July 4, 2021

Make Better Coleslaw

Make coleslaw that makes people go back for seconds!

It’s the 4th of July here in the United States. 🇺🇸🎆 That means coleslaw is going to be at your backyard gathering today. (By the way, can we acknowledge how awesome it is that we can have a backyard gathering this year?!)

I think we’ve all been to that party where a juicy burger was served right along a soggy, white heap of cabbage. Not very appetizing, right? So don’t be that person that serves soggy, white coleslaw! That’s why I went to the library and cracked open some books. 📚 (And by the library, I mean my house, and by books, I mean websites.) After some research and a few attempts myself, I’ve got some tips to help you nail your coleslaw today.

But First, Cabbage.

So you walk into the supermarket, and you see a lot of round balls of leaves. So what type of cabbage do you pick for coleslaw? Let’s talk about the differences:

  • Green Cabbage is a middle-of-the-road choice with some nice crunch and peppery flavor.
  • Red Cabbage is the crunchiest and most assertive when it comes to peppery and earthy flavors. It’s also a beautiful color!
  • Savoy Cabbage is the one that’s green but has crinkled leaves. It’s much milder in its flavor. And I’d say slightly less crunchy.
  • Napa Cabbage is the oblong-shaped one with frilly leaves and a long stem. It’s like a savoy cabbage and a bok choy had a baby. 🍼 It’s also pretty mild and a little sweeter than the rest.

Here’s how I decide what cabbage to use for coleslaw. I consider how far in advance I’m making the slaw and how crunchy I want it to be. You can’t go wrong with 2 parts green to 1 part red. Green is a solid choice and red brings extra texture and bright color. Those two also hold up well over time and get less soggy. However, I love using Savoy cabbage! But it won’t maintain its structural integrity for long. So it’s not a good one if you’re making the slaw far in advance. And if you want something unique, go for Napa cabbage! It’s delicious.

Are you interested in being even chef-ier? Swap the cabbage for Brussels sprouts. Really? Yep. Brussels sprouts are part of the same family. And they’re quite tasty as a slaw. Here’s a quick video on how to shave Brussels sprouts for slaw.

Next, Prep the Cabbage.

There are two important things to remember when preparing cabbage for slaw: (1) You have to cut it properly, and (2) You have to salt it.

(1) Cutting cabbage properly: Thick and hardy greens like cabbage need to be tenderized. And you can do that by using your knife. 🔪 When you cut the cabbage, you break its cell walls. And fewer intact cell walls mean less chewing. So you need to thinly shave the cabbage. The bigger the pieces, the tougher it is.

And this is also important. When cabbage is thinly sliced, all those broken cell walls mean the cabbage is better at absorbing the dressing. You don’t want your cabbage floating in dressing come dinner time.

(2) Salting the cabbage: Salting the cabbage ahead of time draws out any water making room for it to absorb your dressing. This also makes sure your dressing doesn’t get watered down as it sits.

So how do you do it? For every 2 cups of sliced cabbage, mix it with about a teaspoon of salt. Kenji Lopez- Alt also found it was beneficial to add a teaspoon of sugar too. Both salt and sugar promote osmosis, which draws out any water from the cabbage. And the sugar can balance out some of the bitterness in the cabbage.

Let the salted cabbage sit for at least 15 minutes. Once the time has passed, rinse the cabbage with water and lay it out over a towel to dry. You can also use a salad spinner. Now your cabbage is ready to be dressed.👗

But, Wait! The Add-ins.

The most common addition you find in coleslaw are carrots and shaved red onion. Which are delicious. But I think we can elevate it, right?

What you incorporate into your cabbage can turn it from backyard-worthy to restaurant-worthy.

  • 🌱 Thinly sliced radishes add a different shape and texture. They also hold up well as a crunchy element.
  • 🌶 Jalapeños and Fresnos bring brightness, color, and kick.
  • 🍎 Apples can give you both crunch and sweetness!
  • 🥜 Roasted cashews or peanuts give some extra saltiness, toastiness, and of course crunch! (Y’all know I’m all about texture.)
  • 🥬 Thinly shaved kale gives a hit of green that looks beautiful along the rest of the slaw.
  • 🌿 Herbs bring freshness to a typically creamy side dish.

While some add-ins like carrots, onions, and peppers will hold up fine if salted in advance, I typically like to wait to add them until after the cabbage has been salted and dried. Most of the time I’m adding extra ingredients for textural reasons. So I don’t want them to get soggy. And some add-ins like fresh herbs will lose their flavor over time. So they shouldn’t be added until the last minute.

Finally, the Dressing.

Both the add-ins and the dressing give you the most room for creativity when making slaw. 🧑‍🎨

The dressing for coleslaw is actually quite similar to a dressing for a salad. It’s just a combination of fat and acid. Here in the US, the fat is typically mayo and the acid is a simple white vinegar. You can’t go wrong with a ratio of 3 parts fat to 1 part acid. It’s a good starting point.

But just like your add-ins, I think you can do better than just using mayo and vinegar!

  • Try swapping some of the mayo and vinegar for buttermilk since it adds fat and acid!
  • Make your slaw less heavy by swapping all of the mayo for olive oil. And use lemon juice as your acid!
  • Or make an Asian theme dressing with mayo, rice wine vinegar, and a splash of soy sauce. (And don’t forget the peanuts!)
  • One of my favorites is based on a recipe I saw from Milk Street for a Thai-style slaw. You use lime juice, fish sauce, and coconut milk. 🥥
  • And even take a Mediterranean angle by making a dressing of Greek yogurt, olive oil, dill, and lemon juice.

The world is your oyster! 🦪

But here’s what you have to do. Once you add your dressing, please for the love of fond, taste your slaw before serving it! Creating your own adventurous dressing doesn’t mean you have to nail the proportions the first time. Just keep tasting the slaw and adding more acid, salt, fat, or whatever it might need until, as my favorite cooking teacher Samin Nosrat says, “your palate zings with pleasure”!

Where I learned this: this great creamy coleslaw breakdown from Kenji Lopez-Alt, Samin Nosrat’s Salt Fat Acid Heat, and The Science of Good Cooking by Cook’s Illustrated.