Hundreds of varieties of cabbage are grown throughout the world. This cruciferous vegetable is a hearty staple on tables from China to Italy and Ireland. But in American markets you will find three basic types: green, red, and Savoy.
- Green cabbage: This cabbage has smooth, dark to pale green outer leaves. The inner leaves are pale green or white. Sometimes the outer leaves of cabbage are tied around the head as the cabbage grows to keep the interior white. Cabbage also turns white if it is kept in cold storage. Three types of green cabbage—Danish, domestic, and pointed—account for most commercially marketed cabbage. Danish types, which are grown for late-fall sale, and for storage over the winter, are very compact and solid, with round or oval heads. Domestic types form slightly looser, round or flattened heads, with curled leaves that are more brittle than any of the Danish types. Pointed varieties, which are grown mainly for spring marketing, have small, rather conical heads and smooth leaves.
- Red cabbage: Similar in flavor to green cabbage, red cabbage has deep ruby-red to purple outer leaves, with white veins or streaks on the inside. Its texture may be somewhat tougher than green, but red cabbage has more vitamin C, providing 56 percent of the RDA in a 1-cup serving.
- Savoy cabbage: This cabbage has crinkled, ruffly, yellow-green leaves that form a less compact head than other types. Savoy cabbage has a more delicate texture and milder flavor than other varieties, making it a good choice for salads and coleslaw.
- Tuscan cabbage: Relatively new to this country, Tuscan cabbage is available mostly at farmers’ markets and specialty produce stores. It’s a mild-flavored cabbage, with long, narrow, almost feathery leaves that are dark green with white ribs. It looks like a narrow version of kale, which is a close relative. There is also a black Tuscan cabbage, known as cavalo nero in Italy, whose leaves are such a dark purple that they appear black.
Chinese cabbages are actually connected to American cabbage more by the market term “cabbage” than by any botanical relationship. Every market and every region will have a slightly different name for the same vegetable, and the Chinese names for these vegetables areno help: They are all some form of choy, a word that simply means vegetable. Many of the so-called cabbages, though, do share some flavor characteristics. They all have pungent, sometimes mustardy or cabbagey flavors. The following is a list of some of the more common Chinese cabbages that you may find in your local supermarket or at a farmer’s market.
- Bok choy: Bok choy is a loose, bulbous cluster of white to light green stems topped with darker green leaves. Look for firm, white stems and crisp, dark green, glossy leaves. Avoid any with brown spots on the leaves, as these have not been stored at a low enough temperature to prevent some loss in flavor. Separate the leaves from the stalks. Slice the stalks and steam or sauté. The leaves can be sautéed or steamed, either whole or sliced.
- Baby bok choy: This miniature bok choyis shaped just like the big boy, but its stems and leaves are a more uniform green. Its taste is fresh, clean, sweet, and not very cabbage-like.
- Choy sum: This member of the Chinese cabbage family is also known as flowering cabbage, and in Japan it’s called saishin. It has small yellow flowers and slim stalks with rounded leaves. Select firm stalks with crisp leaves.
- Gai choy: This broad-leafed cabbage has curved stems, a semi-enclosed head, and a strong, pungent, mustardy flavor. It is entirely edible, yet with some varieties of gai choy (such as dai gai choy), the leafy part is discarded while the stems are used for salting, pickling, or drying.
- Napa cabbage: The market name for this cabbage comes from a Japanese word (nappa), but it has been so absorbed into American cuisine that most people probably think that the name comes from California’s Napa Valley. There are several varieties of napa cabbage, but the two most common are michihili, a long cylindrical head with slightly open leaves at the top, and wong bok, the more familiar napa cabbage head, which is large and barrel-shaped, with tightly packed leaves. The leaves on both varieties are crinkly and white to light green. Napa cabbage should feel compact when you press on it. Like regular cabbage, it can be eaten raw or cooked and has a mild cabbagey flavor.
How to choose the best cabbage
Look for solid, heavy heads of cabbage, with no more than three or four loose “wrapper” (outer) leaves. These wrapper leaves should be clean and flexible but not limp. They should also be free of discolored veins or worm damage, which may penetrate the interior of the head. The stems should be closely trimmed and healthy looking, not dry or split. The inner and outer leaves should be tightly attached to the stems.
A head of cabbage should not look puffy, although Savoy types are normally looser and lighter than smooth-leaved types. Fall and winter cabbage from storage is usually firmer than the fresh-picked types sold in spring and summer. Don’t buy halved or quartered heads of cabbage, even if well wrapped: As soon as the leaves are cut or torn, the vegetable begins to lose vitamin C.