Some people love the taste of cabbage, particularly when it is braised or sautéed to caramelize its natural sugars. Cabbage, at least for some of its connoisseurs, becomes a tasty treat when prepared well.
There are also those people who hate the taste of cabbage in all its forms. For them, cabbage may smell like sewer gas, or maybe it is overwhelmingly bitter. In either case, cabbage is for many people a taste they just can’t stomach.
The reason for the extreme reactions to cabbage is genetics. Scientists have identified a gene called TAS2R38 as the main reason why some people love the subtle sugary tastes in cabbage and others can’t stand its bitterness. The gene makes a protein that binds to a chemical called phenylthiocarbamide, or PTC for short, which generates the taste sensation of bitterness.
If you have inherited this gene, you probably don’t like the taste of cabbage. (The sulphurous smell that sometimes rises from the cabbage pot can be avoided simply by not overcooking it.) But if you use some of the cooking methods shared here, you can make interesting, savoury or sweet cabbage dishes that just about anyone will love.
What Is Cabbage?
Cabbage is a leaf vegetable that has been around for at least 3,000 years. In its original form, it produced small, green heads, not much larger than Brussels sprouts. Over history, farmers discovered – or developed strains – that yield frilly-leaved heads (savoy cabbage), colourful leaves (purple cabbage), and a closely related plant that has come to be known as Napa cabbage, Chinese leaf cabbage, or won-bok. For the purposes of nutrition, we’ll include Napa cabbage with Savoy cabbage, purple cabbage, and the more familiar “white” cabbage in this section.
Cabbage is eaten fresh and fermented to make sauerkraut and kimchi. Both sauerkraut and kimchi are sour. How sour they become depends on how long they are fermented for. A couple of days are usually enough for kimchi, but for producing tangy and crisp sauerkraut, a good couple of weeks are required.
What Are the Key Nutritional Benefits of Cabbage?
Cabbage was among the first known sources of beta-carotene, even though the nutrient is far more abundant in carrots. The early twentieth-century researcher Dr. Edward Mellanby, had noticed that butter, which is a good source of vitamin A, could protect against infections in dogs. He subsequently discovered that cabbage is a good source of an “anti-infective vitamin,” which turned out to be beta-carotene, in rats. But cabbage is also a good source of beta-carotene for people.
Cabbage is a great source of vitamin C when it is first harvested. However, if cabbage is stored in the main part of the refrigerator, rather than in the crisper, it loses about half of its vitamin C content every week. Or if the cabbage is cut more than a few hours before it is cooked or served, it loses about 3/4 of its vitamin C content. Once the vegetable is taken out of the coldest part of the refrigerator, however, the damage is done, and it doesn’t matter whether it is stored as a whole head or shredded. Cooking cabbage actually has little effect on vitamin C content, especially if it is steamed.
If you are eating cabbage mainly for its nutrients, then you are probably getting your vitamin C from other foods and focusing on cabbage and similar vegetables as a source of glucosinolates. These sulfur-based compounds are stable at higher temperatures that destroy vitamin C. Storing cabbage at about 50 degrees Fahrenheit, or 10 degrees Celsius, only causes the loss of about 10-25% of glucosinolates each week, although finely shredded (either “angel hair” or ground cabbage) cabbage loses essentially all of its glucosinolates in just six hours, even when kept in the refrigerator.
Sauerkraut can only be made sour by soaking the cabbage in brine, which means the finished product is always high in salt. Souring cabbage concentrates potentially carcinogenic nitrites in the early stages of pickling, but these disappear within thirty days (and they can be washed out of sauerkraut that is eaten before it is pickled). Since kimchi is a “quick pickle,” it’s possible that by eating large amounts of it contributes to the relatively high rates of stomach cancer in Korea, but the solution is simple: Let your kimchi stay in the refrigerator (tightly sealed!) for a few weeks prior to consumption.
