Cabbage rarely receives the attention it deserves
Often overlooked in favor of its trendier cousins, kale and Brussels sprouts, this humble cool-weather crop really does warrant praise. It’s hardy and healthful, abundant and affordable, and very, very versatile. Just ask James Beard.
“Lowly though it may seem, cabbage has no rival in versatility except the potato,” the famed chef and cookbook author wrote in his classic The James Beard Cookbook. “It is available year round; it can be eaten raw or cooked in almost any manner—boiled, steamed, braised, sautéed, baked; and a list of recipes calling for cabbage would fill a book.”
Fresh cabbage packs a satisfyingly crisp crunch, super for salads and slaws or topping tacos. Cooked, cabbage leaves are durable and pliable, perfect for stuffing with rice and ground beef, then going for a nice long bath in tomato sauce at 350 degrees.
Low in calories and rich in nutrients, particularly vitamins K and C, cabbage (Brassica oleracea) is consumed around the world, particularly in Slavic and Asian cuisines, and traditional German and Irish fare. It pairs well with duck and pork, especially bacon. It also lasts several weeks in a refrigerator or several months in a root cellar.
Top consumers and producers are China, India, and Russia. And global marketing projections through 2025 show expected growth. But US cabbage consumption has been dropping since 2000, from 8.9 to 6.5 pounds per capita in 2019. Americans ate the most cabbage in the 1920s, when per capita consumption peaked at 22 pounds.
It’s budget-friendly, bountiful, easy to grow and store, and has lots of culinary uses. So why is it so unsung?
“Cabbage is so underrated because it has been abused,” says Jamie Callison, executive chef at Washington State University’s School of Hospitality Business Management at Carson College.
By abused, he means overcooked, boiled too long, turned to mush. “It’s the application that has stirred along the stigma. I think people are looking for new and innovative ways to cook it.”
Callison pairs cabbage with mango and ginger in the sweet-and-tangy slaw in his 2013 cookbook The Crimson Spoon, published by WSU College of Business. At home, his preparation depends on the season. “I eat more braised and cooked cabbage during winter, and I have it fresh in slaws or on fish tacos in summer.”
Cooking cabbage quickly in butter, oil, or other fats helps alleviate its distinctive odor, which intensifies the longer it stews. According to Harold McGee’s 1984 On Food and Cooking, the sulfur smell doubles between the fifth and seventh minutes on the stove. Adding lemon juice or vinegar helps neutralize the odor. It also keeps red cabbage from turning an unappetizing gray-blue.
Due in part to its smell, cabbage, which comes from the old French “caboche,” or “head,” began garnering a reputation as an inelegant ingredient as early as the Middle Ages. It was commonly regarded as peasant fare.
By contrast, ancient Romans prized it. “It is the cabbage which surpasses all other vegetables,” Marcus Porcius Cato, or Cato the Elder, wrote in De Agri Cultura, the oldest surviving work of Latin prose. He specifically praised the cruciferous vegetable for preventing hangovers. “If you wish to drink deep at a banquet,” he recommended eating “as much raw cabbage as you wish, seasoned with vinegar, before dinner, and likewise after dinner eat some half a dozen leaves.”
Invading Celts helped spread cabbage throughout Europe. And Genghis Khan’s armies brought its fermented form west from China, where cabbage represents wealth, prosperity, and luck. French explorer Jacques Cartier carried cabbage to present-day Canada during his 1541–1542 voyage, and English and Dutch settlers later brought it to the colonies. By the eighteenth century, Native peoples were also cultivating the crop. Captain James Cook helped pioneer new methods for staving off scurvy, carrying 7,860 pounds of sauerkraut aboard the HMS Endeavour during his 1768 voyage to the South Pacific.
In the Pacific Northwest, cabbage is among the first vegetables planted each year—as early as the beginning of March in western Washington, the top US producer of cabbage seed. Skagit, Snohomish, Island, and Clallam Counties supply three-quarters of the country’s and one-quarter of the world’s production.
“The cool maritime environment of western Washington is ideal for overwintering Brassica oleracea seed production,” Lindsey J. du Toit, vegetable seed and plant pathologist at WSU Mount Vernon Northwestern Washington Research and Extension Center, noted in her Crop Profile for Cabbage Seed in Washington. “Winters are generally not cold enough to freeze the crop, yet are cold enough to vernalize the plants properly … Summer weather is moderate, providing optimum conditions for plant and seed development.”
One acre produces 2,000 pounds of seed, which plants 10,000 acres and produces up to 50 million pounds of cabbage.
There are more than 400 varieties. Green—cheapest and mild—is most popular in America. Savoy, with its frilly leaves and delicate flavor, is sexier but still hard-working. Red cabbage looks stunning in salads and slaws.
December and February are among the country’s top cabbage-consumption months. March is highest. The most overall consumption occurs in the South. The lowest, in the West. Maybe Washingtonians could help change that if, this winter and beyond, they give the dependable, versatile cabbage the respect it deserves.