Carrots are a kitchen workhorse, second only to onions as one of the most common ingredients in savory, and occasionally sweet, recipes. You find them in soups, stews, casseroles, and braises. They are delicious roasted, blanched, sautéed and left raw. They can be the main dish, the side dish, or used as an aromatic. Really, is there anything a carrot doesn't do (except the dishes, maybe?) Here is a basic tutorial on how to make some basic — and one fanciful! — carrot cuts for any recipe that comes through your kitchen.
Organic vs. Conventional
Carrots are cheap and easy to find, and rare as this can be for most other vegetables, you can usually say the same for organic carrots. As a root vegetable, carrots easily absorb chemicals and pesticides from the soil, so it's best to purchase organic whenever possible. Bonus: Organic carrots do not need to be peeled, only scrubbed, unless you want to peel them for aesthetic reasons. And you can use the scraps for stock!
If you purchase conventional carrots, they should be scrubbed with a vegetable wash or preferably peeled, as most of the toxins they absorb will be located in the skin. Of course, the skin is where many nutrients are located so you will be losing out a bit there. It's up to you if you want to save the scraps for stock making but remember, carrots often make the top ten lists of conventional vegetables that should be avoided due to pesticide contamination.
What's With Soapy Carrots?
Sometimes carrots have a soapy, bitter taste. This is because carrots contain volatile compounds called terpenoids which, along with their sugar content, gives them flavor. High levels of terpenoids aren't harmful, but they will make your carrots taste off. This can be caused by carrots harvested too early, carrot variety, long storage, and growing conditions. For more information on this, check out the explanation from the World Carrot Museum.
To avoid soapy carrots, try to purchase them from a farmers market or at a grocery store that can provide information about the variety and growing/storage practices.
Use "The Claw" to hold carrots steady while slicing
The Knife and the Claw
When cutting carrots, two basic knife skill rules are especially important: use a sharp knife and the claw. Carrots are hard and dense, and especially if they've been peeled, they can be slippery. A sharp knife will quickly cut into the carrot, which helps to stabilize it. It also helps if the knife is sturdy, so it doesn't wobble. The claw is simply a cutting technique where you grasp the carrot with your guiding hand using a claw shape and use your outer knuckles as a guide. (Emma has a great guide to The Claw technique here.)
Keeping It Even
One of the challenges in cutting carrots is creating pieces that are even in size since carrots are usually thicker at one end. (You usually want evenly-sized pieces so that they will cook at the same rate.) The first trick in solving this is to look for and purchase carrots that are as even as possible from root to stem. It's not always possible to find them but it's not impossible either. Look for bulk carrots where you can pick and choose the carrots you want.
The second trick is to reduce the thickness of your slices as they increase in diameter, so that the bigger slices cut from the thicker end are roughly the same weight as the smaller pieces. Or cut the larger diameter pieces in half. And the third trick is to not worry about it too much! Just try to get your pieces roughly the same size and you'll be fine.
Slicing carrot coins
The easiest and most popular cut for carrots is the coin. Simply slice off round coins from the carrot by cutting it crosswise. Anchor the tip of your knife in the cutting board and slice off the coins using a rocking motion while pushing the carrot through the path of the knife. Use The Claw to grasp the carrot and your knuckles as a guide. This method will also keep the carrots from bouncing around and rolling off of the board.
If you're doing a lot of flowers, cut 4-inch lengths from the carrot, score 5 or 6 long notches lengthwise into the sides of each length. (This works better with thicker carrots.)
The flower is a fun variation on the coin. I like to use it as an unexpected surprise in soups where they float on top and create a striking visual. If you only want a handful of carrot flowers, a simple way to make them is by taking notches out of the perimeter of carrot coins. If you want to several cups of carrot flowers, an easier method is to cut the carrots into 4-inch lengths and cut long notches into the lengths — about 5 is usually a good number. Then slice the carrot crosswise, as you would for coins.
Slicing carrot sticks
Whether for snacks and lunch boxes or for crudités platters, the carrot stick is the classic way to prep carrots. The process is simple: first cut your carrot in half and then cut it in half again. If your carrot is big, you may want to cut each half into thirds. Then cut the sticks into your desired lengths.
Dicing or chopping carrots
Diced (or Chopped) Carrots
As home cooks, we don't have to worry about making perfect diced cubes with our chopped carrots like they do in high-end restaurants! The easiest method when a recipe calls for either diced carrots or chopped carrots is to make carrot sticks, gather several together, and slice them across into small pieces. The resulting shapes won't be perfectly square, but they will work just fine in any recipe. Using thicker or thinner carrot sticks will give you larger, chunkier chopped carrots or smaller, more finely-diced carrots.
Slicing carrot slabs
The slab is simply a more elongated coin. It makes a great presentation for stir-fries or soups. Place your knife at a sharp angle and slice down. As with the coin, hold the carrot using The Claw and push it the direction of the knife using your knuckles as a guide.
First make a 45° angled cut in the carrot. Then, make another 45° cut in the opposite direction.
The wedge cut produces a thick, chunky carrot that can be used in stews and stir-fries. To make a wedge, first make a 45° angled cut in the carrot. Then, make another 45° cut in the opposite direction, creating a 'V'-shaped wedge. Continue to cut through the carrot, alternating direction of the 45° cuts.
(Images: Dana Velden)