freshly harvested carrots, crinky and wobbly

Why Carrots Are Used in Cake (& Carrot Walnut Cake Recipe)

Not that many years ago, my only reference to carrot cake was a Dutch joke. It involved a baker and a rabbit, who does not like carrot cake, though makes the baker think he does. In all honesty, a carrot cake didn’t sound too appealing to me either. That was, until I tried an American style carrot cake, which didn’t even taste like carrot (probably due to all the sugar!). That cake tasted good, though a little too sweet.

After having had various carrot cakes, some definitely less sweet than that initial one, I was convinced. Carrots work perfectly fine in cake. But why did we decide to put carrots in a cake? What about an apple, zucchini, red beet, or parsnip cake? Why is the most common vegetable cake a carrot cake one?

Carrots are sweet and popular!

A fresh carrot probably doesn’t really remind you of cake. They’re crunchy and crispy and pretty neutral in flavor. As a matter of fact, the majority of a carrot (as is the case for most fruits and vegetables) is made up of water.

The second most prevalent component: carbohydrates such as starches and sugars. These make up about 10% of a carrot and while growing provide food to the plant for growing. About half of these are sugars, mostly sucrose, glucose, and fructose. The sweetness of the sugars helps define the flavor of carrots. The remainder of the flavor comes from a wide range of molecules, that combined make up less than 1% of a carrot.

carrot walnut cake
Carrot cake

A sturdy vegetable

Carrots are sturdy and their composition makes them very suitable for long term storage. This has always been a major advantage of carrots. You can store carrots for months without any major losses of quality. Also, they can be grown in a wide range of conditions, making it one of the most produced vegetables worldwide! Even though the orange variety is the most popular one nowadays, carrots didn’t start out orange. Look for purple, yellow, and even whitish carrots!

As such, carrots are a staple in a lot of different cuisines. In the Netherlands carrots are a main element of one of our most common winter dishes: hutspot. You can also find carrots in a lot of stir-fries, soups, and many other dishes worldwide.

Cooking carrots

Aside from their flavor and long term storage, carrots have even more advantages and those are related to cooking them. Upon cooking, as you’d do in a carrot cake, the carrots transform from crunchy into soft and squishy. The heat breaks down cell wall structures within the carrot. This allows moisture to escape from the carrot cells, softening the carrot (due to a loss in turgor). Along with the moisture, some of those sugars are released as well. If you fry carrots in a hot pan with some oil, those nice brown spots are sugars reacting!

purple carrot cake with icing
Carrots don’t interact

Apart from softening and releasing some moisture and sugars, carrots don’t interact that much with other ingredients. This is great if you want to add them to your cake, without disrupting the cake too much.

If you’d add potatoes or beans, for instance, their starches will absorb a lot of moisture. In some cases this is great, in others, not so much. Carrots though don’t do this, carrots might release some water, but don’t bind it.

Another advantage of carrots is how they hold onto their shape, to some extent. It won’t completely disintegrate in your cake, but will become soft so you don’t notice it as much! Compare this to spinach or kale leaves, which shrink considerably when heated!

If you’ve ever cut or grated red beets, you know that everything that has touched those beets will be purple-red at the end. Not so with carrots, they might lose a little of their orange color, but the majority is kept within. No orange hands after cutting some carrots! When you’re baking with them this is great, it keeps the color where it is.

freshly sliced orange, purple and yellow carrots
Colorful carrots!

Why carrots are used in cake

All of these properties: the good availability of carrots, the quite neutral but slightly sweet flavor, and the softening during cooking without breaking down completely, have made people decide to use carrots in desserts, such as the carrot cake! (And they work great in pancakes as well!)

Recipes for a carrot pudding have been found, that can be traced back almost a thousand years ago. This sweet dish, made by Arab cooks, contains carrots and honey. It’s not a cake, but an early example of using carrots in sweets.

Several centuries later, in the 17th-19th century, several recipes for sweet carrots dishes show up in British and American publications. These start to resemble our current carrot cakes. At the time sugar was expensive, so likely the carrots were used to add some sweetness.

