I have a fixation with The World Carrot Museum. I don’t know why, since carrots don’t often make it to the table in my house because my husband will only eat them cooked and I will almost only eat them raw.
But carrots can be fussy to grow and I always like a challenge. The biggest mystery to me is why some are so sweet and some disappointingly bland. Even when I plant the same variety, it can be hit and miss.
What Does Turpentine have to do with Carrots?
According to the carrot experts at the museum, 2 ingredients play key roles in a carrot’s flavor: sugar and terpenoids. Terpenoids are organic compounds. They play many roles in plants, including scent, as in menthol, and flavor, as in cinnamon. In a good balance with the sugars, they give carrots their unique flavor. In excess, they produce a turpentine-like, soapy or bitter taste. Yum. (Don’t do a search on terpenoids unless you are terribly interested in the flavors of marijuana.)
Some of the terpenoids break down during cooking, making the carrots sweeter. But in the garden the terpenoids develop before the carrot’s sugars, so harvesting too early is a major reason for bitter or bland carrots.
Timing is Everything
Although we like to harvest carrots all season, letting them mature in the fall, when the weather is warm during the day, but cool at night, yields the sweetest carrots. The plants are still producing sugars during the day and they don’t need to use them up during the night. If nights are warm, the plants lose some sugars to respiration.
Which means peak carrot planting season in the Hudson Valley is mid- to late July. Although you can grow carrots throughout the season, mid- to late July is ideal because it means the seed will sprout quickly and the green tops will have lots of lovely sunshine to promote photosynthesis and sugars. By the time the roots start to fill out, evening temperatures will be cooling off. So run out right – after you finish reading – and buy some more packets of carrot seed.
Well, Timing’s Not Everything. Culture Plays a Role, Too.
Carrots are finicky eaters. They do not benefit from lots of fertilizer, especially nitrogen, which gives them a woody flavor and a fuzzy appearance. As root crops, they can handle a bit of phosphorus and potassium, but really all they need is a little compost worked into the soil before planting.
The shorter carrots, like Nantes and Danvers, were bred for fresh eating. They tend to be sweeter than the long thin Imperator varieties, which were bred for storage. Unfortunately like so many vegetables bred for a long shelf life and easy shipping, Imperator types are the ones we find in most grocery stores. Unless you are planting for winter storage, you can experiment with the many, many shorter varieties available to backyard gardeners. There are even tiny nugget-sized carrots, like ‘Paris Market’ that are sweet treats perfect for containers, unlike the shaved down carrots sold as “baby” carrots in the store.
Keeping it Sweet
Once you have your sweet harvest, pay attention to where you store them. Fruits like apples and pears, and the notorious ethylene gas they produce, promote the further development of terpenoids, sending them back to the bitter spectrum.
If you can keep them in the garden from fall into winter, with protection, they should get even sweeter. Since they are no longer actively growing, they don’t lose any of their sugar. In fact, they sweeten.
Back to Cooked versus Raw
And as for the cooked vs. raw debate, the World Carrot Museum says that “The antioxidant value of carrots increases by about 34% when cooked. Why? Because raw carrots have tough cellular walls and the body is able to convert less than 25 percent of carrots’ beta-carotene into vitamin. Cooking partially dissolves the cellulose-thickened cell walls, freeing up nutrients.”
But don’t cut them into small pieces before cooking or you’ll lose half the proteins and soluble carbohydrates in the water. Cook them whole and slice them later. Or just eat extra raw carrots.
Originally published on Practically Gardening.