How to cook carrots

Everything you need to know about preparing carrots - and more besides

By Moira Adams


Photo © Veg World

I often serve carrots with the family dinner - and why not? It's a highly nutritious vegetable that everyone likes and is easy to prepare. But, I have to admit, if I just boil them up in the same old way several times in a week, we all get tired of them pretty quickly.

Fortunately, there are many varied ways of cooking carrots. With just a little imagination - and not a lot of effort - you can turn the humble root into a delicious side dish that will go well with many main course recipes. And it's worth doing. Carrots are a superb source of Vitamin A, and are also rich in dietary fiber, antioxidants, and minerals. They're also very economical.

Young, medium or old?

The correct way to cook carrots depend in part on how old they are.

In spring and early summer, look for small, young carrots - the kind that are sometimes sold in bunches. If you have a farmers' market near you, that will be a good place to seek them out. They'll be even better if you can grow them yourself. Either way, you should prepare them as soon as possible after they leave the soil.

Young carrots need only gentle cooking. Wash them carefully - there's usually no need to peel them. Remove the ends but otherwise leave them whole. Put them in a pan with barely enough water to cover them. Add a pinch of salt. I also like to add a little sugar and a knob of butter or margarine, but that's a matter of taste. Keeping the pan tightly covered, boil them gently until they're just tender, which should take 10 to 20 minutes, depending on their size. Most importantly, don't overcook them: they should be firm rather than mushy.

Older carrots - sometimes called maincrop carrots - are more robust and can stand cooking for longer periods. This type of carrot goes well in soups, stews and casseroles. You'll need to clean them either by scrubbing or peeling - I find it easiest to use a potato peeler. Then cut them into thick slices, and either boil them in salted water for 10 to 15 minutes, or use them in your favorite stew recipe.

Alternatively, you can steam maincrop carrots. Again, clean and slice them, and steam for about 15 minute. Nutrition-wise, steaming is better than boiling, because it causes less of the Vitamin A (which is water-soluble) and other nutrients to leach away.

Carrots that are very old tend to have a woody core. These are best prepared by cutting away the outer parts, which should be used in soups and stews, and discarding the core.

Cleaning in advance

When preparing a big meal, you might decide to clean and cut the vegetables in advance, ahead of the actual cooking. If you do that with carrots, don't make the mistake of keeping the cut vegetables in a pan of water, as you would normally do with potatoes. Doing so will cause a loss of both flavor and nutrients. Simply leave the carrots in the pan, and add the water only when you are ready to start cooking them.

Roast carrots

One of my culinary standbys is mixed roast vegetables. This easy midweek dish is a combination of roasted eggplant (aubergine), zucchini (courgettes), mushrooms, peppers, sweet potatoes, or whatever other veggies I have to hand, topped with a layer of haloumi or mozzarella, and served with rice or cous cous.

Carrots can also be added to this mix. Just clean and slice the carrots, and place them in an oiled roasting tin, along with the other vegetables. Sprinkle a little olive oil, salt and pepper over the top. Cook them in the oven at 400°F (200°C), turning occasionally with a wooden spoon or spatula. The total cooking time will be about 30 to 40 minutes.

Carrots baked in foil

Carrots and orange baked in foil

Photo © Veg World

Now here's a particularly tasty way of preparing carrots. The cooking time is longer than the other methods, but the end product is far superior.

Start by taking a large sheet of aluminum foil - ideally at least 24 inches (60 cm) wide. Cut the carrots into large chunks (allow one large carrot per person). Place the chunks in the middle of one half of the foil. Add the grated zest of a large orange, a couple of knobs of butter or margarine, a finely sliced clove of garlic, and a couple of sprigs of fresh rosemary which has been finely chopped. If you don't have fresh rosemary, use half a teaspoon of dried rosemary, or, failing that, of any dried mixed herbs.

Next, fold the other side of the foil over the carrots, and scrimp the sides to form a bag. Before closing the bag, add two tablespoons of orange juice. Then seal the bag and place it on a baking sheet or in a roasting tin.

Put the whole thing in an oven which has been pre-heated to 400°F (200°C). Cook for about 50 minutes. When done, carefully open the foil, and transfer the contents to a warmed serving dish. Carrots cooked in this way not only taste great, they look good as well - as you can see from the photo.

Carrot soup

I mentioned earlier that older carrots go well in soups. In fact, if you find you have more carrots than you need, you can always use the excess to make a tasty soup, which can be eaten straight away or frozen until needed.

A quick and easy way of making a basic carrot soup is to gently sauté a small, chopped onion in a little oil until it starts to turn brown. Then add a couple of chopped carrots and a diced potato. Continue sautéing for a few minutes. Next, cover the vegetables with vegetable stock (or water into which a vegetarian stock cube has been dissolved), and bring to the boil. Simmer gently until the veggies are soft. Add salt and pepper to taste (I often add soy sauce as well). Finally, purée the soup in a blender or food processor.

Carrots have a special affinity with cilantro (coriander leaves). If you have any of that herb to hand, adding it to the soup before serving can only enhance the flavor.

If you want to make a more substantial carrot soup, add a couple of tablespoons of red lentils before you add the water or stock. You'll need more of the liquid than otherwise (because the lentils will absorb some of it), and you might need to cook for a little longer. Check that the lentils are completely soft before puréeing. (Be sure to use red lentils; other varieties will take much longer to soften.)

Carrots in the raw

Like many other vegetables, carrots can be safely eaten raw. In fact, doing so is the best way to preserve their nutritional value. However, I don't know about you, but I don't particularly enjoy munching away at a raw chunk of carrot - it's too much like hard work.

A much better plan is to grate the carrot and use it in a tasty salad. An easy way to do that is to grate a couple of peeled carrots (use a food processor if you have one; if not, a cheese grater will do the job). Add a large apple which has been washed and finely diced, plus a handful of golden raisins (sultanas). Mix well, and serve with either mayonnaise or a honey and mustard dressing.

There are many variations on this basic theme. For example, you could add a few chunks of canned pineapple to the mix, or perhaps a sprinkling of pumpkin seeds.

Carrots for dessert?

So far, we've talked about the savory uses of carrots, but the vegetable also has a place on the sweet side of the menu. There's no better example of that than Janey Macleod's fabulous carrot cake recipe - easily the best I've tasted.

Another example is carrot muffins. These are easy to make. Use your favorite muffin recipe, substituting grated carrots for whatever fruit or filling you would otherwise use. Or, if you own a juicer, try using the juice of a large carrot, along with the pulp that's left behind after the juicing.

English carrot pudding

For a more unusual carrot-based dessert, try this English carrot pudding. It's based on a recipe I found in Jane Grigson's Vegetable Book, but I have to admit that I don't recall ever seeing the pudding on my trips to England.

First, set the oven to 350°F (180°C). Then oil a 9-inch (23 cm) cake tin that has a removable base. Roll out the pastry and use it to line the tin. Mix the remaining ingredients, beating well. Pour the mixture into the tin, then slide the tin onto a baking sheet and transfer to the oven.

Bake for about 40 minutes. The pudding will be ready when the filling has risen slightly and the crust is a golden brown. Serve it hot, either on its own or with cream or ice cream. It's delicious.

Whether you prefer your carrots in a cake or dessert, a soup or a salad, or as a main-course accompaniment, I hope this article has proved that you don't need to put up with the plain old boiled version every time.

December 2010

Please note: Neither Veg World nor its contributors are qualified to give medical or nutritional advice. If in doubt, always consult a suitably-qualified professional.

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