Pickled red cabbage: don’t use this recipe


It seems a bit early in the day to start apologising for the absence of posts recently, so I’m not even going to bother!  (Insert raspberry here.)  I’d just like to say that this post has been in my ‘Drafts’ folder for ages.  I wasn’t sure about posting it.  Do I want to share the bad stuff, the stuff that doesn’t work out?  Thinking about it though, the answer is actually yes – yes I do.  It wouldn’t be very ‘me’ if every post was a success story.

So onto the business of my failed pickled red cabbage.  Recently at work, I was asked to make this.  ‘Is there a recipe, please?’ I asked of the last person to make it.

‘To be honest, I just threw it together,’ was the response.

Really helpful.  I have these kinds of conversations all the time though; that’s the way a lot of chefs seem to work.  It is frustrating: when you don’t have any prior experience with something, the only option seems to be to Google it.  This can hardly be the way to find the best recipe, or to produce something different, and better, from what your customers (or indeed, your competitors) might make themselves.  I can imagine somebody looking at the menu and thinking ‘ooh, pickled red cabbage!  Let’s see how their’s compares to mine!’  They would be disappointed to find that it tastes exactly the same, since we both used the first recipe that came up on Google – or at least, the first with a 5-star rating.

I can see that experience has to start somewhere though, and I appreciate the opportunity to try something new.  I just wish there was a chance to practice a little before I have to make it for real – for real customers.

In this case, I was confused before I started by the memory of someone simmering the cabbage in the pickling solution.  None of the recipes I found online suggested this, so I can only assume that it was a red herring (rather than a red cabbage).

The basic process seems to be, first, to salt the cabbage and leave it for while – anything from a couple of hours to overnight – presumably to draw out the moisture and stop it diluting the taste.  You then wash off the salt and prepare a pickling solution with vinegar, red wine, sugar, and spices.  Boil it up, reduce it down a little, leave to infuse.  Then mix cabbage and pickling solution together and leave to ‘marinate’.

It was my understanding that the longer you left it the better – although you could eat it more or less straight away.  However, when I tried it about an hour or so later, it was incredibly salty!  I assumed I had not rinsed it thoroughly enough and decided – not very hopefully, just as a last resort – to leave it soaking, to see if some more of the salt would wash off in the vinegar.  I kept going back every now and then to give it a stir and, to my surprise, it did actually improve.  Its not salty at all now – indeed, I find it rather too sweet.

However, that’s not surprising given that there is an awful lot of sugar in the recipe(!)  I used the following:

1 head red cabbage (just over 1kg), 1 litre white wine vinegar, 400ml red wine, 800g sugar, 4tsp peppercorns, 1 cinnamon stick, 1tsp juniper berries.

(And obviously salt.  I’m not sure of the exact amount, but it was definitely generous.)

That isn’t a typo by the way – that is a massive 800 grams of sugar!

Looking back at the recipes I read before I started, there’s the BBC Good Food recipe, which uses lots of salt and an exceptionally large amount of sugar.  This is where I got my 800g from.  Lots of people in the comments of that recipe mention how sweet it is, but unfortunately I didn’t have time to read these before I started.  There’s the GoodtoKnow recipe, which uses just a few tablespoons of each (but which requires marinating for at least 2 weeks before using).  Then there’s Josh Eggleton for Great British Chefs, whose use of sugar falls somewhere in the lower-middle region (the groin region, if you will), and whose recipe requires an entire month of marinating.  If I tried again (when I try again), I’d definitely reduce the sugar – by anything from half to three quarters.  And I’d use more spices.

So, there we have it: a failure – but at least I learnt something from it.  Hopefully my next post will be all about some terrific baking success I’ve had.  Expect a long silence!


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