My Goals

  • Potent flavor

  • Bright, complex dressing

  • Varied textures and colors

While traditional green cabbage has long been the favorite for making coleslaw, napa cabbage is a great alternative. Its crinkly, thin leaves have a more tender texture and a sweeter flavor that can put a new spin on the picnic classic. While our traditional slaw recipes call for salting the cabbage to draw out excess liquid and soften the dense leaves, I wanted to retain napa cabbage’s delicate texture. I found that even a brief salting made the shreds too limp, so I decided to skip it. But simply tossing the shredded cabbage with dressing didn’t work either; I ended up with a waterlogged, bland slaw. It turns out that what gives napa cabbage its appealing tenderness—thinner, weaker cell walls—is also a liability. It will leach twice as much water as regular cabbage.

To handle the extra moisture, I needed to make a more potent dressing. I mixed up a bracing dressing of 3 parts vinegar to 1 part oil. But when I tossed the shredded cabbage with this mixture, I was surprised to find that the slaw still tasted too watered-down and bland. Our science editor told me what was happening: Vinegar was breaking down the cell walls of the cabbage, causing water to escape and the leaves to wilt.

Napa cabbage’s tender leaves distinguish it from from tougher, more commonly used green cabbage. But to take full advantage of its delicate texture, simply tossing it in any old dressing won’t do.

I had an idea: Why not simmer the vinegar before incorporating it into the dressing? This cooked off some of the vinegar’s water so that the water leached by the cabbage would then reconstitute it.

With that in mind, I reduced 13 cup of vinegar to 3 tablespoons and proceeded as before. After letting the dressed shreds sit for 5 minutes, I had a slaw that was the best yet. However, simmering had driven off some of the vinegar’s volatile compounds, so it tasted a bit flat. Reducing the vinegar even further, to 2 tablespoons, and adding 1 tablespoon of fresh vinegar delivered potent, bright flavor.

With some simple ingredient swaps, we developed a napa cabbage slaw variation to pair with almost any main course.

I was getting close, but the slaw still seemed too lean. Adding more oil to the dressing would only make it greasy, so I considered add-ins, settling on toasted sesame seeds. They lent a nutty richness that didn’t weigh down the slaw. Grated carrots contributed earthy sweetness and color while thinly sliced scallions added another layer of flavor.

From here, I created a few variations—with apple and walnuts and with jícama and pepitas—so that I’d have a slaw to pair with almost any meal.

Keys to Success

  • Potent flavor

    Since the cabbage will naturally leach water and dilute the dressing, we use a dressing with a high ratio of vinegar to oil and reduce the vinegar to concentrate its flavor.
  • Bright, complex dressing

    Since cooking drives off some of the vinegar’s volatile flavor compounds, we add a little bit of fresh vinegar or lime juice for more complexity and brightness.
  • Varied textures and colors

    Adding crunchy vegetables, herbs, and seeds or nuts gives the slaw an additional layer of flavor and texture.