Did you know cabbage comes in different colors and types? Or that you can make unicorn noodles from red cabbage? Learn the different ways to prep and cook cabbage. Plus, get tips on how to pick the best cabbage and store it for freshness.
Cabbage is often overlooked as a cheap, boring vegetable that wafts stinky odors, reminding you of boiled socks. It doesn’t help cabbage’s reputation that eating excessive amounts leads to GI (gastrointestinal) distress. Perfect food for a first date, right?
Yet, there’s so much to love about cabbage. From its extraordinary longevity to its forgiving nature, cabbage is a staple in my kitchen in every season.
If you take the time to learn cabbage’s secrets, it’ll reward you with refreshing crunchiness or silky sweet tenderness. Let’s dive in to learn how to cook with cabbage.
What is cabbage?
Cabbage, tightly bound and (usually) spherical, is a firm vegetable with dense leaves wrapped like a bud protecting its core. It’s closely related to kale, cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and kohlrabi in the “brassica” family (informally called “cruciferous” vegetables).
We’re still not sure where cabbage came from or when it was domesticated because there are so many leafy vegetables in the same family. Some sources guess Britain and Northern Europe where the weather is well suited to growing cabbage. Maybe it came from the Mediterranean. There’s also Chinese cabbage that probably evolved from combining cabbage and turnip.
This diverse history reflects the journey cabbage has taken to embed itself within almost every cuisine in the world. Lucky for us, we get to take inspiration from the different types of cabbage and preparation methods that have evolved over thousands of years.
Cabbage comes in different colors:
- Green: This is the most common color of cabbage. It ranges from bright green like the flesh of kiwifruit to a paler green like the stalk of broccoli. The inner leaves are usually lighter colored. It often has an elongated shape that may result in a pointy end.
- White: This is pale green cabbage that is categorized as “white” because it’s so pale. It has smooth leaves and is popular in Northern Europe.
- Purple/Red: Tougher leaves with beautiful purple coloring that is frequently used for pickling and stewing. Red cabbage is a favorite for festivals in many cultures.
Related to the colors, you’ll find the following types of cabbage:
- Green: Green or white with smooth leaves
- Red: Red or purple with dramatic coloring
- Savoy: Crinkly leaves with a blue-green tint. Savoy cabbages are prized for their beauty. They tend to stay firmer when cooked, which is important if you want to keep a toothy texture in your dish.
- Chinese cabbages: These include the Napa cabbage and bok choy (the original bok choy, not the Shanghai bok choy). Some people don’t consider these Chinese cabbages as a major type of cabbage because they are related to turnips but I like to group them together because I cook them in similar ways.
How to prep cabbage
Cabbage from the farmers market often comes with tough protective outer leaves. Discard these leaves (compost them). The grocery store tells cabbage with these protective leaves removed.
Even so, the outer-most leaves on a cabbage are often scuffed or dry. While you can eat them, I like to discard these outer leaves until I reach the tender, unmarred leaves.
Because cabbage is so tightly bound, it is hard to wash between the leaves. I give the exterior a rinse. If I cut it into wedges, I like to rinse the edges with the cut sides facing the tap water.
If I am preparing Napa cabbage, I rinse each leaf in the water as I pull the cabbage apart. Because Napa cabbage is less tightly bound, it is more likely to have sand in between the outer leaves.
TIP: After chopping cabbage, some recipes may call for you to salt it to extract excess water, especially for Napa cabbage where unwanted moisture makes a dish too soupy or breaks thin dumpling skins. You can sprinkle salt and mix it in with the chopped cabbage. Leave the cabbage for 30 to 60 minutes to release water. Wring out the cabbage by squeeze it with your hands or putting the cabbage in muslin/cheese cloth to draw out the extra moisture.
How to cut cabbage
From the largest to the finest cut style:
- Quarters and Wedges: A good size for braising and grilling as the cabbage is large enough to sear and avoid falling through the grates.
