Real Food Encyclopedia | Carrots
When you eat a carrot, you’re eating a root, of course. Carrots grown for their roots were first cultivated in what is now Afghanistan, before the tenth century (CE). According to the Alan Davidson in the “Oxford Companion to Food,” carrots were cultivated long before then (and were even mentioned in a list of vegetables grown in the Babylonian gardens in the 8th century, BCE), but were grown not for their root, but for their leaves and seeds, both of which are highly aromatic.
The first carrots grown for their edible roots were yellow and purple-red; according to carrot geneticists, these cultivars spread to Asia and then to Japan by the seventeenth century. During Arab expansion post the tenth century CE, the roots were also brought east to Andalusia (in what is now Spain) and from Spain spread to the rest of Europe.
In Europe in the Middle Ages, carrot cultivars were also the original yellow or purple-red colors; it wasn’t until the Dutch — masterful carrot cultivators, apparently — began growing an orange type, probably around the seventeenth century, that our familiar orange carrot was born.
Fun Facts about Carrots:
- Baby carrots are not babies. They are made from a carrot variety specially bred to grow long and straight and close together, making them easier to whittle down into “baby” carrots. They have also been bred to contain more sugar, because Americans like their food sweet.
- Orange carrots get their color from the presence of beta carotene. Purple varieties get their color from the presence of anthocyanin, red from lycopene and yellow from lutein.
- Did your mom ever tell you that eating carrots would help you see better in the dark? Beta carotene is important to eye health, but the myth that eating carrots improves night vision is actually propaganda created by a British campaign in WWII.
What to Look for When Buying Carrots
Carrots vary wildly in color — you can find them in all shades of purple, red, white, yellow and of course, orange — as well as in size, from tiny varieties (like the round Paris Market and the tiny Little Finger carrot) to giant specimens topping out at three to four inches in diameter.
Smaller carrots (an inch to two inches in diameter) tend to be sweeter and juicier. All carrots have delicate, feathery greens, although if you’re purchasing carrots already bagged, the highly perishable tops have been removed for you.
If your carrots have their greens attached, look for feathery, perky leaves with no wilting, black spots or yellowing. The carrot roots should be firm (limp carrots are a no-go) and free of mushy or black/brown spots.
Sustainability of Carrots
Pesticides and Carrots
According to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center, US carrot production is “highly mechanized and highly concentrated,” with only two California producers accounting for most of the carrot products sold in the US. Carrots are also number 26 on the Environmental Working Group’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides on Produce, a list the EWG created to highlight the pesticide load in produce. If you’re concerned about either of these issues, pick up a bunch of carrots from your local farmer instead (and ask about his/her growing methods) — as a bonus, locally grown carrots tend to taste better, too.
Carrots thrive in cool weather, making them readily available starting in the mid-to-late summer (from early spring plantings) through the late fall. They are also easy to store in the winter, making the veggie basically available year-round, even from smaller producers.
Carrots generally are slow growing and somewhat finicky, requiring lots of moisture to germinate properly. They prefer cool weather, and can even be overwintered in the garden if they are heavily mulched. California, Michigan and Texas lead the US in carrot cultivation, while China, Russia and the US are tops in global carrot growing.
If you’ve purchased carrots with their feathery tops, remove the tops immediately after you get home and store them separately. Wrap the greens in a paper towel and place in a zip-top bag in your crisper drawer. They will only keep for a day or two. Carrot roots, on the other hand, are champion long-term crisper drawer survivors. Stored loose or in a paper bag, most carrots will keep in the crisper for at least a month.
Carrots are an integral part of many culture’s cooking. In Italian cooking, carrots make up one part of Italian soffritto (along with celery and onion), the flavor base of many dishes. They are used liberally in Indian, Middle Eastern, Eastern and Western European and many other cuisines. Roasting carrots plays up their natural sweetness (check out this roasted carrot and avocado salad). A favorite way to serve them, inspired by the great Marcella Hazan, is raw: coarsely grated, tossed with the juice of half a lemon, extra virgin olive oil and salt and pepper — nothing could be simpler or more deliciously carrot-y. Carrots are also wonderful pureed into soup (like this dead simple Moroccan carrot soup) and made into “fries” (like these oven-baked carrot fries).
Don’t toss those carrot tops, either! They can be added to veggie stocks and soups and can be made into a yummy carrot top pesto, perfect with roasted carrots!
Carrots can also be used for sweet recipes. The trusty Carrot Museum tells us that carrot cake probably descended from medieval carrot puddings; carrots, like beets, were often used as a sugar substitute because of their natural sugar content. Some of the first recipes for “carrot cake” were published in the nineteenth century. In India, carrots are used to make a sweet called halwa, prepared especially for the holiday of Diwali, a Hindu festival also known as the “festival of lights.”
Carrots preserve beautifully in a bunch of different ways. Check out this stunning carrot jam and these pickled carrots recipes (Chinese-style, Moroccan-style, Mexican-style, American-style: take your pick). Carrots can also be easily canned and frozen.
Carrots are loaded with Vitamin A: One cup provides over 400 percent of your daily needs. (Vitamin A is important for a lot of things, including vision, immune function and reproduction.) They are also good sources of potassium, vitamin K and vitamin E, and are, of course, a great source of fiber. Cooking carrots makes the beta carotene (which the body turns into vitamin A) more bio-available.