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How to choose the best carrots for flavor, health, cost, and time

Investing a few minutes in considering what you want from a regular purchase such as carrots can pay off big in the long run. You can enjoy meals more, live healthier on a healthier planet, and save money. You can even save time, but that may involve a cost. You really can't go wrong. Carrots are loaded with vitamin A, vitamin C, fiber, and other nutrients that keep your skin glowing, eyes sharp, your immune system strong, and reduce your risk of cancer and leukemia.

local carrots with carrot tops and funny shapes

Carrot Prices (Chart)

I was surprised to find that carrot prices range from 49 cents a pound to four dollars a pound. Yet even the most expensive carrots -- local, organic, and freshly harvested -- are an affordable splurge at about 50 cents each. Grow your own for about a penny each, the best carrot bargain of all!

chart compares carrot prices per pound for organic, conventional, full sized, baby carrots, and local carrots

Five-pound bags of organic carrots are a staple on Cook for Good's thrifty shopping lists, providing carrots at just 70 cents a pound or less than 9 cents each. Note that the five-pound bag cost less per pound than the two-pound bag, even when it's not on sale, and less than all the baby carrots.  A two-pound bag of organic baby carrots costs the same per pound as a one-pound bag of conventionally grown carrots.

Bottom line: organic carrots are wildly affordable.

For the Best Flavor, Choose Fresh Local Carrots

Have you ever tasted a raw local carrot grown for flavor fresh from the field? I look forward to the deep carrot flavor and sweet orange crispness available from fall through spring. One of my farmers says that cool-season carrots are the best because they grow more slowly, giving them time to develop flavor. The flavor difference between fresh local carrots and grocery-store carrots is not quite as dramatic as it is with vine-ripened local tomatoes and picked-green grocery-store tomatoes, but it's close. Elizabeth Schneider writes in Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini:

Carrots can be (and are, if you do some rooting around) more than just orange crunch. One taste of the genuine article will suffice to restore your memory or alert your senses. The difference is alarming: a true wake-up call.

I love the look of carrots that come full of personality, with the tops attached. Peel them only if they are resistant to scrubbing or if a nibble reveals bitter skin. If you get carrots with tops, cut them off and store them separately. Otherwise the leaves will draw moisture from the roots, making the carrot roots dry out. (This is why I don't buy carrots with the tops on in the grocery store.) You can use carrot leaves in small quantities in salads, soups,  Green Gumbo, or cooked with other greens. Don't add them to a smoothie unless you like taste and texture of wet dog hair. 

smooth large local carrots

As much as I enjoy the weird shapes, it's easier to prepare local carrots that are as smooth as store-bought carrots and come without the tops. Some farmers grow yellow and purple carrots too. You may even find genuine baby carrots with the leaves on top: small, whole carrots of dwarf varieties or ones harvested early to make room for other carrots.

Bottom line: fresh local carrots are a worthy splurge in cool months, especially for eating raw, and a top pick for a home garden. If you can afford to, make them your top choice whenever they are available. You'll be supporting your local food system too.

For the Best Overall Value, Choose Organic Grocery-Store Carrots

Bagged organic grocery-store carrots are very thrifty, at about a quarter the price of local organic carrots, and taste pretty good. If you peel them, they are fine raw and delicious cooked in stews, glazed, roasted, or in baked goods. They keep for weeks, which makes them a great choice if you can't get to the store very often. Before you buy, check the bags for water or damaged carrots. The water will make them soggy and difficult to brown when roasting.

Bottom line: Organic bagged grocery store carrots are an essential kitchen staple at least part of the year.

To Save Time or in Special Circumstances, Choose Baby Carrots

Baby or cocktail carrots are actually long carrots bred for extra sweetness and uniform color, cut to size, peeled, and rinsed before being packed in plastic bags. The original idea was to reduce food waste by using parts of crooked or otherwise not-perfect carrots.

You can just rinse baby carrots and eat or cook them, no peeling or cutting needed. (If you want to roast them and the sizes are uneven, you may need to cut some in half for even cooking.) They are sweet, bland, and sometimes seem spongy. Before you buy, check the sell-by date and check the bag for water or orange slush, a sign of decomposing carrots. Because baby carrots are peeled, they age more quickly.

Baby carrots still may be the best choice to get your kids to eat carrots. They're convenient if you have arthritis, vision problems, or are just flat-out pressed for time. I buy organic baby carrots on trips when I don't have a kitchen or when I'm cooking through a hard time, but prefer the freshness and flavor of whole, adult carrots.

Despite a persistant email rumor, though, baby carrots are safe, according to Dr. Weil. They haven't been dunked in clorine, just rinsed in water that has chlorine levels within the limits for tap water. If the the baby carrots turn white on the outside, that's dehydration, not chlorine. PubMed reveals lots of work on how to coat baby carrots with starch, essential oils, or even to irradiate them to help them last longer and stay safe. Check the label for additives.

Bottom line: Baby carrots are a splurge but better than no carrots at all.

Carrot Recipes

carrot puree on jicama stars

Ready to cook with carrots? Try these recipes: Jicama Stars with Fennel and Carrot-Ginger Puree, Spring Salad, Roasted Carrot and Garlic Soup, Kale with Carrots, Golden Indian Carrots, Precious Spice Carrots, or Carrot Spice Cake.

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