Early 20th century

In the early 20th-century, actual carrot cake recipes start being published more regularly. In the ’20s, Pillsbury, a flour manufacturer in the US, organized a competition for carrot cakes. It would help them develop their boxed cake mix recipe. Carrot cake was growing in popularity, but it would take another war for it to fully lift off.

Second World War

During the Second World War sugar was rationed in the UK and many other countries. Home bakers were advised to use other ingredients, such as carrots!, to make up for that lack of sugar. Especially in the UK the carrot was featured heavily in tips around making do with less during the war. It helped the humble carrot lift of, not just in cakes!

carrot walnut cake, sliced freshly baked

Carrot walnut cake

Yield: 1 large carrot cake
Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cook Time: 45 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour 5 minutes

The prevalence of carrots, their neutral flavor profile (which can easily be hidden by spices & sugar) and their low costs, have all helped increase the popularity of carrot cake. A lot of these contain some sort of nuts (we use walnuts) and some spices (we add some cinnamon, clove and ginger). recipe is based on one from the UK Delicious Magazine.

Ingredients

  • 250g butter
  • 250g sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 tbsp vanilla extract
  • 250g flour
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp ground ginger
  • 1/2 tsp ground cloves
  • 50g dried coconut
  • 75g raisins
  • 50g walnuts chopped in smaller pieces.
  • 120g grated carrot (any color will work, though orange is more traditional!)

Instructions

  1. Mix the butter & sugar with an electric mixer.
  2. Add the eggs & vanilla extract, mix throughly until homogeneous.
  3. Add the flour, baking powder, spices, and dried coconut and fold through.
  4. Finish by adding in the raisins, walnuts, and carrot.
  5. Spray a rectangular cake tin with some cooking oil or use parchment paper to cover the sides and bottom to help release the cake.
  6. Bake in the oven at 180C for approx. 45 minutes. A toothpick should come out clean.
  7. Enjoy! (We prefer eating ours without frosting, but if you want it more traditional, mix some cream cheese with icing sugar until the desired sweetness and top the cooled (don't frost when it's still hot!) carrot cake.)

Notes

Feel like something a little fancier? Learn about purple carrots and make a purple carrot cake!

References

Burton, J. Where are carrots and turnips grown?, World Atlas, April-25, 2017, link

Dr. Universe, Why are carrots orange?, April-17, 2020, link

Food Timeline, Carrot cake, link

Ng, A. and Waldron, K.W. (1997), Effect of Cooking and Pre‐Cooking on Cell‐Wall Chemistry in Relation to Firmness of Carrot Tissues. J. Sci. Food Agric., 73: 503-512. link

Sidhu, Jiwan S., et al. Handbook of Fruit and Vegetable Flavors. Germany, Wiley, 2010, Chapter 40 Carrot Flavour, link

Simon P.W. (1985) Carrot Flavor: Effects of Genotype, Growing Conditions, Storage, and Processing. In: Pattee H.E. (eds) Evaluation of Quality of Fruits and Vegetables. Springer, Dordrecht. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-009-4217-2_11

Tomky, N., Why Does Carrot Cake Need to Remind Us That It Is, In Fact, Made of Carrots?, Dec-3, 2018, link

USDA, Food Data Central, Carrots, raw, FDC ID: 787522, link

The Modern Carrot, World Carrot Museum, link

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5 comments

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  • Hi. Does boiling the carrots also have the same effect of releasing sugars as much as the direct sautéing or heating of carrots? Or does the presence of water affect it?

    • Hi Shriya, good question and thanks for stopping by. For the sugars to be released, it’s especially important for the cell structure to break down, which is why the carrots for a carrot cake are generally grated, it makes it easier for the sugars to get free and the structure to break down and turn soft. The main difference between sauteing and boiling is that with sauteing a higher temperature can be reached (because there isn’t so much water indeed) which can will initiate browning reactions. This results in even more flavour development.
      Hope that helps!

      • Hi Kaiden,

        Humans can eat it, yes :-), but I have no idea whether rabbits can, I’m not a rabbit nutrition expert I’m afraid! You could of course just feed the carrots to the rabbit, way less work ;-).

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