Thanks to a number of macro trends, carrots are being catapulted into trend-leader position. And that’s despite the fact that carrots have not seen the explosive growth or media coverage enjoyed by kale. But their potential for stardom is evident across foodservice. What makes carrots interesting, for those of us who track this type of thing, is their near ubiquity on menus. As all chefs know, carrots lie at the heart of many classic applications and processes, including the scratch production of stocks. Frequently, carrots are featured in a variety of menu items that do not call out their presence, such as salads and slaws, which makes measuring their true culinary impact somewhat challenging. But thanks to today’s macro trends—including veg-centric, root-to-stem, global, and health-and-wellness—the carrot is moving from everyday player to star performer.
The Global Ambassador
Carrots offer a passport into global flavor profiles. In fact, they may be one of the few truly universal ingredients. That’s not to say, of course, that everyone loves carrots, but carrots are grown and used by many cultures worldwide. As an example, look to the variety of carrot-based salads present in cuisines from Russia to Brazil, the American South to India, and Morocco to Israel. Most of these dishes start with a shredded carrot base, but from there, ingredients, sauces, spices and herbs vary widely. In Russia, Korean-style carrots are a variant on kimchi and feature tangy pickled carrots, while Moroccan carrot salads focus on earthy brown spices such as cinnamon, cumin and paprika. Brazilian and Southern carrot salads both use mayonnaise as the base sauce, while Israeli and French carrot salads tend to keep the profile and mouthfeel far simpler, relying rather on lemon juice, parsley and other ingredients such as onions and capers.
Being able to bridge the gap between cultures makes the carrot an ingredient that can support safe experimentation. It lays the foundation of safety among consumers less likely to break completely out of their comfort zone. It’s a culinary language that most people speak.
In addition to working well within emerging world cuisines, carrots have become a player in the root-to-stem movement. Following the path of the nose-to-tail trend, root-to-stem looks to use all parts of a plant, creating minimal waste. Carrots, of course, are predominantly root, which leaves the tender carrot top as a new plant portion with which chefs are experimenting. Carrot tops are gracing plates as garnishes, being used to create alternative pestos and gremolatas, and adding green to grain-based and bean-based salads.
Root of Versatility
The universality of the carrot lies not only in its application across world cuisines but also in its ability to stand up to a variety of preparation techniques. Carrots can effectively be broiled, roasted, blistered, sautéed, puréed, juiced, pickled, steamed, stir-fried, dehydrated and, of course, served raw. Dirt Candy in New York menus a dish exemplifying the versatility of carrots in its simply named Carrot, which features pulled, pickled and jerked carrots on a carrot waffle. This flexibility of preparation allows chefs to highlight their creativity in manipulating the carrot experience through changes in color, texture and application. It also makes carrots an excellent fit for nearly any preparation trend to hit menus, as well as the still-strong hand-crafted trend, with such applications as house-pickled carrots. Like sweet potatoes, carrots can be turned into crunchy chips or fries, offering a better-for-you side or snack alternative, or an interesting garnish or topping.
The trend in health-and-wellness paves the deepest path for carrot innovation, where the emphasis on functional health and vegetable-centric menu ideation come together. High in beta carotene as well as vitamins K and B6, carrots showcase the functional benefits of food, allowing chefs to interweave that narrative onto menus. Walking hand-in-hand with the continued focus on healthy eating, operators are increasingly developing items that are vegetable-forward, if not fully veg-centric. It would be a stretch to suggest Americans are moving toward becoming vegetarians, but their interest in consuming more vegetables and openness to vegetarian dishes is fueling a world of culinary innovation that puts the spotlight on produce. Variety in the carrot world also promises menu interest. As with tomatoes, heirloom carrots offer a rainbow of colors and flavors.
A Taste for Carrots
Finally, the flavor potential of carrots is extraordinary, where chefs can bring out either savory or sweet notes. As a result, carrots work well across the menu, making them a back-of-house workhorse. American Cut in New York has featured the Carrot Glazed Carrot on its menu, which is simply a large glazed carrot on a plate—no mistaking the focus of this dish.
On the dessert side, it is safe to say few consumers are unfamiliar with carrot cake, but carrots are impacting sweet applications in new, unique ways. A global example is gajar ka (carrot) halwa, an Indian dessert like the one served at Chopaati in Decatur, Ga. It includes shredded carrots cooked in milk and sugar then garnished with raisins and nuts. The Blue Duck Tavern in Washington, D.C., has featured a carrot-citrus sorbet, while others are creating carrot mousses, puddings, pies and ice creams.
Carrots are no stranger to the beverage menu either, enjoying renewed interest on the nonalcoholic side as part of the fresh juice, smoothie and craft mocktail and cocktail trends. For instance, at Tacomiendo in Los Angeles, the Healthy Heart Cocktail is made with carrots, apples and ginger. Mixologists have not ignored the visual and flavor appeal of carrots, with produce-forward innovation resulting in a variety of new options. At Maya in Charlottesville, Va., the Roger Rabbit includes Stoli Vanil, carrot juice and ginger. The Easy Pickins cocktail, previously featured at Daniel in New York, combines rye whiskey, fresh mint, maraschino cherry syrup, root liquor and fresh carrot juice.
According to Datassential’s MenuTrends database, the penetration of carrots on the menu has risen nearly 3 percent in the past year and more than 7 percent in the past four years, so there’s no doubt more operators are leveraging carrots on the menu. Whether carrots will continue to grow will largely depend on the availability of value-added options for those with more limited back-of-house capabilities. Certainly, this common root vegetable is gaining momentum as a most valuable player on the menu.
Noodles (spiralized, ribboned, etc.)