Pickling cabbage does not reduce its vitamin content. In some cases, depending on the exact strain of bacteria fermenting the cabbage, making sauerkraut actually increases the vitamin content of the vegetable. Like other foods made from plants in the cabbage family, sauerkraut contains the sulfur-bearing compounds known as isothiocyanates, but the sulfur in sauerkraut fights infection rather than causes cancer. Really sour, sauerkraut is especially potent against the foodborne infectious microorganism Listeria.
What Health Issues Are Especially Responsive to Cabbage?
Cabbage juice is a well-documented treatment for stomach ulcers. A 1940’s era doctor at Stanford University California, named Garrett Cheney, gave cabbage juice to seven of his patients who had duodenal (intestinal) ulcers. Their ulcers healed in an average of 10 days, compared to about 37 days of other treatments available at that time. Cheney also gave cabbage juice to six of his patients who had peptic (stomach) ulcers. Their ulcers healed in an average of seven days, compared to 42 days possible with medications.
Cheney believed that cabbage contained “vitamin U,” an anti-ulcer vitamin. The healing compounds in cabbage turned out not to be an actual vitamin, but rather a group of mucilaginous polysaccharides that coated the stomach and protected its lining against its own acids. About three dozen other researchers got similar results with cabbage juice in later trials, and also dried cabbage powder, and cooked cabbage, but it was cabbage juice that proved to be the most effective overall. Cheney prescribed very large amounts of juice, about 1000 to 1500 ml (1 to 1-1/2 quarts) per day, usually for one week and for no longer than two weeks at a time. It is important not to drink more than 250 ml of cabbage juice daily for more than one month at a time, so as to avoid the effects of goitrogens, explained below.
Cabbage leaves are a traditional treatment for painful breast-swelling in nursing mothers. The leaves are put in the freezer of the refrigerator for 30 minutes, and then stuffed into the brassiere for 30 minutes and subsequently discarded. The treatment is repeated three times a day. Cabbage leaves have been found in clinical trials to be as effective as hot compresses or cold packs for treating engorgement of the breast, but not quite as effective as moist heat is for treating pain.
The best-known modern application of cabbage and other Cabbage-family vegetables is in cancer prevention. These vegetables provide cancer-fighting isothiocyanates, which are released as they are digested. The isothiocyanates are absorbed into the bloodstream in the small intestine, and they circulate back to the kidneys, the bladder, and the colon, as they are eliminated. It is in the linings of the bladder and colon that these compounds combine with the amino acid N-acetylcysteine, and the antioxidant glutathione, to form the actual anti-cancer compounds. The resulting compounds either provide extra glutathione directly to cells or cause cells to produce more glutathione on their own, but the glutathione damages cancer cell DNA in ways that keep a cancer cell from dividing. However, it also protects healthy cells from changes to their DNA that could later transform them into cancer cells.
Maximum cancer protection occurs with just three or four servings of cabbage or related vegetables each week. That is because the production of glutathione is limited by the body’s supply of N-acetylcysteine. Short of giving yourself injections of N-acetylcysteine, which really isn’t a good idea, you can’t go beyond a certain maximum activity. Also, at least 10% of people simply don’t have the genes to make the enzymes needed to convert isothiocyanates into their active form.
It’s also important to understand just how much cabbage can do for you in preventing cancer. The best evidence is that eating cabbage, or cabbage-family vegetables on a regular basis, lowers the risk of colon cancer about 10 to 25%. ‘In women, eating cabbage-family vegetables can have a significant effect on breast cancer risk depends on genetics. Women who have a genetic variation known as the GSTP1 Val/Val genotype, have a higher risk of cancer if they don’t eat cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage, but 50% lower risk if they do. Women who don’t have this gene may only have a 10% reduction in breast cancer risk if they eat cabbage-family vegetables regularly. The greatest reduction of breast cancer risk for post-menopausal women is seen in those who eat large quantities of Chinese (rather than white or red) cabbage.
