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Ask a Local Master Gardener: Why cold makes carrots sweeter

  • In cold weather, carrots convert starch into sugar to protect themselves from freezing. TNS/Anthony Souffle

For the Gazette
Published: 11/22/2019 1:00:30 AM
Modified: 11/22/2019 1:00:19 AM

Q: Is it my imagination or do my carrots taste sweeter this time of year? —R.S., Westhampton

A: Your have discerning taste buds, R.S. They are in fact sweeter. Mother Nature gives carrots — and other cold hardy root vegetables like parsnips and beets an ingenious way to protect themselves from freezing in our chilly November gardens. They use sugar as defense, making a yummy bonus for us just in time for that roasted vegetable platter on Thanksgiving.

Once it gets consistently cold outside, as it has certainly been these last couple weeks, carrots stay alive by converting some of their energy stores of starch into sugar. Carrots have water in their cells which will freeze, destroying the carrot with ice crystals unless it does something to prevent this demise. Adding sugar to the water in their cells serves as nature’s antifreeze, helping keep them from freezing the same way putting salt on a sidewalk or road keeps it from freezing over. The sugar acts as a foreign substance that gets in between the water molecules and prevents them from merging together as ice. The water inside the carrot is thus super cold, but now has a lower freezing point.

One root vegetable — there always has to be one, right? — that does not benefit from this higher sugar content is the potato. In the humble spud, this winter sweetening takes away from the reason we cook potatoes: their starchiness. Converting some of that starch into sugar diminishes their potatoey goodness and causes their flesh to turn dark brown when cooked. If you have ever had a French fry or potato chip with a brown spot on it, it was probably too cold before it was cooked.

Members of the frost tolerant, cooler temperature-friendly cabbage family also benefit from this sweet protection. Hard frost-kissed brussels sprouts, turnips, cabbage, kale, and cauliflower, for example, get their bitter edge softened and taste particularly delectable when roasted with a little olive oil. Okay, now I’m hungry!

Good question, R.S. Thank you for asking a (local) master gardener.

Have a gardening dilemma? Please send questions, along with your name/initials and community, to the Western Massachusetts Master Gardener Association at One question will be answered per week.

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