Long an ingredient in stocks, soups, and stews or combined with other vegetables, carrots can stand alone as a flavorful treat.
The key to serving the best, tasty carrots are freshly harvested carrots not too small and not too large.
Carrots are a cool-season biennial grown as an annual. The peak season for carrots stretches from fall to late spring as long as the weather stays mild. Young, tender, spring carrots can be found at farmers’ markets now.
Carrots can be served raw or cooked. You can eat them raw whole or in sticks or grated in a salad. Carrots can be used as a flavoring in broths or in savory soups and stews or cooked as a vegetable in their own right.
Because carrots have the highest sugar content of any vegetable after beets, they can find a place in any meal from appetizer to dessert.
There are more than 100 varieties of carrots. Carrots can be short and stubby or long and tapered. Some carrots are harvested as short as an inch or two (2.5-5 cm) long, others as long as 3 feet (90 cm). They can be orange, white, yellow, mauve, purple, or black skinned.
Harvest size. A carrot is a swollen, fleshy taproot. The average carrot will be 6 to 8 inches (15-20 cm) long and ¾ inch (1.9 cm) in diameter. Carrots have finely divided fern-like leaves that sprout in a circle from the root top.
Baby carrots will be young and tender but not as sweet as slightly older carrots. Mature carrots are unlikely to be sweet at all. Carrots lose flavor as they age.
Tapered carrot varieties are ready to eat at about finger length and round varieties are ready to eat when they are about ¾ inch (19 mm) across. Short, round varieties generally are easier to grow and tend to be sweeter than the tapered varieties.
Carrot types. There are several carrot groups or types. Generally these groups reflect root shape, time of maturity, or market quality.
• Paris Market type carrots are small, round or square rooted. These are early crop or fast-maturing carrots. Two Paris Market varieties are ‘Thumbelina’ which is round, blunt-tipped, very sweet, and bright orange, and ‘Parmex’ which is round and bright orange.
• Nantes type carrots are medium length, cylindrical, blunt end carrots. They are an early cropping carrot. ‘Newmarket’ is a variety of Nantes carrot that is tender and sweet-tasting. ‘Little Finger’ is a small core carrot with extra sweet taste.
• Chantenay type carrots are main summer crop carrots that are shaped like a child’s top—plump and slightly tapered. ‘Red-Cored’ is an 1829 heirloom Chantenay with a small core and excellent flavor. ‘Sweetness’ is an orange-gold carrot that is especially good fresh.
• Danvers type carrots are late crop, medium slender, tapering rooted carrots ideal for storing or over wintering. ‘Camberly’ is a deep orange, smooth skinned Danvers type carrot. ‘Danvers Half Long Improved” is a bright orange red-cored carrot.
• Imperator type carrots are extra long, slender, broad shouldered carrots. These are large, dark orange carrots ideal for shipping. ‘Tendersweet’ is an orange red, sweet, tender Imperator type carrot.
The top carrot producing counties are China, the United States, Poland, Japan, France, and England.
Choose. Select carrots that are bright colored and well-shaped with smooth exteriors and closely trimmed tops. Avoid carrots that are flabby, soft, wilted, or split. Attached carrot greens should be bright green.
Baby carrots should be moist and plump, not slimy, broken or whitish.
Store. Carrots will keep in a perforated plastic bag or storage bin in the refrigerator for 10 days. Carrots kept longer will gradually lose their sweetness and rigidity. It is best to store carrots with their tops removed; otherwise the roots may lose moisture and nutrients.
Store carrots away from apples, pears, potatoes and other produce that create ethylene gas, which can cause carrots to become bitter.
Sliced and blanched carrots will keep in the refrigerator for 1 to 3 months. You can freeze sliced and blanched carrots for up to 6 months. Carrots pickled in vinegar brine (after boiling) will store for up to 1 year.
In mild climates, carrots can be left in the soil unharvested until you are ready to use them.
Prepare. Young carrots do not require peeling, but older carrots are best eaten peeled. Many nutrients are in the carrot’s skin, but so is any bitterness. The hard core of older carrots should be removed.
Carrots that are soft or limp can be re-crisped in a bowl of ice water.
Serve. Serve carrots raw or cooked.
- Cut raw carrots into sticks and serve as snacks.
- Serve fresh shredded raw carrots with a touch of oil and lemon juice; add raisins and fresh pineapple for a fruit-like salad.
- Mix shredded carrots with raisins and a little chopped onion then toss with French dressing or mayonnaise thinned with a little virgin olive oil.
- Add shredded carrots to a peanut butter sandwich.
- Cook carrots with peas and add a sprig of mint for flavor.
- Steam fresh, young carrots until tender then toss with butter. (Add a sprinkling of sugar, and a pinch of salt.)
- Boil baby carrots in as little water as possible, then sprinkled with chopped parsley, a little sugar, and freshly ground black pepper.
- Add sliced carrots to beef stew, tomato sauce, vegetable soup, or a stir-fry dish.
- Make carrot confit by slow-cooking carrots with olive oil, orange juice, cumin, lemon juice, and garlic.
- Cook carrots in a cream sauce seasoned with tarragon, nutmeg, and dill.
- Roll boiled carrots in breadcrumbs and deep-fry.
- Purée cooked carrots with potatoes.
- Serve cooked carrots with a marmalade glaze.
- Make carrot cake, carrot torte, or carrot pudding.
- Carrot thinnings can be used in salads or steamed in butter.
Flavor partners. Carrots go well with beef, celery, chicken, chives, cinnamon, coriander, cumin, curry, dill, dried apricots, honey, onion, orange, raisins, rosemary, shallots, tarragon, thyme, and tomato.
Nutrition. Carrots are a good source of vitamin A, potassium, fiber, and beta-carotene. Twenty-five thin carrot sticks contain about 20 calories.
Carrot facts and trivia. Carrots are thought to have gotten their start somewhere between the eastern Mediterranean and Afghanistan. Wild carrots with their white, umbrella-shaped flowers called Queen Anne’s Lace grow throughout Europe and into Asia.
The first cultivated carrots appeared more than 2,000 years ago around the Mediterranean. Those carrots had purple skins and yellow flesh. Primitive carrot roots were branched. Conical and tapered-rooted carrot varieties first appeared about 1,000 years ago.
Moorish invaders took carrots to Spain in the twelfth century. Carrots reached England by the fifteenth century. During the fifteenth century, Dutch farmers improved the flavor of carrots and bred the first orange carrots to honor the Dutch royal House of Orange. Orange carrots have been a standard ever since.
The botanical name of carrots is Daucus carota var. sativus.