Locally sourced rutabagas are seen in Bangor in this 2014 file photo. Credit: Ashley L. Conti / BDN

Rutabaga is a hearty root vegetable that is in season and abundantly available during the winter. The dirty, lumpy root can be intimidating for home cooks without experience preparing it, but it is delicious, versatile and stores excellently throughout the winter once you know the basics.

The rutabaga is a Swedish root vegetable that is a cross between the cabbage and the turnip. Turnips and rutabagas look similar, but rutabagas are usually sold without their greens because, unlike turnips, their leafy fronds are not palatable. Rutabagas are also slightly more pungent than their turnip counterparts, though this can be ameliorated somewhat by taking steps like blanching.

“Some people are just off-put by the pungency of them,” said Stephanie Enjaian, culinary arts department chair at Kennebec Valley Community College. “Some people are really off-put by any bitterness.”

Rob Dumas, food science innovation coordinator at the University of Maine, said that another intimidating element of the rutabaga is its thick, waxy skin. However, Dumas said that this anxiety about the wax is misplaced.

“That wax is harmless,” Dumas said. “You don’t want to eat it but it’s not like it’s coated in some horrible substance. That’s really to prevent the moisture inside of them from escaping out of them.”

Plus, that thick coating helps rutabagas last for a long time in storage, up to five months.

All you need to do, Dumas said, is peel the wax off, sort of like you would do for a squash with a tough rind, to get the prize of the rutabaga meat. To do so, Dumas said, you will need a “good, sturdy peeler.”

“I don’t like the single blade in line with the handle,” Dumas said. “[I prefer a] Y-style peeler. [Also] peelers don’t stay sharp forever. If you’ve had one for four to five years you might want to get a new peeler.”

Enjaian said that you might even prefer to use a knife for the thick skin.

“A peeler might not get through that,” she said. “If you can’t get your peeler to do what it needs to do, using a knife and peeling along the sides can be helpful.”

Once you have your rutabaga peeled, you can cook it like you would pretty much any root vegetable. His favorite method is roasting.

“Put [diced rutabaga] in a bowl with a little bit of clarified butter, toss it, roast in a 425-degree [Fahrenheit] oven until you have some browning on the edges,” Dumas said. “The beauty of roasting the vegetables is that it converts a lot of people who are skeptics. Roasting concentrates flavors in the vegetables and really makes it shine.”

Dumas said you can also use rutabagas as a substitute for potatoes in a sweet mash, or even in a classic New England boiled dinner.

Enjaian said that she prefers to cook rutabaga in soups or purees, but she has seen other chefs get quite creative with the root vegetable.

“Some people go so far as to put it in a souffle,” she said.

Dumas said that once you get into rutabagas, you might be inspired to combine it with other root vegetables that are prominent throughout the winter.

“Rutabaga plays well with others,” Dumas said. “I think rutabagas are a winner [and] more people should try them and eat them.”