As with most vegetables, carrots are full of water. It may seem improbable but at 88%, the water content of carrots is slightly higher than that of full cream milk and comparable to oranges. It is just stored differently; vegetables lock water in their structure very effectively. For example, these vegetables have about the same water content as watermelon (92%): Broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, eggplant, zucchini (95%). Water content becomes apparent when carrots are juiced.
After water, carrots are about 10% carbohydrate, of which half is made up by sugars. They also contain ~1% protein, beta-carotene (which is a pre-cursor molecule used by our bodies to manufacture vitamin A – carrots themselves are quite low in vitamin A) and terpenes (alkaloids), which in low concentration give an earthy note, but in higher concentration are soapy and bitter (and toxic). Carrots start out relatively high in terpenes and low in sugar, a ratio that reverses as the plant matures. Some terpenes are concentrated in the skin, where they may have an anti-fungal role.
Although not often used, carrot tops are edible, as are the leaves of other members of the carrot family (parsley, coriander, dill and fennel for example).
The word ‘carrot’ comes from the Greek ‘karoton’ meaning ‘horn-like’. They were first cultivated in the Middle East (white and purple varieties). The orange variety was selectively cultivated in the Netherlands around the 17th century, as a tribute to the influential and wealthy Orange-Nassau dynasty (later to become the Dutch Royal Family). Orange carrots were politically-connected, and their fortunes waxed and waned with that of the dynasty. It’s curious that there’s no orange on the Dutch flag though – orange dyes were unstable at the time, so they settled for vermillion.
Posting on carrots came about because I wanted to share this interesting recipe for carrot soup from the modernist cuisine team. It uses pressure cooking to soften the carrot and unlock the sugars, and a combination of caramelisation and the Maillard reaction (browning reaction) to develop complex flavour. The Maillard reaction (between sugars and proteins) is accelerated in a slightly alkaline environment, and a critical addition to the recipe is 0.5% baking soda (not baking powder). Butter adds additional flavour and protein (it’s about 1% by weight). The result is quite surprising; sweet with butterscotch overtones. There is no added sugar, and in fact the only ingredients, other than baking soda, are carrot, butter, water and salt.