When we were kids, we ate a lot of carrots, always raw and sprinkled with salt. I think that’s the way many people approach carrots—as a virtuous snack between meals. And all those carrots chopped up for the stockpot don’t get much thought either, even though carrots add a sweet depth of flavor and a splash of color to stews and soups. So it’s probably not surprising that carrots are often overlooked by home cooks and restaurant chefs alike. But because carrots—so wonderful as a flavor base—can also hold their own, I often make them the star of a soup, salad, savory soufflé, or side dish.
Buy the freshest carrots you can and use them sooner rather than later
At first glance, carrots can seem uninspiring. Sold year-round, they don’t generate the same excitement as, say, asparagus in springtime or tomatoes and corn in summer. And because they last a while in the refrigerator without any apparent wilting or spoiling, people tend to buy them and forget about them. This prompts a vicious circle: when they finally do get used, these older carrots have lost a lot of flavor and are, well, uninspiring.
Good fresh carrots, on the other hand, are worth getting excited about. When used raw, they make a crisp and refreshing salad. When cooked, their sweetness intensifies and the vegetable practically melts in your mouth.
Look for firm carrots with smooth skin. Carrots may be available year-round, but they have different characteristics depending on when they’re harvested. In late spring, you can find young, tiny carrots that are so mild and tender you don’t even need to peel them. With these carrots, I leave a little of the tender green stem attached, which is perfectly edible and which adds a bright dash of springtime color. In the summer, you’ll find more mature carrots, which have a stronger flavor. In late fall and early winter, carrots are at their sweetest, as cold weather turns their starches to sugars. Ideally you should taste before you buy because it’s hard to judge a carrot’s flavor by looks alone. When you can’t taste, you can look for clues that point to freshness. An older carrot will look dry and have cracks running though it. And if you can bend the carrot and it doesn’t snap, don’t buy it.
Green tops are a good sign—most of the time. Carrots with their greenery still attached are usually fresher than those carrots packed in plastic without their tops. But be sure the greens are moist and verdant. Left on too long, the greens can rob carrots of their moisture and vitamins, which is why you should cut off the greens before storing carrots.
Use your carrots! Store carrots in the coldest part of your refrigerator. Use true baby carrots (as opposed to those larger carrots whittled to thumb size and sold in plastic bags) within three days of buying them for the fullest flavor. More mature carrots should last a week or so. As for those that have been hanging around for weeks, they might suffice in dishes where the carrot plays a minor role, but please don’t try them in these recipes. And don’t even bother with the carrots that got lost in the shuffle and now bend like rubber; give them to the nearest rabbit or horse instead.
Not all carrots are orange—try white or even purple
The most common variety found in American markets is Imperator, which is orange, long, and tapered. Small, round varieties, such as Thumbelina, Danvers, and Paris Market Round, are becoming easier to find, especially at farmers’ markets. Nantes, a French variety that’s uniformly cylindrical, is becoming more widely available here and has an amazing sweetness. It also has the benefit of a relatively uniform size, so it’s easier to cut and chop into evenly sized pieces.
I’ve also cooked with carrots that range from pale white to reddish purple. When I worked at Chez Panisse, we’d buy carrots like these from the Chino family ranch in Rancho Santa Fe, California. They don’t do mail-order, but if you live near there, their farmstand is definitely worth a visit.
How to cut carrots without cutting yourself
I remember pieces of carrot flying around the kitchen, our poodles lunging for them, whenever we kids tried our hand at chopping carrots for mom’s spaghetti sauce. Because of their round shape, cutting carrots can be a pain—literally. As you slice, the carrot can roll away. The trick to making carrots easy to work with is to give them a stable base. To do so, cut a thin slice off the length of the carrot. Then lay the cut side down on the work surface. Now you’re ready to cut whatever shape you desire.
Always use a very sharp knife when cutting carrots. While that’s a good rule for any vegetable, carrots especially need a sharp blade; the force you need to exert to cut them with a dull blade can backfire on you, and you’ll end up cutting your hand instead. And don’t shy away from mechanical tools. Although learning to slice carrots into a julienne by hand is a worthy lesson, don’t hesitate to use a mandoline or a Japanese slicer when you have a lot of carrots to cut. And a food processor is a miracle worker when you have to shred pounds of carrots.
To peel or not to peel? I don’t peel carrots if they’re young and tender; the skin packs a lot of flavor as well as vitamins. As carrots mature, their skin becomes a little bitter, so I peel off just a thin layer (I like Oxo’s Good Grips peeler, but the kind you find in hardware stores is just fine, too). Mature carrots can have a core that tastes woody and fibrous; I remove it by cutting the carrots lengthwise and then cutting along the sides of the core where it meets the outer orange part of the carrot.
Carrots take to all kinds of cooking
Carrots can be cooked any number of ways. I love them roasted with a little salt and olive oil, or sautéed with a bit of garlic and some tomato paste. Just avoid cooking carrots in a large amount of water, which robs them of their flavor as well as their vitamins. Make sure any liquid is either evaporated over high heat to intensify the flavor of the carrots or used in the finished dish.
Fresh herbs of every sort complement carrots. My favorites are chervil and chives added just before serving. Dried spices, such as coriander and cumin, pair nicely with carrots, too. But whatever you add to them, the best way to ensure good taste is to start with fresh, flavorful carrots.