Ingredient Intelligence

7 Different Types of Cabbage and How to Cook Them

updated Feb 20, 2024
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Red cabbage, green cabbage, brussels sprouts, savoy cabbage, napa cabbage, bok choy, and kale labeled on a white surface
Credit: Photo: Linda Xiao; Food Stylist: Jessie YuChen

Cabbage doesn’t get enough credit. During the summer, it gets disguised in a bowl of mayonnaise and shredded carrots, while corn and leafy salad greens soak up all the attention. In the winter, cabbage sits patiently in our crisper drawers while we roast butternut squash for months on end.

But cabbage is really the sleeper workhorse in your kitchen. It keeps for months without wilting or rotting and it’s a versatile ingredient that can handle almost any preparation you can think of. There’s more to the world of cabbage than just the head of green cabbage you’d use for creamy coleslaw. So, what qualifies as a cabbage? The rules can be blurry, but everything covered here is a member of the brassica family, whose closest cousins are actually cauliflower and broccoli. (P.S. If you’re looking for a tutorial on how to cut all that cabbage, click right this way.)

Credit: Photo: Linda Xiao; Food Stylist: Jessie YuChen

Green Cabbage

Green cabbage is a large, heavy, dense cabbage that has extraordinary storage power – it seems to last forever in the fridge, even when cut into. It’s the most common grocery store variety, and one of the most affordable, too.

Like all cabbages and brassicas, green cabbage can be eaten raw and cooked. It’s the obvious choice for a refreshingly ice cold coleslaw at a summer cookout, but we love it in warm recipes, too. (It’s superb in a one-skillet meal, roasted, or in a low-and-slow braise; and unlike spinach, it won’t cook down to nothing). Its slightly bitter, base-note flavor pairs well with sharp, pungent ingredients, like mustard, garlic, and horseradish.

This variety of cabbage will keep well in your refrigerator even when cored and cut or shredded, so feel free to meal prep the heck out of it.

In Season: late fall, although it’s available year-round due to national and international supplies

Best For: coleslaw, grilling and roasting, storage

Green Cabbage Recipes:

Credit: Photo: Linda Xiao; Food Stylist: Jessie YuChen

Red (or Purple) Cabbage

Red — sometimes called purple — cabbage is similar in shape, size, and density to green cabbage. It can be cooked or eaten raw. You may have encountered shredded purple cabbage in pre-made salad kits; it adds excellent crunch, and is also a regular guest star on tacos for that reason.

Another similarity red cabbage shares with its green sibling: In its raw form, it can be tough to digest. To counter that, let it marinate in a dressing or sauce to soften up slightly before enjoying. When cooked, especially with liquid, red cabbage will bleed out its color, turning whatever soup, braise, or stew you’re cooking a lovely purple hue. 

In Season: late fall, although it’s available year-round due to national and international supplies

Best For: adding a pop of color and crunch to salads, braising, roasting

Red Cabbage Recipes:

Credit: Photo: Linda Xiao; Food Stylist: Jessie YuChen

Napa Cabbage

Napa cabbage has thick, big white ribs and tender, pale green leaves. Compared with green and red cabbages, it has a less dense or heavy feeling; it’s also oblong, rather than round. Because this type of cabbage originated in China, it’s sometimes referred to as “Chinese cabbage.” That said, it has a rich history of use in plenty of other East Asian countries. 

One of the most common uses of Napa cabbage is in kimchi, a pungent, fermented condiment with Korean roots. It is also an unsung salad champion. It’s hearty enough to add crunch without being so tough, like some of it’s cabbage siblings (I’m looking at you kale), that it needs a massage or marinade before being consumed raw.

In Season: late fall, although it’s available year-round due to national and international supplies

Best For: fermenting, salads, slaws, stir-frying

Napa Cabbage Recipe Ideas:

Credit: Photo: Linda Xiao; Food Stylist: Jessie YuChen

Savoy Cabbage

Adjacent in appearance to green cabbage, dark green Savoy cabbage is differentiated by softer leaves with a frilly look. It’s also looser than ultra-dense green and purple cabbages, which makes it a nice substitute for recipes that call for Napa cabbage. Savoy cabbage was originally cultivated in the Alps, so France, Switzerland, and Italy can all lay culinary claim to this versatile cabbage. 