Prostate cancer responds to a different chemical in cabbage called sulforaphane. However, men who want to modify their prostate cancer risk with diet are better off focusing on broccoli, and especially broccoli sprouts, because they contain much more sulforaphane than other cabbage family vegetables.
Additional Health Applications of Cabbage
Raw sauerkraut, with live cultures of Lactobacillus, can help you to lose weight. These bacteria convert some of the linolenic acid in plant and animal foods into conjugated linolenic acid, a fatty acid that assists weight loss. Cooking the cabbage, or pasteurizing it for sale in the supermarket, however, ruins the effect.
Cabbage is turned into sauerkraut with the help of probiotic bacteria, but every batch has a slightly different content of probiotics, and the major fermenting strain differs from country to country. In China, sauerkraut usually contains large amounts of a friendly bacterium called Lactobacillus rhamnosus JAAS8. This probiotic is especially helpful for counteracting what are known as “slime polysaccharides,” which harmful bacteria use to stick together and multiply rapidly. This particular probiotic is especially helpful for keeping the bad bugs at bay.
The kind of cabbage best studied as a supportive food for recovery from breast cancer is white (or “green”) cabbage, the kind of cabbage most often used to make sauerkraut. Different strains of breast cancer respond to the indole compounds in cabbage in different ways. They are about 10 times as effective in helping anti-cancer drugs stop the spread of a strain of breast cancer known as MDA-MB-231, which is not activated by oestrogen, than they are for helping anti-cancer drugs stop the spread of some other common, oestrogen receptor positive strains of breast cancer. Sometimes, adding cabbage to the diet will make a difference in outcomes for breast cancer, and sometimes it will not.
Sauerkraut (fermented cabbage) that has been rinsed to remove salt is particularly appropriate for kidney failure diets, as it is extremely low in phosphorus.
Where Does Cabbage Fit in the Families of Vegetables?
Cabbage, as its name suggests, is the most commonly consumed member of the Cabbage-family, also known as the crucifers or Cruciferae. Related vegetables include bok choy, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, land cress and watercress, horseradish, kale, kohlrabi, komatsuna, mizuna, mustard greens, rutabaga, turnip, kale, daikon, wasabi, radish, and maca, to name just a few. Because of the perceived bitterness and pungent sulfur smell of cabbage, its tastes are not usually complemented by other Cabbage-family vegetables, although it does go well with vegetables in the Umble-family (carrots, dill) and Lily-family (onions, garlic), as well as tomatoes.
What Is the Best Way to Eat Cabbage Raw?
Cabbage harvested just after the first frost is the sweetest, and makes the best sauerkraut. That is the reason cabbage is traditionally a late fall and winter vegetable, eaten when it is tastiest.
Raw cabbage is known to contain complex carbohydrates that fit like a key into a lock on immunostimulant receptor sites on cells throughout the body. Scientists don’t really know whether these immunostimulant polysaccharides survive cooking, so if you are eating cabbage to boost your immune system, you should eat it raw or as uncooked, unpasteurized sauerkraut.
There is just one downside to eating cabbage raw. Even if it has been fermented, raw cabbage contains tiny amounts of some sulfur-based chemicals known as goitrogens. When cabbage is eaten in excess (more than about half a pound, or 225-250 grams per day), the goitrogens can interfere with the thyroid gland’s ability to absorb iodine, used to make thyroid hormone. The solution is simple; don’t eat too much raw cabbage!
The most common way North Americans eat raw cabbage, much to the chagrin of many European friends and visitors, is by combining it with a mayonnaise-based dressing to make coleslaw. Actually, there are more health benefits to this approach than one might think. Mayonnaise-based dressings “smother” most disease-causing bacteria, particularly E. coli, even if the dressing is kept out at room temperature. Any kind of acidic vinaigrette coating on all the components of the salad will also stop growth of E. coli in the coleslaw at room temperature for as long as three days. It’s still a good idea to chill your coleslaw though, simply because it tastes better cold.
