Carrots are so commonly available, it's easy to overlook them. But they're a nutritious and versatile vegetable that can be used for so much more than just school lunch. Full of flavor and crunch, and famously full of beta-carotene and fiber, this root vegetable can be steamed, roasted, shredded, pureed, chopped, diced, pickled, and used in dishes from savory to sweet. Carrots grow year-round in temperate areas of North America, with California producing the lion's share of the U.S. crop, so they're a staple in the grocery store produce section.
What Are Carrots?
The carrots you find in the grocery store are a domesticated version of a wild carrot, a root vegetable native to Europe and southwestern Asia. Though most uses call for just the taproot, the stems and leaves are edible as well. Heirloom, rainbow, and organic varieties cost more than the economical standard orange carrot.
How to Use Carrots
Carrots may be at their best straight from the ground, scrubbed clean and eaten raw. With young, fresh carrots, there's no need to even peel them, as the skin is thin and tender. Shred them on a large box grater to make a simple salad with a bit of white wine or cider vinegar and salt.
Diced carrots join onion and celery sautéed in butter to form a standard mirepoix, an important flavor base for soups, stews, sauces, and marinades. Carrots roasted with a bit of olive oil and a sprinkle of salt (and maybe even a drizzle of orange juice) turn tender and sweet.
You can toss roughly chopped carrots into stews or roast them in a pan with chicken or pork. Carrots glazed with brown sugar and butter make a simple but tasteful side dish for everything from fish sticks to roast beef to steak. Carrots pickled in vinegar add a kick to tacos, sandwiches, and salads.
What Do They Taste Like?
Carrots can range in flavor from sweet to piney and herbal to woody to soapy and bitter, depending on the variety and growing conditions. Cooked carrots release the sugar in their cells, so roasting or steaming them brings out the sweetness.
Carrots play a supporting role in many recipes, adding subtle background sweetness. They star in others, playing well with flavors that range from sweet to spicy, and salty to sour.
Where to Buy Carrots
Look for locally harvested carrots at farmers' markets during spring and fall, when you're more likely to find interesting varieties alongside the standard orange carrots. Grocery stores carry carrots all year long, both whole and cut, either loose, in bunches, or in packages. You can even find snack size packaged baby-cut carrots at many convenience stores and larger packages at bulk foods store, where you can also often buy bundles by the case.
Choose firm, stiff carrots with feathery bright green tops. A rubbery bend or extensive cracking indicates age and "wilting." You can grow carrots at home in a sunny garden, or both outdoors and indoors in containers; shorter varieties, such as finger types and round carrots, work best.
At home, cut or snap off the greens and store the carrots in an open plastic bag in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator or in a closed container of fresh water in the refrigerator (be sure to change the water every few days). Fresh carrots keep for several weeks properly stored. Make sure to remove the greens, though, as they will suck moisture from the carrots and cause premature wilting if you leave them intact. The tops should be used right away, but if you do need to store them overnight, wrap them in a damp towel and put them in the fridge.
You can also freeze carrots either whole or chopped for use in recipes. Blanch them first in salted water, then dunk them in an ice bath and let them dry before sealing them in an airtight container for storage.
Though most commercial production focuses on the orange varieties, which tend to be sweetest, carrots grow in an array of colors, with golden, white, purple, and red varieties widely available at farmers' markets and specialty grocery stores. Carrots are second only to beets in sugar content for vegetables. A good rule of thumb for both: the darker the color, the sweeter the flavor.
The "baby carrots" you buy in bags at the grocery store are actually machine-cut to size from fully mature carrots. You can often find true young carrots harvested at the start of the season in grocery stores and at farmers' markets in May and June, though.
And while carrots do contain beta-carotene, they won't do much to improve your eyesight, unless vitamin A deficiency caused the condition. That myth started during World War II to deflect attention from the new radar technology pilots were using. The rumor spread that the pilots improved their night vision by eating carrots.