The ability of this hearty plant—believed to have been brought from Asia Minor to Europe around 600 BC—to withstand cold climates favored the spread of its cultivation across northern Europe. Cabbage (from the French caboche, a colloquial term for “head”) consists of superposed layers of thick leaves that may or may not form a head, that may be smooth or curled, and that vary in color from white to red. Because they are sheltered from direct sunlight, the inner leaves are paler than those on the outside.
A cabbage head usually ranges in weight from 2-7 lb. and has a diameter of 4-8 in. There are roughly 400 varieties of cabbage that belong to the large Cruciferae family. Although they all share certain structural characteristics, they vary greatly in shape, type, and color. The types include inflorescent (broccoli, cauliflower), stem (kohlrabi, kale, collards, and Chinese cabbage), and smooth-leaf and curled-leaf (savoy cabbage, green, red, and white cabbage.)
White: This cabbage is the more familiar, smooth-skinned variety. It stores exceptionally well and is best reserved for sauerkraut or coleslaw.
Red: This smaller, ball-headed summer cabbage with burgundy-red, compact leaves has a sweeter flavor than the green domestic. It is harvested around September for immediate eating, or left in the ground until November for winter use. It’s a favorite for adding color to coleslaw, pickling, or sweet-and-sour dishes.
Savoy: Savoy has a loose, full head of crinkled leaves varying from dark to pale green. They are harvested from September through March. This mellow-flavored cabbage is superior in flavor and texture to the white variety. It is the one to choose when stuffing a whole cabbage, as the leaves hold their shape better than other varieties.
Napa: Although a member of this group, Napa or Chinese is not considered a true cabbage. There are short- and long-headed types, the most familiar of which are the long michihli and pe-tsai varieties. The white stalks are broad and support pale- to mid-green leaves that may be curly or relatively smooth. They are mildly sweet and crunchy, with some varieties possessing a delicate celery flavor. It is good eaten raw, sautéed, or stir-fried.
Select cabbage that is heavy, compact, and free of blemishes or cracks. Avoid bruising or loosening the leaves which should be crisp, and well-colored. For best quality, the whole head should be stored untrimmed with wrapper leaves intact. Store in a ventilated place, away from ethylene-producing fruits. Cabbage may be tightly wrapped and refrigerated for about a week. Cut heads do not store well.