Produce Spotlight: The Ultimate Guide to Cabbage
I know cabbage isn’t exactly going to show up on the cover of any magazine winning the award for the sexiest vegetable alive, but to me it is one of the stars of eating seasonally in the winter time. Not only is about as great of a storing vegetable as you can get, but it is really diverse in it’s uses and it’s super good for you! Today, I am covering all of that plus pretty much everything you want to know about cabbage. From how to remove the core and slice it, to how it is grown, and for those of you who have a vegetable garden why your cabbage plant won’t form a head. Plus I have expert information and details about why it’s so good for you but makes you, ahem, gassy, from a Registered Dietitian! Read on for this moth’s Produce Spotlight: the Ultimate Guide to Cabbage!
There are several different types of cabbage that are widely cultivated today including ball head types, arrowhead types, savoyed types (all of which are classified as Brassica oleracea) and Napa cabbage, also known as Chinese cabbage (which is classified as Brassica rapa var. Pekinensis). All of the varieties we use today as row crops are thought to have originated from the wild cabbage Brassica oleracea var. oleracea. As with most individual species of the brassica family, the exact origins of cabbage are difficult to trace but there is substantial evidence that its roots lie in the eastern Mediterranean and Asia Minor, although it is not known to have been domesticated before it reached central and western Europe. The word “cabbage” is an Anglicized version of the French word “caboche,” meaning “noggin” or “head.” As the crop spread to different parts of Europe, two distinct types emerged: the hard heading (in the colder northern regions) and the non-heading (in the more temperate southern regions).
SEASONALITY AND GROWING CABBAGE
The following seasonality and growing section is made possible by High Mowing Organic Seeds.
Are cabbage plants perennials? No, cabbage is not a perennial plant. It is a hardy biennial in the Brassicacea family. However, in parts of the U.S. and Canada where the climate is temperate – such as the Pacific Northwest, the South, and southern parts of the Mid-Atlantic – cabbage plants can overwinter if planted in the fall for a spring harvest.
Where is it grown? Cabbage is a cool-season hardy biennial and can be grown successfully in most zones, from as far south as zone 10 to as far north as zone 3.
When is it in season? Cabbage can be direct sown when daytime soil temperatures warm to 75°F. For a head start, seed transplants indoors or in cold frames 4-6 weeks before planting date. Optimal soil temperature for germination is 75°F but seeds will germinate in soils as cool as 50°F. Early varieties can be transplanted after danger of hard frost has passed. Mid-late season storage or processing types can be transplanted in June-early July for fall harvest. Napa cabbages are best direct seeded or transplanted in mid-May for July harvest. Most cabbage varieties will mature between 60 and 105 days after being transplanted. Because it is a cool-season crop, cabbage does not do well in the high heat of mid-summer. Plan your plantings accordingly for best results in the spring or fall seasons when temperatures are more moderate.
Where are the seeds on the plant? Cabbage is a biennial, which means it forms seeds in its second year of growth. Just like broccoli or kale that is left in the field for too long, cabbage plants will produce a flower (seed head) from the center of the plant, emerging from where the tightly formed head opens up.
Will cabbage grow in the winter? If so, which zones? Will cabbage freeze/ survive a frost? In parts of the U.S. and Canada where the climate is temperate – such as the Pacific Northwest, the South, and southern parts of the Mid-Atlantic – cabbage plants can overwinter if planted in the fall for a spring harvest. However, even in these climates cabbages can only withstand a light frost between 28°F and 32°F. A hard freeze below 28°F will damage the plant. Some cabbage varieties are hardier than others and can withstand harder and more frequent frosts. Check with your seed company about which varieties are best for your winter climate. Generally speaking, cabbages can be safely overwintered in zones 8b-10b.
Will cabbage regrow? Once a cabbage head has been harvested, if the plant is left to its own devices it will attempt to regrow more sprouts and leaves from where it was cut in order to grow and produce seed (i.e. reproduce). However, these secondary shoots will not form a second dense head of cabbage and are generally not as tender and suitable for eating. Cabbage is best utilized as a one-time harvest crop.
