My favorite kind of coleslaw is the classic, creamy variety; it comforts me because I grew up eating it at a mom-and-pop catfish bar whose coleslaw was second to none. Their version was made with finely grated cabbage and bright orange ribbons of carrot. It was a bit tart and a little sharp — the way horseradish can be — because the cabbage was freshly grated. It paired perfectly with deep-fried catfish, whose crispy tails tasted of bacon. This is the slaw by which I judge all others.
But so often the dishes we try to recreate from memory don’t live up to our expectations. As a passionate cook, there is nothing more frustrating than this — and it’s exactly what happened when I tried to reverse-engineer my favorite coleslaw. I couldn’t get the texture or flavors right, and every time I made it, it didn’t taste like I remembered.
I kept making it, though — tweaking the original recipe time and time again with the hope that I would soon end my quest for the holy grail of slaw. I wanted to know how to fix my recipe, so I studied what happened each time I made it and took note of when things started to go awry.
I think we all know that you can follow the exact same recipe twice and wind up with a different end product each time. But if you learn enough about the science of food, it’s easier to understand your results.
Soon enough, I figured out out that my coleslaw was suffering from a moisture issue. As it sat, the dressing became diluted with cabbage water and, by the time it arrived on the dinner table, the dressing was too thin. My shoulders slumped with disappointment as I stared at what looked like cabbage swimming in a bowl of skim milk. No one else at the table was discouraged by the dish, but I knew what this coleslaw could be — so I tried again.
As a young cook, I didn’t use salt simply because I thought it was bad for you. When I went to culinary school, I learned about the chemistry of using salt in cooking — how it draws out food’s moisture through osmosis and can be used as a curing and antibacterial agent, as well as a powerful flavor enhancer. For years I have used salt for these purposes, but I’ve turned to it recently to improve any vegetable dish that could benefit from less moisture.
So, on my next attempt, I finely grated the cabbage, put it in a strainer, and salted it the way I salt cucumbers when I’m making pickles. I let the cabbage sit for an hour before lifting up the damp, wilted leaves to see how much liquid had been extracted. I was surprised to see almost three quarters of a cup of water left behind.
As you would any other wilted, salted vegatable, I rinsed the cabbage and wrung it dry. When it was finally dressed, the coleslaw stayed crunchy, and the dressing thick. My job was done.
1 medium-sized head of cabbage
2 medium carrots, trimmed and peeled
1/2 cup mayonnaise (or Vegenaise, or Miracle Whip)
3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
3 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper to taste (I like lots)
1/2 teaspoon celery seed
1 tablespoon chives, minced
1. Carefully cut the cabbage in half. Remove the core with a knife, then cut the cabbage into pieces small enough to fit into the tube of your food processor. If you are doing this by hand, it is still a good idea to cut the cabbage into manageable pieces.
2. Grate the cabbage as finely as you can with a food processor, grater, or by hand, then do the same with the carrots.
3. Combine the carrots and cabbage in a strainer or colander and season them with the salt. Toss to combine. Place the strainer in a bowl or leave it in the sink to drain for an hour.
4. After about an hour, squeeze the cabbage by hand or by twisting it in a clean dish towel to remove as much moisture as you can.
5. In a large bowl, combine the sugar and apple cider vinegar. Whisk them together until the sugar has dissolved. Add the mayonnaise (or Vegenaise or Miracle Whip) along with the celery seed, chives, and black pepper. Whisk the dressing again. Taste and adjust the seasoning to your preference.
6. Squeeze the cabbage mixture one more time. Add it to the dressing and mix until the dressing is evenly distributed throughout the cabbage. Serve.