutabaga is “neep,” from the Old English word “naep” that’s a reflection of the original Latin botanical name. Some garden reference books simply say, “See Turnip,” for information about growing and harvesting rutabagas, since they all thrive in similar conditions, but there are some differences in the two plants.
Rutabagas grow larger than turnips. While turnips are commonly harvested when they are most tender, about 2-3 inches in diameter, rutabagas can grow to 6 inches or so before harvesting, or nearly the size of a grapefruit. It takes a few extra weeks to grow rutabagas to maturity.
There are other differences between a turnip and a rutabaga: rutabaga leaves are smooth and faintly blue in tone rather than hairy and bright green, rutabagas have a more distinct “neck” that grows above ground level between bulb and leaves, and the texture of rutabagas is finer and less woody than turnip. Inside the bulb, a true turnip is usually white. The flesh of rutabaga has more of agolden hue.
From a cook’s perspective, the most important difference between the two plants is in flavor. While the turnip is known for its peppery or sometimes bitter tang (and turnip greens have some real bite), rutabagas have a delightful mellow flavor that’s nut-like and almost sweet.
Once harvested in late fall or early winter, rutabagas grace the table with other root crops like carrots, potatoes, parsnips and leeks, making a good accompaniment to meat, game or fowl dishes.
Actually, think of rutabagas as a vegetable that’s two crops in one: the tender and nutritious green leaves of young rutabaga plants are treated just as other winter greens, while the fleshy upper root that forms the edible bulb can be roasted, mashedor included in hearty soups and stews. The addition of butter, herbs and spices can transform the humble rutabaga into a gourmet meal.