Real Food Encyclopedia | Cabbage

Cabbage is, quite literally, the mother of all Brassicas, the enchanting veggie family that includes broccolicauliflowerkalekohlrabicollards and Brussels sprouts.  When you think of it do you picture dirty-faced medieval peasants, huddled around a rough-hewn table in a cold hovel, reaching for steaming bowlfuls of cabbage soup? Or maybe your cabbage-y thoughts are happier, of colorful coleslaw at summer picnics, pulled pork sandwiches, hotdogs and sauerkraut? Perhaps you imagine the tingly spice of tangy kimchi, or crispy fish tacos piled high with cilantro and crisp wisps of red cabbage spiked with lime juice? Cabbage should be beloved by all: it is super healthy and delicious, crunchy, hearty and versatile.

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Fun Facts about Cabbage:

  • The English word “cabbage” comes from the Latin word for “head” (caput), probably via French slang for head (caboche). The word “caboche” also means “blockhead” or “moron” — this seems to be the origin of the pejorative “cabbagehead” (“moron”).
  • Food scientist Harold McGee notes that green cabbage contains the second highest amount of “sulphur pungency precursors.” Basically, the stuff that makes cabbage smell like flatulence when it is overcooked.

What to Look for When Buying Cabbage

Cabbage types common in Western (European) cuisine are the green, red and Savoy (with beautiful wrinkly leaves) varieties, while so-called “Chinese” cabbage usually refers to either Napa cabbage or bok (pak) choy.

Red and green cabbage should have a firm, tight head and feel heavy for their size, with no black or soft spots. Savoy cabbage is generally a bit “looser,” meaning that the leaves don’t form as dense of a head as the red and green varietals. Napa cabbage is also looser and usually forms a more elongated, barrel-shaped head. For all varieties of cabbage, it’s perfectly okay if the outer leaves have a bit of wilt or discoloration; you’ll strip those off before you use it, anyway.

Sustainability of Cabbage

Pesticides and Cabbage

Although cabbage’s bitter bite and sometimes sulfurous smell are the result of natural compounds that repel pests, industrial production does use pesticides. The vegetable usually turns up towards the bottom of the Environmental Working Group’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, meaning it doesn’t retain many pesticide residues. If you are concerned at all about pesticide use, go for organic cabbage or check with your local cabbage farmer about his/her growing practices.

Cabbage Cultivation

Cabbage is an easy-to-grow, cold-hardy vegetable. (That’s why medieval northern European peasants were such cabbage fans.) According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations’ (FAO) handy-dandy crop production visualization tool (highly recommended for all of you food/map nerds out there), China, India, Russia, Korea and Japan lead the world in cabbage cultivation. California and New York lead the United States in cabbage growing.

Cabbage Seasonality

Cabbage is in season from fall through early spring. Because they can be cold-stored for such a long time (we’re talking months), they are an ideal vegetable for the dead of winter.

Eating Cabbage

Storing Cabbage

Whole cabbage can be stored in your fridge for a long, long time, up to two months or more. Cut cabbage heads wrapped in plastic will keep in the refrigerator for several weeks. Don’t wash your cabbage before you store it — washing the head will just accelerate its decline.

Cooking with Cabbage

Cabbage can be eaten raw, braised, steamed, boiled, pan-fried and even roasted. Whatever you do, don’t overcook it. Cooking cabbage too long — especially in water — gives off the distinctly stinky smell that has caused a bit of an image problem for the vegetable.

Cabbage pairs surprisingly well with a number of different flavors and can stand up to bold spices like chiles, cumin, juniper berries, caraway seed. It’s classically paired with pork, game (like duck), apples and nuts (walnuts and chestnuts are divine) and is an essential ingredient in many Chinese, Korean, Indian and Italian dishes. Cabbage is also important in Eastern European cookery. Probably the most famous dish is stuffed cabbage and its variations. Irish (and Irish-American) cuisine also relies heavily on cabbage. Of course, there is the ubiquitous St. Patrick’s Day corned beef and cabbage, but perhaps the most common Irish cabbage dish is colcannon, made with potatoes and cabbage (or kale). There is even a traditional Irish song inspired by the dish!  Cabbage is also an essential ingredient in coleslaw.

If you can’t stand the lingering smell that cooking cabbage brings, don’t overcook your cabbage! If you quickly sear cabbage, you’ll notice hardly any stinky smell. Other tips:

  • Don’t cook cabbage in aluminum pans. Go for stainless steel or enameled cast iron.
  • Add a bay leaf or a wedge of lemon to the cabbage while cooking.
  • Add a few drops of vinegar to the cooking water or wipe the inside lid of the pan with vinegar.

Preserving Cabbage

No article about cabbage would be complete without a mention of sauerkraut, essentially cabbage that has been left to ferment in salt brine through the process of lacto-fermentation. Besides being the best topping for a hotdog, sauerkraut is important in the cuisines of Germany, Eastern Europe and of Alsace (France). There is the ubiquitous choucroute garnie, an Alsatian delight made with lots of pork and sausage and duck fat. If you want to try your hand at making sauerkraut — it is actually shockingly easy — here’s a great recipe from fermentation guru Sandor Katz.

Likewise, no cabbage-y tome would be comprehensive without a discussion of kimchi, the national dish of Korea. While kimchi basically refers to any fermented vegetable (there are dozens of types of kimchi, and there is even a kimchi museum in Korea), cabbage-based kimchi is especially common. Usually made with Napa cabbage, dried chiles and some type of fermented fish (or shrimp), kimchi, like sauerkraut, is created through the magic of lacto-fermentation. Here’s a great recipe if you want to try your hand at homemade kimchi.

Both kimchi and sauerkraut are excellent ways to preserve fresh cabbage long term (weeks to months), but fresh cabbage can also be frozen.

Cabbage Nutrition

Cabbage is really good for you. In general it is loaded with Vitamin C, Vitamin K and fiber, and is a good source of folate, potassium and even calcium. All cabbage varieties also contain glucosinolates, the sulphur-y smelling compounds that are thought to be cancer-preventing chemicals. Red cabbage is really the nutritional bomb — it’s loaded with all of the above, plus lots of Vitamin A and even more Vitamin C than green cabbage. Red cabbage is also rich in polyphenols, which are powerful antioxidants.

Green cabbage leaves stuck in one’s bra are a common home remedy for swelling and pain that occasionally occurs during breastfeeding. Cabbage leaves are also popular natural remedies for sprains. Additionally, cabbage juice is turning out to be a possible effective cure for peptic ulcers.