Down & Dirty: Cabbage

October 19, 2012

Every week we get Down & Dirty, in which Nozlee Samadzadeh breaks down our favorite seasonal fruits, vegetables, and more by the numbers.

There's something of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde about cabbage. One minute it's crunchy and perky, brightening up your burger with a simple slaw, and the next minute it's gone slack, tender, and sweet in a stew or a braise. They're also famous internationally for their pickling affinity, from sauerkraut to kimchi.

Today we're looking at two of the most common cultivars, red and green cabbage. But thinner-leaved, crinkly cabbage varieties like Savoy and Napa are fancy enough for any fine dining establishment -- so much for the vegetable's peasant origins!

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1. A Constellation of Leaves: Cabbages are all only children -- you get just one cabbage from each plant. Fully grown, they develop a beautiful halo of leaves with the tightly-wrapped cabbage inside. To harvest, you just push the outer leaves down and cut the cabbage head from the plant at its base. (Did anyone see The Master? Maybe my favorite scene was of Joaquin Phoenix harvesting cabbage after cabbage in the movie's first few minutes.)

2. Tightly Wound: The cabbage's tightly-wrapped leaves are the key to its longevity. (At the supermarket, you'll see cabbage heads stripped of their looser leaves, which age faster.) When you're buying cabbages, pick heads that have no visibly wilted leaves and feel solid and heavy in your hand. Lighter cabbages, or hole-ridden leaves, can be signs that the soil wasn't optimal while the plant grew, or that it had problems with pests or plant disease.

3. Purple Haze: The tough outer leaves aren't so good for eating, but aren't they beautiful? Look at those purple veins! (Can't bear to toss -- or compost -- them? They're perfect for lining steamer baskets when steaming up a batch of dumplings.)

4. At the Core: The core and tough ribs of a cabbage are edible, but because they're less immediately tender than the leaves, you're better off saving them for stir fries and braises instead of for coleslaw or wrapping cabbage rolls. To cut out the core, you can either make a conical incision in the bottom of the head, or cut a wedge from the halved cabbage.

5. Julienned: A mandoline is the easiest way to thinly slice cabbage for raw salads, but just plain old knifework comes in handy too. With the leaves' surface area expanded, they become perfect fodder for acidic, creamy slaw dressings that will wilt their water-filled cells ever so slightly into pickly crunchiness.

6. Wedged: For braises and the like, make the core work for you: keep a little of it attached to each cabbage wedge to ensure that the pieces won't fall apart during cooking.

Cabbage is uniquely comforting, budget-friendly, and special all at the same time. From soups to slaws, salads to stews, cabbage leaves can be sliced every which way into a variety of dishes of all ethnicities, flavors, and occasions. What's your favorite way to cook with cabbage?


Red Cabbage and Kale Salad

Cream-Braised Cabbage

Corned Beef and Cabbage

Photos by James Ransom

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

I'm Nozlee Samadzadeh, a writer, editor, farmer, developer, and passionate home cook. Growing up Iranian in Oklahoma, working on a small-scale organic farm, and cooking on a budget all influence the way I cook -- herbed rice dishes, chicken fried steak, heirloom tomato salad, and simple poached eggs all make appearances on my bright blue kitchen table. I love to eat kimchi (homemade!) straight from the jar and I eat cake for breakfast.


j7n May 17, 2021
Cabbage tastes excellent raw, freshly grated on coarse blades. The core and the tough ribs can be processed. I wouldn't leave them for an extended period of time. Cut or shredded, it doesn't last long and evaporates all its sharp flavor. It's still edible, but bland.
annbaroq8 October 22, 2012
Blanch & dip green cabbage leaves in wasabi-soy sauce! Not exactly the fanciest fare, but it's the only way my little cousin would eat cabbage (or any other vegetable).

Then, of course, there's the overripe kimchi at the bottom of the jar. Yum.
[email protected] October 21, 2012
Cabbage rolls! Only I make one giant roll, Japanese-style, in the crockpot, regardless of the recipe I use, then cut it in wedges to serve. And I like Savoy cabbage for this because it's a little more tender and there's no need to parboil it. So easy. So yummy!
China M. October 19, 2012
I love green cabbage as a salad with thinly sliced radish, jalapenos, red onion, chopped cilantro and tons of lime juice. I love purple cabbage braised in bacon fat and served on top of polenta (along with the bacon). I completely agree with sfmiller that cabbage is a desert island food.
sfmiller October 19, 2012
What a nice tribute to a too-often-dissed vegetable! Cabbage is on my short list of desert island foods, though people usually look at me funny when I say so.

I love braised red cabbage, German style; green cabbage wedged and high-temp roasted, or sauteed in butter with poppy seeds, or cooked with anchovies and garlic for a pasta condiment or polenta topping, or in a gratin with bechamel or mornay sauce, or slawed in any number of ways.
ChefJune October 19, 2012
We love a warm red cabbage salad with a hot bacon dressing and slivers of low-salt feta mixed in at the last minute. (but it's all good!)
Panfusine October 19, 2012
Sharing this, THanks once again for a fabulous informative piece!