Coleslaw, it ain’t 1996!

The best thing about this blog is it’s utter lack of direction and focus. I just get on the computer and write about whatever has seized me with such force that I feel compelled to electronically log it for posterity, as if the electronic written word will still exist in posterity. Today, it’s the secrets of coleslaw. I’ve had your coleslaw, and it sucks.

Don’t feel bad—mine did too. I’d made mushy slaw, too-chunky slaw, too-sour slaw, too-creamy slaw, too-rich slaw. I tried salting and draining like Tom Douglas suggests. That slaw is way too rich. I went through the chunky, hand-cut phase back before it was cool, and decided that what I do not enjoy wrestling with my tongue is big chunks of raw cabbage. I went through a box grated cabbage phase, because I’ve decided that I’m really old-fashioned, but you still have the problem of mushiness and wateriness. I wanted a slaw that was crisp and refreshing, but with that traditional sweet/sour/creamy balance.

Fancy vinegars I’ve tried. I probably got more fancy vinegars that you do, and none are right. Heinz white distilled has got the straightforward acetic acid kick I want. It lets the cabbage and carrot sweetness shine through without ostentatiously announcing itself, trying to make everything into something it’s not. Same goes for the sweetener: granulated white sugar doesn’t put on airs. Honey is way too aromatic. We’re trying to make a cohesive whole, not slam a bunch of stuff together in a bowl like fancy chefs. We’re not trying to be clever. We’re trying to be happy and satisfied.

The fat is more complicated. Mayonnaise is essential for that palate-coating creaminess, but it’s a little one-dimensional. Buttermilk is pretty good, but it’s kind of assertive with funk, and it gets a little thin with the vinegar. I like the dressing to really cling to the cabbage, even when it starts to give up it’s water. Sour cream is cloying. Although laughably nontraditional, plain, full-fat yogurt is perfect. I usually go maybe a little heavier mayo than an even split.

The biggest challenge is still the cabbage itself. It does have too much water, but salting it and wringing it dry makes an overwhelmingly rich slaw, and it still gets mushy. Coleslaw is practically synonymous with crispness in my imagination, so I took a lesson from the quick picklers of yore. I have a bunch of pickling lime from my homemade mineral water projects, and that’s what lime—Ca(OH)2, not the fruit—is for, making vegetables crunchy. The USDA recommends against using lime in pickling since it lowers the pH, and makes the process more risky, but coleslaw don’t need to keep for but a few days at most.

Those plates, those are  lime crystals.

Those plates, those are lime crystals.

So here’s what I do now: I slice the cabbage and carrots thin and long, by hand, since I’ve had some decent hand-cut slaws more recently. I salt the cabbage well (maybe two tablespoons salt per head) and let it sit for a half hour before squeezing gently to get some of the excess water out. I don’t want to bruise the fuck out of it and make it impossible to crisp up. Then I put the cabbage into a bowl with a few cups of cold water and a tablespoon of pickling lime, and let it sit in there for fifteen minutes or so. Then I drain it and spin it. The cabbage is now crisp as glass. Careful.

Toss that with the dressing. I do mine with maybe a tablespoon+ of mayo, one of yogurt, two teaspoons of vinegar and a tablespoon of sugar. I’m really not sure—I’m just eyeballing and tasting. I feel it doesn’t really matter anyway because if I did measure carefully and post recipes, people would just complain that it was “too sweet!” or “too fatty!” or “too sour!” Make it the way you like it. I’m pretty sure that’s some 1996 way that involves citrus and honey and olive oil, and no mayo, just don’t bring that mess to my barbecue. I’m totally over 1996.

Look at that cabbage, still got integrity after a whole day.

Look at that cabbage, still got integrity after a whole day.


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