- Chunks: Roughly chopped chunks can be nice for braising or boiling in chicken broth for a quick soup. I like stir frying chunks of cabbage if I’m too lazy to slice it.
- Torn bits: I learned to tear Napa cabbage into small pieces from my mum. I use the torn Napa cabbage leaves for braised tofu cabbage bowls. If tearing cabbage sounds too brutish, you can cut it into chunks and pull apart each slice to make torn pieces. Use torn green cabbage leaves with salt, pepper, and olive oil to make cabbage chips, similar to kale chips.
- Slices: Useful for stir frying, pickling (sauerkraut) and stewing. Sliced cabbage is a great cut for soups because it makes my bowl of noodle soup look bigger.
- Shredded: Shredded cabbage is the best cut for coleslaw. It’s also great for tacos, salad, sandwiches, and soups.
- Diced: Diced and salted Napa cabbage is used for pork and cabbage dumplings. The diced cabbage is small enough to bind with the ground meat.
TIP: For sliced and shredded cabbage, it’s better to remove the stiff core from green cabbage to enhance the texture of your salad. But the core is critical to leave on if you plan on roasting or grilling cabbage wedges because the core holds the leaves together.
How to eat cabbage raw
Raw cabbage is crunchy and refreshing, which makes it ideal for coleslaw. Because cabbage has relatively stiff leaves, it is able to hold thick dressings like mayonnaise-based salad dressings or a syrupy Asian vinaigrette.
Check out this spicy coleslaw recipe with shredded cabbage and carrots — an delicious way to enjoy raw cabbage.
Another exciting way to enjoy raw cabbage is to use the leaves as scoopers, similar to lettuce cups. For example, use cabbage leaves as a substitute for taco shells or corn chips when making nachos.
How to cook cabbage
Cabbage, like carrots, is a versatile vegetable that can be cooked numerous ways. It’s a forgiving, sturdy vegetable, meaning you can make a lot of mistakes, and it will still taste delicious.
Here are common ways to cook cabbage:
- Stir fried
WARNING: The longer you cook cabbage, the more smelly sulfur compounds are released. The solution is shorter cooking times like stir frying or braising until just tender.
Need more inspiration? Let’s dive in to see the different ways you can cook cabbage for dinner tonight.
Cabbage works well with
- Tofu (like this block tofu and red cabbage stir fry or this five-spice tofu cabbage stir fry)
- Chicken (cabbage and chicken stir fry, braised chicken legs and cabbage)
- Red meat (braised beef, ground beef like stuffed cabbage rolls, corned beef for St. Patrick’s Day)
- Grilled fish (fish tacos with shredded raw cabbage)
- Eggs (Chinese egg with cabbage stir fry)
- Sausages (with sautéed cabbage)
- European-style dumplings (my friend Katharina makes German dumplings and serves it with stewed cabbage)
- Noodles (stir fried noodles with shredded cabbage)
- Rice (kimchi fried rice)
- Potatoes (garlic, bacon, and thinly sliced potatoes cooked with cabbage)
- Chili (spicy cabbage salad)
Recipes With Cabbage
How to substitute cabbage
Since cabbage is in the same family as broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels Sprouts, any of these “brassica” vegetables are excellent substitutes for cabbage.
If you’re looking for a crunchy vegetable for a slaw, consider shredding Brussels Sprouts, broccoli, cucumbers, or jicama to achieve a similar texture.
If you’re looking for a sweet vegetable that does well with long braise times, consider kohlrabi or leeks.
If you’re using thinly sliced cabbage to bulk up your noodle dish, I love using spiralized zucchini/courgettes, bean sprouts, tofu noodles, or fish noodles as a substitute for cabbage. If you have the patience, spaghetti squash would work too.
Where to buy cabbage
You can buy fresh cabbage at any grocery store in the refrigerated produce section, usually next to cauliflower, kale, and broccoli.