Why does it not head? There can be several factors at play if a cabbage plant is not forming a head as it should. Cabbage is considered a heavy feeder, meaning the plants require high amounts of nutrients and fertile, biologically active soils to thrive. If they are struggling to form a head, they could be hungry for more nutrients. Cabbage plants prefer loose, well drained, fertile soil with a pH in the range of 6.0-7.5. Plants should be fertilized as they mature to ensure continued nutrient availability; a general guideline is 2-3 lbs of 8-16-16 (N-P-K) fertilizer over 100 sq ft of garden area two weeks before planting. Cabbage plants may also have trouble forming heads if they cannot photosynthesize appropriately. This can occur when the plant has been damaged by pests in its early life, like the common cabbage moth and/or flea beetles. To avoid pest attacks in the early season, rotate your crops so you are not planting cabbage or any other brassicas in the same location two years in a row and use floating row cover to keep them protected from pests as soon as you transplant them in the spring.
I asked Vicki Shanta Retelny, RDN, a lifestyle nutrition expert, book author and mom of two who blogs at Simple Cravings. Real Food to help out with bringing us up to speed about the nutritional benefits of cabbage. These are the questions I asked her:
Q: Why is Cabbage Healthy? A: Cabbage is a highly nutritious food as a member of the cruciferous vegetable clan with significant amounts of vitamin C – there’s over 60% of the RDA in ½ cup), vitamins K and the B-vitamin, riboflavin, and significant amounts of glutamine, the amino acid that gives it a savory quality. Plus, it’s a decent source of potassium, which is great for keeping your blood pressure under control. It’s also know of its anti-inflammatory properties – cabbage leaves are used as remedy to relieve the pain associated with engorged breast in breast-feeding women to take relieve inflammation. Cabbage is loaded with plant-based compounds, such as sulforaphane and indole-3-carbinol, that research has shown can prevent certain cancers.
Q: Does cabbage help you go to the bathroom or cause constipation? A: Although cabbage does produce sulphorous compounds, which can lead to gas, it’s considered a FODMAP-friendly food, which means that if you are prone to irritable bowel syndrome, cabbage will not disturb your gastrointestinal tract too much. A cup of chopped cabbage contains about 2 grams of fiber, so it’s not extremely high fiber.
Q: Does it heal ulcers? A: Cabbage juice has shown some promise in decreasing gastric juice in patients with peptic ulcers, but whether or not it heals ulcers is still to be determined with more research.
Q: What is the deal with the cabbage soup diet? A: The Cabbage Soup Diet was a fad diet in the 1980s that promised up to 10-pound weight loss in a week. With a steady diet of cabbage soup for seven days, it’s an extremely low-calorie and low-protein diet that ultimately results in water versus fat loss. I would never recommend an extremely low-calorie diet that eliminates other foods groups or praises one type of food as a weight loss elixir.
Q: Why does it give you gas/ make you bloated and are there any ways to minimize that? A: Cabbage contains sulphorous compounds, as well as a sugar called raffinose that when digested can cause gas and bloating. To minimize gas and bloating, eat smaller amounts at one time and drink water throughout the day to aid in digestion.
Q: Does cabbage cause gout? A: No, cabbage helps prevent gout as it helps purify the blood and lowers uric acid, which decreased your risk of gout, a type of arthritis.
Q: Comparing varieties and colors are any more nutritious than others? A: From bright green to red/purplish varieties of cabbage the health benefits are stellar in all types. They contain different amounts and types of anthocyanins, which give the leaves their pigment, but the nutritional value is high regardless of the color of this crucifer.
BUYING AND STORING CABBAGE
Green and purple cabbage can be found year round in all supermarkets and grocery stores, but certain varieties such as savoy are sometimes only available in the summer and fall. Napa cabbage and Chinese cabbage are available in large supermarkets with a well stocked produce department year round.
You can find cabbage at the Farmers’ Market in southern states in the spring (for example in May in Georgia) and in Northern growing zones like 5 or 4 in mid to late summer and into the fall. Varieties with tighter leaves (storing cabbage) are often distributed in winter CSAs because they are such good storing crops.
Look for cabbage free from dark spots and blemishes. When very fresh, during the growing season or right after harvest, it is common to find cabbage with large loose outer leaves still attach. These leaves wilt quickly, and are tough to begin with, so they are best removed for longer storage and before cooking.
BUYING NOTE: One whole head of cabbage is deceptively prolific! If your recipe calls for 4 cups of shredded cabbage, you may only need about a quarter head of cabbage! 1 medium head of cabbage equals about 14 cups of sliced or chopped cabbage. If you are purchasing cabbage and you do not want to buy the whole cabbage, you can ask to have the head cut in half. Often the produce department is happy to help. They’ll cut it, and wrap it in plastic for you to take home.
When you get it home, keep wrapped in plastic or in a plastic bag in the produce drawer of the fridge. Cut edges will brown, so keeping it whole until you’re ready is better than pre-chopping. Re-wrap cut edge with plastic to store extra. Cut off browned cut edges before using remaining cabbage.
