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How to Cook Cabbage to Preserve Quality

Make it al dente

Cooked cabbage has a delightful flavor and a wealth of nutrients. Just be sure to make it al dente: cooked quickly so that it’s still crisp on the inside. We can’t emphasize enough the importance of cooking al dente to retain the crisp texture, bright color, and nutrients, and to enhance the taste.

Steaming

Steaming is best for cabbage, since it minimizes the loss of water-soluble nutrients, like vitamin C. To avoid overcooking, wait until there’s plenty of steam before adding the cabbage to the steamer. Cooking time will vary depending upon how the cabbage is cut since cabbage cut into smaller pieces will have greater surface area and will be more vulnerable to the loss of nutrients (and taste and color) with increased time. If the cabbage is sliced or shredded, cook for four to seven minutes. If the cabbage has been cut into large wedges, such as quarters, you can cook it for a longer period of time, anywhere from seven to ten minutes, without significantly decreasing the vitamin C content. It is important to exercise extreme caution when steaming cabbage or any other food in order to avoid steam burns.

Boiling

Cabbage can also be boiled, but should be added to the pot only when the water is at a rapid boil. Use a large pot with lots of water; add salt to speed up the time it takes for water to reach a boil. Similar to steaming, how long cabbage should be boiled to maintain their water-soluble nutrients depends upon its surface area and how it is cut. Sliced or shredded cabbage should be cooked for a four to seven minutes while larger wedges of cabbage, such as quarters, can be boiled for a longer period of time, up to ten minutes.

Retaining the nutrients

Cabbage contains many water-soluble vitamins, minerals, and chlorophyll (an important phytonutrient). It also contains carotenoid phytonutrients, which don’t dissolve in water, but are adversely affected by prolonged cooking.

When it comes to cooking cabbage to ensure maximizing its nutrient profile, one of the main concerns is with vitamin C. This is because vitamin C is less stable than many other nutrients when it comes to cooking. This instability is related to the fact that vitamin C is highly water-soluble and once it is in water, it structure changes slightly.

Therefore, the longer the cabbage comes into contact with water, and the more finely the cabbage is cut or shredded, the greater likelihood that its vitamin C will come into contact with water and change its form. So, to keep vitamin C in its original form, you need to minimize its contact with water. That is why our cooking method of choice is steaming for shorter periods of time rather than boiling for long periods of time.

Yet, water is not the only factor that has an impact on vitamin C. Sugar concentration, salt concentration, acidity, the presence of oxygen, and the presence of metals (including iron and copper that may be found in water or cookware) can all trigger breakdown of vitamin C. For example, spontaneous oxidation of vitamin C occurs upon contact with air. Additionally, the presence of heat speeds up the oxidation process, so that the structure of vitamin C is changed more quickly. Therefore when you use a method involving water to cook cabbage, you are creating a heat-oxygen-water combination that acts in concert to change the structure of vitamin C. By keeping steaming times to a minimum, you can reduce the occurrence of these structural changes and retain more of the cabbage’s vitamin C content.

Retaining the flavor

As cabbage cooks, it begins to produce hydrogen sulfide, a chemical that affects the smell and flavor of the vegetable. This is one of the reasons that overcooking cabbage can reduce not only its nutritional qualities, but its flavor as well. The peak of the flavor of cooked cabbage occurs at different times depending upon how it is cut. The flavor of sliced or shredded cooked cabbage may begin to decline after four to seven minutes while the flavor of quartered cabbage may begin to decline after about ten minutes. (Remember, too, that cabbage will continue to cook after the burner is turned off. So remove it from the heat source when you are done cooking it.)

Retaining the color (and why that’s important)

Green cabbage is green because it contains two types of chlorophyll: A, which is bright blue-green, and B, which is bright yellow-green. When the cabbage is exposed to heat, the chlorophyll begins to break down. How fast it is destroyed is once again related to how the cabbage is cut and the surface area of the cabbage exposed to the heat. Sliced and shredded cabbage will being to lose much of its chlorophyll after four to seven minutes while quartered cabbage can be cooked longer, for around ten minutes. The cabbage leaves lose their color, and you lose the nutritional value of chlorophyll.

Cookware can also affect color. Iron, tin and aluminum all turn the chlorophyll in cabbage from green to brown. Copper preserves the vivid green, but copper can leach into food, and too much copper in the diet is not advisable (in addition, as noted above, copper can trigger the breakdown of vitamin C). We recommend stainless steel cookware (since scoured stainless steel leaches a large amount of nickel into the food, is important to use a non-abrasive scrubbing material, like plastic mesh, when cleaning stainless steel cookware)

Helpful hints

  • Cut cabbage into small, even pieces to reduce cooking time.
  • Some cooks add a pinch of baking soda to the water when they boil cabbage. The baking soda will neutralize naturally occurring acids and maintain the vegetable’s bright green color. But what you gain in color, you lose in texture. Baking soda makes the cabbage mushy.
  • Red cabbage gets its color from phytonutrients, and will stay red if you add a teaspoon of vinegar or lemon juice to the water, or cook the cabbage with another acidic food, such as apples.
  • Retain cooking liquid for use as stock or dressing, and you’ll get the benefit of any water-soluble nutrients that may have leached into the liquid.
  • If you add salad dressing, do so just prior to serving, to protect the color.
  • Cabbage can also be added to other vegetables in a Healthy Sauté or Healthy Stir-Fry.

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