Why Does My Cabbage Taste Bitter?

Dear Home-Ec 101,

I’ve cooked cabbage a few times. I sautee some garlic in olive oil and add the cabbage in. I add a little water with a little chicken cube for seasoning. It has always tasted good. But why is is for a couple of times, I’ve done the same thing, my cabbage tasted so bitter that I couldn’t eat it at all.

What went wrong? Is the cabbage not ready yet to be cooked? Still too young?

I didn’t overcook it. Actually, it took awhile before it softened.

Please advise.

Signed,
Curious about Cruciferous

Heather says:

The bitterness in cabbage and other cruciferous vegetables is due to organic compounds known as  glucosinolates. These compounds contain sulfur, which has a distinctive odor and flavor. I remember as a child the well water at girl scout camp was high in sulfur and we all called it the rotten egg water. It funked up the kool-aid and the sweet tea. Even taking a shower was rather unpleasant. (Good thing everything else we did made up for the funky water)

If you look at the structure of the molecule to the right, you’ll see an R hanging off the bottom, that R represents a side group or chain that varies depending on the exact compound.  Cruciferous plants are notorious for containing these molecules and the more bitter the plant, the glucosinolates they contain.

What can you do to reduce the impact of the bitter flavor of cabbage?

You can use three tactics to reduce the perceived bitterness in your cabbage and other cruciferous vegetables:

  1. Pick the cabbage after a frost. Most cruciferous plants grow best in cooler weather and are known for being frost tolerant. In my area, we tend to not eat collard greens until after the first frost, the cold weather triggers the creation of sugars in the plant that reduce the bitterness.
  2. Cook the cabbage with sugar. Am I suggesting you dump sugar in your cabbage willy-nilly? Not at all. Taste the cabbage before cooking and if you notice a sharp or bitter taste either cook it with other ingredients that are sweet: yellow onions, red or orange bell peppers, shredded carrots, or apples or add a small amount of sugar to the cooking liquid and taste before serving. This is why many coleslaws contain a bit of sugar.
  3. Don’t omit salt. Salt reduces the perception of bitter and a small pinch of salt can do wonders for bitter greens.

I hear some of you saying, but I have high blood pressure and I’m on a low salt diet. Then by all means, use the first two tactics. Just keep in mind that if you have a “Standard American Diet” the bulk of your sodium consumption probably comes from sources other than your own cooking. Processed foods contain insane amounts of sodium. Putting away the salt shaker, but chowing down on tv dinners isn’t what your doctor or nutritionist meant.

Cabbage recipes on Home-Ec101:

Sauteed Cabbage

Vegetable Stuffed Cabbage Rolls

Coleslaw

Short Ribs Braised in Beer

Ground Beef and Cabbage Skillet Bobbie’s version

Ground Beef and Cabbage Skillet Heather’s version

Simple Autumn Skillet

Submit your questions to helpme@home-ec101.com.

 

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Comments

  1. Carol Sherman says:

    I read the suggestions about how to subdue the bitter taste in red cabbage. The suggestions are for cooked red cabbage. I made cole slaw and put red cabbage in it. It is extremely bitter. Any ideas on how to salvage the slaw by adding something to curtail the bitter taste?
    Thanks,
    Carol
    Fort Myers, Fl.