Costco and sometimes Trader Joe’s only sell cabbage shredded in salad bags. It’s convenient to buy prewashed and chopped cabbage for stir fries and salads but they won’t work for roasting or grilling.
I haven’t seen frozen cabbage in the grocery store. It could be because cabbage can last so long outside the fridge that there’s no need to freeze it. Plus, it would be a soggy mess upon thawing.
You can buy sauerkraut and kimchi in most grocery stores. Sauerkraut is usually sold next to cottage cheese, and kimchi is found in the refrigerated section next to bagged salad and tofu.
NOTE: I find cabbages at farmers markets taste the same as the ones sold at the grocery store. That’s why I don’t buy cabbages at the farmers market unless I want to support the farmer. I stick to conventionally grown cabbage (instead of organic) because it’s one of the top 15 vegetables with the least pesticides, according to Environmental Working Group.
Is cabbage seasonal?
Cabbage is a cool-season biennial crop that’s grown as an annual, according to Cornell University. It’s available every season except for summer, according to the USDA.
Spring crops are best for eating in the summer — such as for salads and coleslaw. Fall and winter cabbage is good for winter storage, making sauerkraut, or braising.
How to pick cabbage
To pick the best cabbage: find one that feels heavier and denser than it looks.
Avoid cabbages with loose leaves that are falling off or black spots that suggest mold.
It’s up to you whether you want a bigger or smaller cabbage if there are many to choose from. Because I like the tender leaves inside, I pick smaller Napa cabbages and buy several of them. I find green and red cabbages have similar outer and inner leaves, so I’m less picky when I buy those cabbages.
How to store cabbage
Cabbages like cool storage, according to the University of Arizona. Place the cabbage in an open plastic bag and store it in the crisper drawers in your fridge. Green and red cabbages can last for months like this.
NOTE: Savoy cabbages go bad faster than green and red cabbage so you’ll want to eat them within weeks. Napa cabbages last longer than Savoy, but they will start to wilt so keep an eye on them in the fridge.
During winter, when our porch reaches fridge temperatures or even below freezing, we like to stock up on cabbages and store them on the porch in open plastic bags.
Kari told me in Northern China people bury their cabbages in the snow to extend their freshness. If you find you’re short on fridge space in winter and you’ve got some snow, you can try burying them. The only trick is to remember where they are before spring comes along!
Fun things to do with cabbage
Red cabbage turns different colors in acidic, neutral, or basic/alkaline environments. When you lower the pH of cabbage by adding lemon juice, vinegar, or yogurt, it turns pink. When you add water, it stays purple. When you add baking soda, it turns blue.
This means you can control the color depending on how you cook red cabbage and what sauces you serve with it.
For example, red cabbage works as a natural dye to make unicorn noodles. These are glass noodles or rice noodles absorb cabbage juice and changes colors!
Make cabbage juice by boiling cabbage with plain water or water with baking soda. Soak the noodles in the cabbage water and watch them turn blue. When you serve the noodles, squeeze a few drops of lemon juice on them. They change color from blue to pink.
You can follow the same method for dying cauliflower. You can also wrap the unicorn noodles in a spring roll to impress your friends and kids.
FAQ about cabbage
Is cabbage better for you raw or cooked?
Scientific American reported on a study that found some vegetables are better for you when cooked because cooking and heat break down tough cell walls, making it easier for your body to absorb the nutrients and antioxidants in cabbage.
But crunchy coleslaw is delicious too. So I say strike a balance and eat raw cabbage in salads but don’t forget there are many delicious dishes for enjoying cooked cabbage too.
Is cabbage the best food to eat on a first date?
Cabbage is packed with fiber and carbohydrates that gut bacteria love! Take it as a compliment that you have healthy gut bacteria if you’re experiencing GI discomfort from eating a load of cabbage, according to NPR. If you’re concerned about leaving a good impression on your first day, watch the coleslaw and sauerkraut intake 😁.
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