What to CookCabbage

Classic Creamy Coleslaw

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Sunday Dinners comes to us from our own chef/photojournalist/farmer/father figure Tom Hirschfeld, featuring his stunning photography and Indiana farmhouse family meals.

Today: A creamy coleslaw by which to judge all others -- and how to prevent it from getting watery.

Classic Coleslaw

My favorite kind of coleslaw is the classic, creamy variety; it comforts me because I grew up eating it at a mom-and-pop catfish bar whose coleslaw was second to none. Their version was made with finely grated cabbage and bright orange ribbons of carrot. It was a bit tart and a little sharp -- the way horseradish can be -- because the cabbage was freshly grated. It paired perfectly with deep-fried catfish, whose crispy tails tasted of bacon. This is the slaw by which I judge all others.

More: How about a burger to go with that coleslaw?

But so often the dishes we try to recreate from memory don't live up to our expectations. As a passionate cook, there is nothing more frustrating than this -- and it's exactly what happened when I tried to reverse-engineer my favorite coleslaw. I couldn't get the texture or flavors right, and every time I made it, it didn't taste like I remembered.


I kept making it, though -- tweaking the original recipe time and time again with the hope that I would soon end my quest for the holy grail of slaw. I wanted to know how to fix my recipe, so I studied what happened each time I made it and took note of when things started to go awry. 

I think we all know that you can follow the exact same recipe twice and wind up with a different end product each time. But if you learn enough about the science of food, it's easier to understand your results.

More: Turn your leftover cabbage into Marcella Hazan's Smothered Cabbage Soup.

Soon enough, I figured out out that my coleslaw was suffering from a moisture issue. As it sat, the dressing became diluted with cabbage water and, by the time it arrived on the dinner table, the dressing was too thin. My shoulders slumped with disappointment as I stared at what looked like cabbage swimming in a bowl of skim milk. No one else at the table was discouraged by the dish, but I knew what this coleslaw could be -- so I tried again.

Salting Cabbage

As a young cook, I didn’t use salt simply because I thought it was bad for you. When I went to culinary school, I learned about the chemistry of using salt in cooking -- how it draws out food's moisture through osmosis and can be used as a curing and antibacterial agent, as well as a powerful flavor enhancer. For years I have used salt for these purposes, but I've turned to it recently to improve any vegetable dish that could benefit from less moisture. 

So, on my next attempt, I finely grated the cabbage, put it in a strainer, and salted it the way I salt cucumbers when I'm making pickles. I let the cabbage sit for an hour before lifting up the damp, wilted leaves to see how much liquid had been extracted. I was surprised to see almost three quarters of a cup of water left behind.

As you would any other wilted, salted vegatable, I rinsed the cabbage and wrung it dry. When it was finally dressed, the coleslaw stayed crunchy, and the dressing thick. My job was done.

Classic Coleslaw

Classic Coleslaw

Serves 6

1 medium-sized head of cabbage
2 medium carrots, trimmed and peeled
1/2 cup mayonnaise (or Vegenaise, or Miracle Whip)
3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
3 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper to taste (I like lots)
1/2 teaspoon celery seed
1 tablespoon chives, minced

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Photos by Tom Hirschfeld

Tags: Side, Picnic, Summer, Grill/Barbecue