Vitamin A is derived from beta-carotene and
carrots are a major source of this substance. Carotenoids, the
group of plant pigments of which beta-carotene is a member,
are so named because they were first identified in carrots.
This ever-popular vegetable is also a source of disease-fighting
flavonoids, and carrots contain a specific type of fibre, called
calcium pectate, which may lower blood cholesterol.
With the exception of beets, carrots contain
more sugar than any other vegetable, which makes them a satisfying
snack eaten raw and a tasty addition to a variety of cooked
dishes. In fact, some of the nutrients in carrots are more easily
absorbed when the vegetable has been cooked, even briefly.
The carrot belongs to the Umbelliferae family,
and is recognisable by its feathery leaves as a relative of
parsley, dill, fennel and celery. In earlier times, carrots
were small red, yellow, or purple roots; the elongated orange
carrot, forerunner of today's familiar vegetable, was probably
developed in the seventeenth century in Holland.
Many markets sell carrots in bunches with their tops still on,
but usually at a higher price than bagged carrots. Some consumers
see the tops as an indication of freshness, which indeed they
are—if crisp and bright green. However, refrigeration
and moisture-retaining packaging are the best preservers of
freshness: If carrots are displayed unwrapped at room temperature,
they will lose sweetness and crispness, with or without their
Look for well-shaped carrots; they should
not be gnarled or covered with hairlike rootlets. Their colour
should be a healthy reddish orange, not pale or yellow, from
top to bottom (the darker the orange color, the more beta carotene
is present). The top, or "shoulder," may be tinged
with green, but should not be dark or black, both indications
of age. However, the green part is likely to be bitter (it should
be trimmed before eating); if carrots are very green on top,
they should not be purchased. Also, avoid carrots that are cracked,
shriveled, soft, or wilted.
Fairly young carrots are likely to be mild
flavoured and tender, but, surprisingly, mature carrots are
often sweeter, with a dense, close-grained texture. Regardless
of its age, the smaller a carrot's core (the fibrous channel
that runs the length of the vegetable), the sweeter the carrot:
This is because its natural sugars lie in the outer layers.
Usually, you can't see the core until you cut the carrot, but
any carrots that have large, thick shoulders are likely to have
large cores, too.
To preserve their flavour and texture, carrots should be refrigerated.
Keep them in the coldest part of the refrigerator , in their
original plastic bag. If they were purchased loose, place them
in a perforated or loosely closed plastic bag. Don't store carrots
together with apples, pears, or other fruits that produce ethylene
gas as they ripen (even in the refrigerator, ripening of such
fruits slows, but does not cease). Exposure to ethylene gas
will turn carrots bitter.
If you buy carrots with "tops,"
twist or cut off the leaves before storing. Otherwise, the greens
will soon wilt and decay; furthermore, moisture will be drawn
from the roots, turning them limp and rubbery.
Although bagged carrots usually look clean, bacteria from the
soil may be present on the surface. So whether eating the carrots
raw or cooking them, be sure to scrub them with a vegetable
brush under running water, or peel them with a vegetable peeler
or paring knife; then rinse thoroughly.
If you enjoy crunching on raw carrots, then
do so. However, since carrots have tough cellular walls that
the body cannot easily break down, cooking them just until crisp-tender
actually makes their nutrients (including beta-carotene) more
Proper cooking brings out the sweetness in
carrots. They can be left whole or cut into short lengths; halving
them lengthwise will reduce cooking time. If you prefer, cut
them straight or diagonally crosswise into "coins,"
or slice them into julienne (matchstick-size) strips. Grated
or shredded carrots also cook very quickly. A food processor
is handy for slicing or shredding.