The most common way the rest of the world eats raw cabbage is as sauerkraut. Fresh, raw, sauerkraut is crunchy, and tart. Cooking or pasteurizing sauerkraut makes it mushy and merely sour. Homemade kraut always tastes the best. Fortunately, it is not at all hard to make.
You will need:
- Wide-mouth quart canning jars, such as Mason jars. These are found at most grocery stores, although you may have to ask for them.
- Small jars to fit inside the canning jars. They should be glass, they should be sterilized, and they should not have labels.
- Three tablespoons (about 50 grams) of sea salt. It’s important not to use iodized table salt, since it will kill the bacteria that ferment the cabbage.
- An extra-large head of cabbage, at least four and up to six pounds (2-3 kilos).
First chop the cabbage into thin strings. The slices should be about 1/10 of an inch (2 mm) wide, but this isn’t critical. You can use a knife, a mandolin, or a food processor.
Put all the cabbage into a large, clean bowl and add the salt. Mix the sliced cabbage and salt with your hands. (You may have seen pictures of women mixing huge vats of cabbage and salt with their feet, but we don’t recommend this.) You can double the amount of salt if the cabbage doesn’t taste salty enough to you.
Let the salted cabbage rest in the bowl for up to an hour. Then pack the mixture tightly into clean, sterilized jars (make sure the jars are cool before you pack them with cabbage). It is important not to heat the jars after they have been filled.
When you are packing the jars with salted cabbage, leave 2-3 inches (25 to 75 mm) at the top of the jar. Press down on the cabbage so that the brine rises to the top. The bacteria that will ferment the cabbage are anaerobic, that is, they can’t work when they are exposed to air, but it is OK to let the brine come in contact with the air.
Then put lids on the jars. Fill the smaller jars with water and place them on the lids to keep pressure on the fermenting cabbage. Then let the mixture ferment for at least two weeks.
It’s normal for bubbles to form as the cabbage ferments. If a slimy material accumulates on the surface of the brine, just spoon it off every few days. If the level of the brine drops below the top of the cabbage, add a little salt water, made with non-chlorinated water and non-iodized salt, to bring the level back up. After two weeks, store in the refrigerator to keep the kraut crisp.
The same process can be used for making sauerruben, which uses turnips in place of the cabbage.
What Is the Best Way to Use Cabbage in Salads?
Cabbage has sweetness and crunch that help it go well with other flavourful vegetables and spices. To make a salad with cabbage, add sliced red peppers, lemon juice, and cumin. Or combine sweet, tart, and savoury together by making a salad of cabbage, dried cranberries, and balsamic vinaigrette. Combine shredded cabbage with raw beets (this way, the cabbage isn’t dyed purple), sesame seeds, sherry wine vinegar, Dijon mustard, soy sugar, a pinch of sugar, and mint. Or mix 3-4 tablespoons (about 45 grams) of toasted walnuts, two diced scallions, thin slices of one Asian pear, one minced clove of garlic, one tablespoon of minced ginger, thin slices of one cucumber, 1/2” (10 mm) cubes of a cooked sweet potato, half a head of Napa cabbage shredded fine, and crumbled blue cheese, sesame seeds, mayonnaise, and lime juice to taste.
Remember to chop, dice, or shred cabbage just before serving. This way you get to preserve its vitamin and antioxidant content. Proportions of ingredients are always to personal taste.
What Is the Best Way to Cook Cabbage?
The most important thing to remember about cooking cabbage is never to overcook it. Overcooking transforms the isothiocynates, the chemicals that give cabbage both its anti-cancer properties and its distinctive taste, into hydrogen sulphide, which is better known as the source of the odour similar to rotting eggs. It’s OK to cook cabbage just until it is tender, thus keeping its colour and flavour.
Cabbage is a mainstay of Russian, German, and Chinese cooking. Stuff cabbage leaves with already-cooked meat and simmer in sauce just until the leaves are tender. Braise chopped cabbage with caraway seeds for a German flavour. Or serve up cabbage stir-fried with tofu for a Chinese staple dish.
