Kings of Winter

by Sarah West


We don’t think much of cabbage these days. It’s there; we buy it, shred and dress it into slaws, add it to winter soups, boil it for St. Patrick’s Day. As vegetable eaters, we generally gravitate towards lighter fare—tender salad greens or frilly kale. But cabbage, in all its juicy heft, was once an indispensable crop, especially in winter, when these nutrient-dense heads fed families and their livestock through a time of year when fresh vegetables were threateningly scarce.

Cabbage belongs to an extensive vegetable family known as the brassicas. Ranging from leafy kales and spicy mustards to geometric Romanesco and many-cabbaged Brussels sprouts to root crops like turnips and radishes, brassicas make up a good deal of all but summer’s vegetable patch.

They are varying degrees of hardy, some (mostly kales) able to withstand deep cold tucked away in a snowdrift. Many more brassicas tolerate our mild, if soggy, maritime Northwest winters. The sort of cold we do get generally improves winter brassicas—each drop in temperature instructing cells to infuse their watery interiors with sugar. Since sugar solution freezes at a lower temperature than water, the plants avoid ruptured cells; we get sweeter greens.

Farmers plan for January and February harvests in July and August. Winter requires strategy because few vegetables are able to grow at a rate that allows continuous harvest once day length drops to ten hours or less (early November through early February at our latitude). What a farm field will lack in regenerative ability farmers must make up for in volume, planting much larger patches of winter greens than they would of the same greens intended for spring harvests, and early enough that they are nearing a harvestable size by November.

Cabbage adds another layer of strategy to the game, especially in colder regions where it must be harvested before the first hard freeze. Tightly packed heads of thick, waxy leaves keep for weeks, even months, in optimum post-harvest conditions. In bygone eras, that would have been a root cellar: cool, humid chamber where the air circulates slowly and the earthen floor absorbs condensation. Today’s farmers use walk-in coolers or insulated storage rooms. At home, we have refrigerators. I’ve successfully kept whole cabbages, patted dry and enclosed in a plastic bag, for two months or more, opening them occasionally to prevent spoiling by toweling off any condensation built up inside the bag.

Cabbage stores even longer as sauerkraut, the result of a fermentation process that utilizes salt to draw moisture from shredded leaves, creating brine that essentially pickles them. Fermented cabbage takes on salty, sour, sometimes buttery qualities, keeping for months in the refrigerator. An ancient technique discovered independently by the Chinese (as long as 6,000 years ago) and the Romans, sauerkraut as we know it today was likely introduced to eastern Europe by invading Mongols. Europeans adapted the ferment to indigenous cabbage varieties and their preferred seasonings, and sauerkraut was born.

Cabbage flavor is dominated by two compounds—raw cabbage’s spicy bite comes from glucosinolates and the sulfurous flavor and odor of cooked cabbage from hydrogen sulfide gas released when the leaves are exposed to continuous heat. Glucosinolates, present in raw, cooked, or fermented cabbage, are the subject of much scientific investigation; preliminary studies show an ability to reduce some types of cancerous growth on rodent organs. Whether or not it prevents cancer, cabbage is an excellent source of vitamins C and K, as well as dietary fiber.

Cabbage may be medicinal, but it doesn’t have to taste like it. Avoid the sulfurous side of its flavor spectrum by keeping down the heat. Hydrogen sulfide increases dramatically between the 5th and 7th minutes of high-heat cooking (boiling). If you must boil cabbage, cut it into strips and do so for less than five minutes. Alternatives that keep away cabbage’s potentially off-putting stink include stir-frying, roasting, shallow simmering or braising. Splashes of citrus and vinegar help hide all of cabbage’s strong flavors, as do powerful spices like caraway, cumin, black pepper, ginger, and hot peppers.

Winter is prime time for cabbage, as cold weather and ample moisture help moderate the production of sulfurous compounds, and sugars built up during repeated frosts smooth out the raw leaves’ bite. Let yourself be seduced by a beautiful winter cabbage, let it compel you to take it home, even if you’re not sure what to do with it. And know that it will wait, tucked safely in the fridge, until the right time comes for you to discover it.

(To start, check out these seven different—and delicious—ways to prepare cabbage: