Carrots are one of the most delicious, versatile vegetables. They’re great for snacking on raw and they roast well, emerging from the oven with a deep, caramel-y flavor. But there’s more to shopping for and storing carrots than you might think. After all, a great dish begins when you select great ingredients for it. Here are our tips when it comes to choosing and taking care of your carrots.
SHOPPING FOR CARROTS
Carrots sold with their feathery green leaves still attached are typically less than 3 weeks old, the point at which the greens begin to wilt after harvest. Bagged carrots, on the other hand, may sit in storage for up to six months before they reach the supermarket.
We sampled both types of carrots raw, steamed, and sautéed. In each case, tasters thought the green-top carrots had a “deeper carrot flavor,” but the bagged carrots, though one-dimensional in flavor, were “undeniably sweeter.” It seemed obvious why the fresh carrots tasted richer, but we wondered why the bagged carrots were sweeter. Our science editor enlightened us, explaining that certain root vegetables, including carrots and potatoes, sweeten over time when refrigerated because the cool environment encourages the conversion of starch to glucose. As the bagged carrots waited in refrigerated storage for delivery, their sweetness increased.
You’ll typically pay more for carrots with their tops attached, about $1.79 per pound compared with $1.29 for bagged carrots. But we think it’s worth a little extra for better carrot flavor.
Since the vegetable will continue to feed the leafy tops in storage, should you remove the tops when you get home from the market? We purchased several bunches of carrots, left the tops intact on half, and removed the tops from the other half. We then stored the carrots in our refrigerator’s crisper drawer for two weeks. When we examined the samples, those stored with their tops attached were extremely limp, indicating moisture loss. But to our surprise, the trimmed carrots fared only slightly better.
Clearly, we needed to reevaluate our storage method. We repeated the test, this time placing both trimmed and untrimmed batches in open zipper-lock bags—a setup that trapped most of their moisture but allowed some to escape. After two weeks, the carrots with their tops on had still softened significantly, while the trimmed ones were just as firm and sweet-tasting as they had been two weeks prior.
To see if we could extend the life of carrot and celery sticks, we cut up two batches and stored one in a plastic container with a tight-fitting lid and the other in an identical container, covering the vegetables with cold water before putting on the lid. Both batches were crisp the next day, but after the second day, we began to see changes. As time went on, the dry-stored carrots looked parched but were still crunchy—even after five days. The carrots soaked in water looked fresher, but some tasters found them “slightly soggy” or “less sweet” than their less attractive counterparts.
The appearance of the celery deteriorated less over time, whether stored in water or not, while the texture and flavor changes were similar to those that we observed with the carrots. In short, prep celery and carrot sticks up to two days ahead; there’s no need to store them in water. After that, they’ll begin to very slowly deteriorate, whether stored dry or wet.
Although potentially misleading when applied to bagged baby carrots, the term baby refers to the carrots' size, not their age. Bagged baby carrots are made by taking long, thin carrots (usually carrot varieties grown for their high sugar and beta carotene content, which makes them sweet and bright in color) and forcing them through a carrot-trimming machine that peels the carrots and cuts them down to their ubiquitous baby size.
Real baby carrots, however, are varieties of carrots that are miniature in size when mature; contrary to popular belief, they are not carrots of the standard length that are picked early. Unfortunately, most baby carrots are available only through specialty produce purveyors that sell to restaurants and other professional kitchens. If you are lucky enough to spy true, greens-still-attached, tapered baby carrots in your grocery store or farmer's market, buy them in the cooler months. Baby carrots harvested in the warmer spring and summer months tend to be less sweet and have more of a metallic, turpentine-like flavor.
RECIPE FOR MEMBERS: Roasted Carrots
Roasting carrots draws out their natural sugars and intensifies their flavor. That is if you can prevent them from shriveling up like used matches; fortunately, we came up with a way to do just that.