What Is the Best Cabbage for Juicing?
The best tasting cabbage juice is made from the ones you pick fresh from your own garden. If that’s not an option, try to buy your cabbage from a local farmer’s market just after the first frost. Failing any of the above, if you do buy your cabbage from a local greengrocer or supermarket, make sure you store the vegetable in the coldest part of the refrigerator at least over one night before making your juice. Exposure to freezing and near-freezing temperatures brings out the natural sugars in the leaf and consequently in the juice.
A Word About Kimchi
If you are a fan of Korean cuisine, you are already familiar with kimchi. Most Koreans get about 10% of their total calories from kimchi, and a serving, or two or three, of kimchi appears with nearly every meal. This quick-fermented dish is usually made with Napa cabbage (although it can also be made from turnips, cucumbers, or radishes). The Kimchi Field Museum in Seoul presents 187 different versions of the dish, seasoned with salty brine, shrimp, fish, oysters, scallions, ginger, and Korean red peppers. Most versions of kimchi are spicy, but a few, such as baek kimchi, also known as white kimchi, are not spicy at all. Kimchi is an unusually healthy food.
Koreans also use enormous amounts of the herb red ginseng. Scientists have discovered that the bacterium which ferments cabbage to make kimchi also converts one of the healing compounds in red ginseng into its active form. If you want to get good results from red ginseng, eat kimchi.
Many strains of the bacteria that transform cabbage into kimchi produce their own potent anti-cancer compounds, especially those that make the more acidic varieties of the product.
Korean scientists have identified strains of Lactobacillus rhamnosus and Lactobacillus plantarum in kimchi that stop cholesterol in food from entering the body, and even coax cholesterol out of the bloodstream.
Despite the salt content in kimchi, at least one study in Korea has found that eating more kimchi is associated with lower rates of high blood pressure.
The benefits of kimchi seem to derive from the bacteria that ferment it. Kimchi in a jiggae or stew is tasty, but raw kimchi is best for health benefits.
Kimchi is available in supermarkets and in Korean grocery stores. No special ingredients are needed to make your own. An astonishing number of Korean cookbooks refer to rinsing Napa cabbage in your bathtub, but no bathtub (or shower) is required for this recipe.
This recipe is intended to help you avoid common mistakes with Kimichi. It’s critical not to use ordinary table salt. Iodized salt kills the bacteria that ferment the cabbage. And you will want to get your gochugaru (red chili pepper) from a Korean market or online. Your Korean friends just won’t eat kimchi you made with Mexican chili pepper flakes.
Basic Spicy Kimchi
1 large head of Napa cabbage
1 bunch of scallions (about 10)
1/2 cup (about 150 g) coarse salt but not the iodized kind as Iodine kills the bacteria that ferment kimchi and ruins the product.
2 tablespoons (about 15 g) sugar
2 tablespoons (about 15 g) of sweet rice powder, available from Korean groceries and online
1 inch piece (about 30 g) ginger, peeled.
10 peeled garlic cloves
1/4 peeled yellow onion
3/4 cup (50-60 g) gochugaru, available from Korean stores and online
3/4 cup (180 ml) of boiling water
2 quart (liter) jars with lids
If you want a more authentic taste, you will probably want to add two tablespoons (30 ml) of fish sauce and a handful (about 50 grams) of Korean salted shrimp, although these are optional, at least for your first batch. Many people also add a few slices of white radish (either daikon or moo) to the mix.
Remove any ragged outer leaves and quarter the cabbage lengthwise. Cut out and throw away the core. Cut the quarters crosswise into 1-inch (25 mm) pieces.
Rinse the cabbage carefully, and add to a large bowl (you will have about eight cups/2 litres of chopped cabbage), layering with salt as you put the slices of cabbage into the bowl. Let the cabbage wilt for one hour, then mix with your hands. Let the cabbage wilt for another hour, and then rinse it thoroughly to remove the salt, then drain and set aside.