Please Note tips on Freezing and Fermenting Below for long term storage.
Tips for Preserving Cabbage
Can it be frozen (without blanching)? In my opinion, it doesn’t matter if you blanch it or not, the cell structure of the cabbage will burst during the freezing process and will yield a similar result when thawed. The thawed cabbage will be limp and a little translucent, making it suitable only for soups and sautees where a crunchy texture is not necessary. When freezing, blanching will reduce the volume (it will be more wilted) so this is an option if space is at a premium. But I recommend, if you do blanch, to then spread it out onto sheet pan and freezing in a single layer before transferring to bags.
Can Cabbage Rolls Be Frozen? Yes! Make sure to check with the individual recipe, but for the most part they will freeze really well because the cabbage will only become more tender and palatable when frozen, thawed and reheated. If possible build the cabbage rolls, but do not put any sauce on them until they are thawed out. They will look prettiest if you keep the sauce separate. Note: Defrost overnight or 24 hours in advance in the refrigerator.
The following information in this Fermentation section is made possible by Sobremesa.
It is possible to use many different kinds of cabbage for sauerkraut. These include green storage cabbage, red cabbage, and softer varieties of green such as tendersweet and arrowhead. Murdoc F1 (an arrowhead cabbage) from High Mowing Organic Seeds is a great option. Green storage cabbage readily available year round and inexpensive. When available, the softer varieties lend themselves better to fermentation as they are easier to cut and contain more moisture, which is essential for creating the brine for fermentation. They also have a pleasant texture and are not as crunchy as storage cabbage, which can lose a lot of moisture after being stored for many months.
The softer varieties are also considered the traditional sauerkraut cabbages in Europe. When storage varieties were not as common, the cabbage had to be fermented for long term storage because they wouldn’t last in the root cellar. Any cabbage will work to make kraut, but storage cabbage needs a little more salt, massaging (to release liquids), and time fermenting. Red cabbage turns the whole ferment a beautiful deep purple and has additional nutrients.
In Korea, and most domestic kimchi producers use Napa cabbage for kimchi. To make kimchi, the Napa is pre-soaked in saltwater before mixing it with the other ingredients. The Napa is more delicate than green cabbage and has thinner leaves. This brining step allows the napa to wilt in preparation for kimchi making without having to aggressively massage or pound it, which would possibly break it down too much. Napa cabbage tastes very different than other cabbages which is slightly nutty, fresh and light. Some types of kimchi don’t cut the leaves of napa at all, and spread the gochujang paste between layers of whole leaves.
Preparation Tips for Cabbage
Here is how to cut up or “shred” a head of cabbage. FYI, shredding and slicing are basically the same thing, except shred is a little finer. Grated means using a box grater or grater attachment on an appliance.
- First, remove any loose or discolored outer leaves and trim the stem-end if necessary. Then cut the cabbage into quarters through the stem.
2. Next, remove the core from each wedge of cabbage by slicing a diagonal wedge from each.
3. After the core is removed, you can cut the wedges in half again to make them more manageable for slicing.
4. Next, lay each wedge, cut side down (for stability) and then thinly slice through into fine strips.
For Napa Cabbage (above) or Chinese Cabbage, you’ll want to do basically the same thing with one exception.
After the core is removed, and the wedges cut into smaller section to make them easier to cut, take half of the wedge, and pull half off the leaves into two separate stacks so the leaves lay flat. Press them down (rib side up) into a flat stack as you cut. See photo below.
Here is a video showing the steps as well.
COOKING WITH CABBAGE
Can Cabbage Be Roasted? Yes! Cabbage is wonderful when roasted, and can be added to roasted vegetable mixes. Cut it into larger pieces, instead of shredding it so that it doesn’t over-brown.
Which cabbage should I use for borscht? Purple, green or savoy Cabbage is best for Borscht.
Which cabbage is best for cabbage rolls? I really love to use Savoy Cabbage for cabbage rolls, because the leaves are so easy to remove from the head. Keep in mind you will need to cook it slightly more if they are the thicker outer leaves.
Napa Cabbage Recipes
Coleslaws and Salads with Cabbage
Entrees with Cabbage
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- What did you learn about cabbage?
- What are your favorite recipes to cook with cabbage?
- Have you ever fermented cabbage?
- What produce item would you like to learn about next?
Special thanks to Half Pint Farm for welcoming me into their sunny patch of heaven to take the photographs of cabbage growing in their farm fields. And to all of the wonderfully generous experts who donated their time to make this post possible.