It’s less satisfyingly crunchy than the hardier cabbage varieties, but does well when cooked. Savoy cabbage can stand up to your usual braises and low-and-slow varieties, but owing to its softer texture, it works in quick-cooking preparations, like sautéeing or stir-frying.

In Season: summer through mid-fall

Best For: soups, pastas, fermenting, sautéeing, stir-frying

Savoy Cabbage Recipe Ideas:

Credit: Photo: Linda Xiao; Food Stylist: Jessie YuChen

Brussels Sprouts

I spoke with Tim Biello, the owner and founder at Featherbed Lane Farm, a draft-powered CSA farm outside of Saratoga Springs, New York who admits that the case for classifying Brussels sprouts (and kale) as cabbage is a touch controversial. But they’re so closely related to “real” cabbages, there’s ample evidence to give them at minimum an honorary title. Brussels sprouts were originally cultivated in Brussels — which is why the name of the vegetable is always capitalized. Unlike traditional cabbages, which grow directly from the ground, Brussels sprouts grow on thick, woody stalks. 

Like all cabbages, Brussels sprouts have a core in the bottom center. Unlike other cabbages, this core is edible except in the case of very large Brussels sprouts (it has a woody texture when grown too big).

Brussels sprouts have tightly-packed heads that can range in the size of a quarter to a small lemon. Of course, they’re tasty when satuéed or roasted with bacon, but these easily-sourced brassicas also shine in raw preparations (letting them marinate in a dressing for a few hours before serving will take away some of the “bite.”)

In Season: late fall

Best For: roasting and sautéeing, deep-fried, shaving for a marinated salad

Brussels Sprouts Recipe Ideas:

Credit: Photo: Linda Xiao; Food Stylist: Jessie YuChen

Kale (Leaf Cabbage)

Ever heard of kale? Kale is sometimes known as “leaf cabbage,” which will get the hackles up of cabbage purists. But since it shares so many qualities — winter hardiness top among them — I’m calling an audible. 

There are many different varieties of kale, but most common are lacinato kale (identified by its slender dark green, dimpled leaves) and curly leaf kale (it has wider leaves with ruffled edges). They’re all interchangeable in recipes, although young, or “baby” varieties of kale have a more tender texture that’s ideal for salads without all the massaging and marinating. 

Kale tends to be a little more versatile than other cabbages, as it also can behave like a  hardy lettuce. Before eating kale, the thick inner rib should be removed. It’s worth noting, too, that although kale will keep longer in the fridge than mesclun lettuce, it doesn’t have as good storage capacities as true cabbage.

In Season: summer to early winter

Best For: marinated salads, stews, soups, pestos, pastas, smoothies

Kale Recipe Ideas:

Credit: Photo: Linda Xiao; Food Stylist: Jessie YuChen

Bok Choy

Bok choy is a Chinese cabbage sometimes spelled pak choi. The tops of its leaves are pale to dark green and tender, while the lower stem is crunchy, with a juicy, celery-like texture. Baby bok choy can be cooked whole — it is a great addition to stir-fries — while mature bok choy is best prepared by shredding or slicing.

Bok choy has a sweeter flavor than the denser cabbages, making it a natural choice for preparations where the veggies are meant to shine. It’s grown in summer (or year-round in temperate climates). Like kale, it’s most subtle and mild when it’s harvested young.

In Season: summer to early fall

Best For: stir-fries, braising

Bok Choy Recipe Ideas:

How to Store Cabbage

Cabbage should be stored whole in a roomy plastic bag or reusable produce bag in the refrigerator. To make your cabbage last for a long time, don’t wash it until you’re ready to eat it. Any lingering moisture on the leaves will result in faster spoilage, prompting it to become mushy. The same rule applies for cutting it: Don’t slice or shred cabbage until you want to cook or prepare it. 

Stored properly, unwashed cabbage heads will last for months in the refrigerator. Once cut, transfer any unused portions into a sealable bag and store in the crisper for two weeks (although I’ll anecdotally add here that the pre-cut stuff regularly keeps for upwards of three weeks in my kitchen).