Youth is the ideal, right? Even for vegetables. That’s the marketing gimmick they’re selling on packages of baby carrots, baby greens, and baby anything-edible. But what are baby vegetables, exactly? And are they really better than adult veggies?
Baby Vegetables vs Young Vegetables
First off, aside from “baby carrots,” most baby vegetables are in fact the brand-new, early-harvested versions of the plants we usually consume when fully grown—baby corn is picked when it’s just started sprouting from the stalk, and baby zucchini is simply regular zucchini that’s harvested before it has a chance to mature. Ditto baby potatoes (also called new potatoes, for obvious reasons). But other “baby” vegetables are actually full-grown plants that are simply miniature in size—see: baby beets, baby artichokes, and baby cucumbers.
The baby-fication of our food is largely yet another example of our cultural values, but in some dishes, this distinction does actually mean a different taste, texture, and nutrient density.
We take a look at the age differences in greens, peas, asparagus, and carrots. Eat accordingly.
There are at least three palatable stages of leafy green vegetables:
- Microgreens are harvested when the leaves are fewer than 14 days old. They make great garnishes on salads, soups, and sandwiches. “Although small in size, microgreens can provide surprisingly intense flavors, vivid colors, and crisp textures and can be served as an edible garnish or a new salad ingredient,” researchers say in a 2012 report by the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. The report shows higher levels of vitamin C, vitamin E, and beta carotene compared to their more mature counterparts.
- Baby greens are harvested during a fairly early stage of plant growth, usually between 15 to 35 days after planting, according to World’s Healthiest Foods. Baby and adult kale are nutritionally similar, says Krista Haynes, a registered dietician and owner of Sanskara Nutrition in Manhattan Beach, California. Baby kale has a slightly milder flavor, but the main difference is that baby kale is more tender and easier to eat raw, she said on NutriLiving. Most of the spinach you see at the grocery store is baby spinach, the favorite in salads and raw preparations.
- Mature greens are usually harvested between 40 and 65 days after planting. There have been conflicting reports on whether mature vegetables have more or less nutrition than the younger leaves. They’re both great for your health, so you can’t make a mistake that way. As for their culinary use, older kale needs to be cooked, massaged, or blended. In the same way as kale, mature spinach is better when cooked. It’s also what you get whole or chopped in the freezer section.
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The consensus is to buy frozen baby peas because they’re likely sweeter and fresher-tasting than the shuck-yourself “fresh” peas that often sit in storage, increasing in starchiness while losing sweetness, according to testers at Cook’s Illustrated. Petite peas, also called baby sweet peas, taste sweeter and have a creamier texture than regular peas, which have slightly tougher skins and mealy texture. (You may also want to know about the difference between snap peas, snow peas, and English peas.)
This green stalk is not necessarily as it appears. Many of us think the thinner stalk is more tender and younger than the thicker stalks. Nope. The thickness of the spear has nothing to do with its age, in that a thin spear will not mature into a thicker spear, according to Cook’s Illustrated. Asparagus spears shoot up through the soil into the sunlight from an underground crown that can produce for up to 20 years. Both thick and thin types tasted equally sweet, nutty, and grassy to testers, and the thicker spears were just a tad more tender, surprisingly. Thicker stalks are better for broiling and roasting because they won’t shrivel as fast, and they’re better for grilling too just because they’re easier to grab with tongs. Quick-cooking thinner spears are best for stir-frying and steaming. If you’re eating your asparagus raw, the thicker stalks are best peeled into thin layers, and the thin stalks work fine whole. White asparagus, by the way, is the exact same plant, but intentionally deprived of sunlight.
You probably know by now that those bags of baby carrots are a lie—they are not, in fact, infant vegetables, but little orange nubs carved out of larger carrots (usually misshapen ones that would be unlikely to sell as well as their more conventionally beautiful carrot counterparts). True baby carrots are often available at farmers’ markets and some supermarkets in early spring, when the new crop is harvested. You’ll know them for true baby carrots because they look just like full-size carrots, only way smaller and more adorable, usually with long tails and leafy green tops intact, and sold in bunches.
Want to know more? Check out our vegetables page for articles, videos, galleries, and discussions on all things vegetable. (But if you were looking for a different sort of baby vegetables, check out our guide to The Best Baby Food Delivery Services.)
And if you’re just hungry for some veggies yourself now, we curated a few recipes using both young and old vegetables, because we don’t believe in age discrimination:
Use baby spinach for this dish, which is like the meat-free version of warm bacon-y spinach salad. You toast the pecans in a frying pan to draw out their sweet, smoky flavor, further enhanced by smoked paprika. Get our Warm Spinach Salad with Smoky Pecans and Sweet Potato recipe.
2. Spinach Pie
Recipes calling for regular spinach often just say to use a box or bag of chopped frozen spinach. This savory Greek-style pie is no exception. It also calls for store-bought frozen phyllo dough, making this dish even easier. The hardest part may be squeezing all the liquid out of the spinach after you defrost it. Oh, and then there’s brushing butter between each thin phyllo layer. But so worth it. Get our Spinach Pie recipe.
Use either really fresh peas that you shell yourself or buy a bag of frozen baby peas to ensure you have the freshest, sweetest flavor in this potato salad. Instead of mayonnaise, you mix in sour cream and heavy cream. And you cook the peas in bacon fat leftover from the bacon you cook and dice. Get our Potato Salad with Peas and Mint recipe.
Use baby spinach and snap peas, with the ends trimmed, for this quick meal. You can use snow peas too; just cook them a minute less. Get our Five-Spice Pork Stir-Fry with Sweet Potatoes and Snap Peas recipe.
5. Pea Risotto
You’ll need the thick big stalks of asparagus for this recipe because after you blanch the asparagus, you give it a quick ice bath and then peel them lengthwise. This is a pretty springy pasta. Get our Fettuccine with Pesto, Asparagus, and Artichoke recipe.
You want the fattest asparagus you can find for this dish to be at its best. You boil the stalks for only 1 minute, but then you grill them a few more. The gribiche adds creaminess, the crouton crumbs a little more texture, and bottarga that pungent salty cured fish roe flavor. and Get our Grilled Jumbo Asparagus with Gribiche and Bottarga recipe.
Another shaved asparagus preparation, but this salad keeps them raw. Their sweet, vegetal crunch is complemented by salty parmesan, toasted pine nuts, and a parsley-lemon vinaigrette. This recipe also includes a fabulous tip for shaving veggies: If you have trouble peeling the final portion (of an asparagus spear, carrot, or cucumber), prop it up on the flat wooden handle of a spatula or spoon. This will raise it just high enough to allow the peeler to move freely. Get our Shaved Asparagus Salad recipe.
If you can’t find true baby carrots, just make this with regular carrots, either sliced at an angle or halved lengthwise for a similar presentation. Just don’t be tempted by those bags of carrot nubbins (except maybe for snacking with hummus). Get our Roasted Baby Carrots with Mustard-Herb Butter recipe.
Related Reading: The Best Veggie-Heavy Cookbooks to Celebrate Produce
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