Bring 3/4 cup (180 ml) of water to a rolling boil in a saucepan, and add the rice powder. Turn down the heat and simmer, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens. This will probably take about three minutes on average. Add sugar to the thick mixture and stir for one more minute. Then take the mixture off the heat and allow it to cool.
Combine the ginger, garlic, and onion in a food processor. Add fish sauce, if you are using it, and combine completely.
When the rice powder and sugar mixture has cooled, put all the ingredients into a clean bowl and toss. Next, transfer half of the mixture to each of your two jars, making sure to cover with plastic wrap before putting on their lids. Since the bacteria that ferment kimchi are killed by exposure to air, it’s best to have the jars completely full during this stage.
Leave the kimchi on a counter, preferably away from china, carpets, or fragile items, for two days. (In rare instances, kimchi has been known to pop open like the cork on a bottle of champagne.) After two days, store tightly covered in the refrigerator for up to six months. Eat the fermented cabbage raw, and use the juice for basting roasted meats as desired.
What Are Some Ways to Make Cabbage Juice More Interesting?
Combine cabbage with apples and carrots to make a sweeter juice. Use any amounts you like, but if you are using cabbage juice to treat peptic or duodenal ulcers, you will need to drink proportionately more of the mixed juice to get the same effect. Don’t add apples to cabbage if you have a tendency toward bloating and gas, as the sugar in apple juice can ferment in your lower gut.
Try a combination of red cabbage, Meyer lemon (a less acidic variety), peeled cucumber (the peel can be bitter), peeled pear (but only one per mix, because the sugars in pears can cause gas), peeled ginger (only a small piece, not more than 1 inch/25 mm long), and red cabbage, for a colourful, flavourful, sweet-tart juice. Cabbage also mixes well with celery, grapes, and spinach.
How Do I Get Kids to Like Cabbage?
The writer of this article grew up in a household where cabbage or sauerkraut was served nearly every day. The writer’s mother had no difficulty persuading the children in the home to eat their steamed cabbage, coleslaw, and kraut, even though they had the genes that enabled them to taste the bitter compounds in the vegetable. She simply stated “You will eat this cabbage. I your Mother have spoken. It is so.” Even when the kids were four and five they thought the idea of omnipotent control over cabbage consumption to be silly, but they were never entirely sure until they were adults.
If you cannot decree that your children will eat cabbage, and your children like onions, serve them wilted (pan “fried”) cabbage and onions. Or mix purple cabbage with cranberries and apples for a salad. Add a little sugar to the vinaigrette. Use Napa cabbage to make rolls for the children’s favourite meats. Serve hamburger inside a single leaf of Napa cabbage. Make a stir-fry of soba noodles, the darkest green leaves of cabbage, and shredded carrots. Serve pan-fried cabbage with bacon, or serve a “cabbage lasagne” made with layers of roast pork and cabbage. Or just squeeze a little fresh lemon juice over cabbage that you have cut in a different way than usual. Sometimes the lemon is all that is needed to counteract the bitter taste and disagreeable smell. No matter how you serve your children cabbage, remember to make sure it is not overcooked.
How Long Does Cabbage Juice Keep?
Cabbage juice contains naturally occurring compounds that suppress the growth of E. coli, Salmonella, and Listeria (although not another foodborne disease bacterium called Enterococcus). If there is just 10% of cabbage juice in a mix, it will suppress about 90% of the growth of these three strains of bacteria. If there is 20% of cabbage juice in a mix, it will suppress about 99.9% of the growth of these three strains of bacteria, keeping the juice safe at room temperature for a day or so, and in the refrigerator for up to a week. It’s always best, however, to drink juices as soon as you make them, both for safety and for flavour.
Tips for Frugal Use of Cabbage
Cabbage is so inexpensive most people don’t use it quickly, and that’s a shame, because the vegetable loses most of its nutritional value when it is taken out of cold storage (or the lowest part of the refrigerator) in just one week.
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