Cabbage is one of those vegetables I didn’t know I loved until I came to the UK. I liked it in Sauerkraut, Bigos and Kimchi but hadn’t really had it plain as it’s not a very popular side dish in Australia. When I had eaten it, it was invariably boiled until almost mushy and was rather bland until it was smothered in butter and salt at which point it just tasted like butter. However, this all changed because of my wife. My wife loves cabbage, I mean she really loves it which is why it turns up in so many TimedEating posts (Herb Crusted Cod and Duck breast being just a couple of examples). Therefore I learnt to cook it and have been asked by a couple of people how – so I figured I’d write a quick post about it as it’s all in what method you use.
I’m going to take a short digression into the realms of chemistry (which after all is pretty much all cooking is). Our perception of flavour and taste are largely made up of volatile compounds referred to as flavour molecules. Different foods have different flavour molecules which result in different tastes and aromas. When cooking, we try and keep as many of those flavour molecules inside the food we cook and in some cases, like browning, seek to create new ones. So the question is, why do some methods of cooking leave those flavour molecules in tact and others obliterate them completely leaving food bland and often mushy. There are two factors, the first is heat and the second is solubility.
Heat is the primary factor. As this video which first opened my eyes explains (go from about 4:40), when you heat vegetables some of the moisture inside the vegetable cells turns to steam bursting the cell walls. This releases the flavour molecules inside. It also damages the structure of the vegetable as more and more of the cells burst turning it soft. Some of this is necessary both to aid digestion and to aid flavour. Without some cells bursting, the vegetable would have very little aroma and consequently very little flavour as most of our perception of flavour is through our sense of smell. Too much damage and there is no flavour left inside the vegetable to be released when we chew. This is why overcooked cabbage is bland and mushy. This is also why steaming cabbage is often better than boiling it as steam is a much slower and less harsh method of transferring heat. You can pass your hand through steam without getting burnt but if you place it in boiling water even for an instant you feel it.
Although steaming cabbage is better than boiling it in terms of heat, both adversely affect its flavour of because of the solubility of the flavour molecules. What on Earth does that mean? Well, just like salt dissolving in water, many flavour molecules dissolve. If you place salt in liquid water it will dissolve, this is known as being water soluble. However, salt is not fat soluble. I.e., if you place salt in oil, it does not dissolve. Similarly the flavour molecules of cabbage are soluble in water but not in fat. As well as cabbage, this is true for carrots and is why I cook my carrot purée in butter. As cabbage flavour molecules are soluble in water, when you boil or steam them flavour leaches into the cooking water and is whisked away from the vegetable itself. This is why I cook my cabbage in a little butter with only a tiny amount of water added.
So, after all that, how do I cook it? Well the answer is very simple. I cook over a gentle heat, melt some butter and add a splash of water to help the butter not to burn swirling the pan to emulsify the butter and water. I place the cabbage in the emulsion , season with salt and cover the pan with either a lid or foil. Depending on how I’ve cut the cabbage I cook for different lengths of time but never for very long (around 3-7 minutes) and serve it whilst it’s still got a bit of crunch. My two favourite ways to cut and cook cabbage are in large wedges (often best for pointed cabbage) which take around 6-7 minutes or as a chiffonade (fine slices) which only take 3-4 minutes. Cooked like this, I’ve definitely learned to love the cabbage.
- Large knob of butter
- 1 pointed cabbage
- Remove a couple of outer leaves of the pointed cabbage. These are often tougher and less nice.
- Cut the cabbage into six wedges and remove the cores by cutting on a diagonal towards the root on the inside of the wedge.
- Place a pan on a low to medium heat and melt the butter. Add a splash of water, about 1 tablespoon, and swirl until emulsified. Add the cabbage and season well with salt and pepper. Cover and cook for 6-7 minutes. Serve immediately.
The headline photo for this blog was taken by J.E. Theriot and sourced from this page.