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Let’s Make Some Slaw

A bowl of pretty slaw
Photo by Albert Burneko/Illustration by Chris Thompson

Every now and again I like to make some slaw. It’s pretty, for one thing, and I probably care more about that than the average person, who may not be looking all that hard for color and beauty along the paths that lead to their stomach. Slaw is also crunchy and delicious and versatile, and extremely easy to make because it involves no cooking. These attributes also matter, I guess. Sometimes all I need it to be is pretty—look how pretty it is in that photo up there! I love it!—and then it’s kind of nice to eat some and remember that, hey, wait, this stuff also tastes great and is good to put on things that could use a hit of bright, tart crunch.

Now of course “slaw” can mean a bunch of different things. There’s your creamy slaw, naturally, slaw of the “cole” variety, probably the most normal and familiar kind of slaw. And there are creative broccoli slaws and such; maybe there are even, like, rutabaga slaws. Rhubarb slaw! What a world. In any event, for our purposes, yours and mine here today, it’s fine to think of slaw as basically a form of salad, in the sense that its primary ingredients are raw vegetables, and then you dress them with some flavorful stuff. We’re making a vinegar slaw: A slaw with a vinegar-based dressing. You’ll have options for what to do with it, how to customize it to suit your own bizarre tastes and dark preferences. What is not optional at all is whether you will make a slaw, now that you have begun reading this blog. That is the covenant. The only way is forward.

Here are some things that you will need.

You will need some cabbage. Personally I do not care even one tiny little bit whether you go for green cabbage, red cabbage, napa cabbage, or some other type of cabbage—any of these will be fine, except possibly “some other type of cabbage,” depending on how broadly you choose to define the word “cabbage”—but if you are looking to me in reasonable expectation that I will provide some guidance here beyond “some cabbage,” then I recommend red cabbage, for the simple reason that it is prettier than the other kinds and no less tasty. Half of a normal-sized cabbage (so, like, I dunno, six or seven inches in diameter?) will give you plenty of delicious slaw. If your familiar cooking circuits would not have much use for the remaining half a cabbage, this can leave you with the problem of what to do with half of a cabbage other than chucking it in the trash, in which case I recommend simply making twice as much slaw. The worst-case scenario here has you throwing away some slaw, rather than throwing away some cabbage, which comes to roughly the same thing but includes the possibility that you will like your slaw enough to eat an entire cabbage worth of it.

The main thing is, you need some cabbage. You cannot just shred some iceberg lettuce and then stand back and go “Ah, yes, the famous ‘slaw,’ I’ve made some of it.” Or you can, but mustn’t.

You will also need some carrots. A couple of nice big carrots per half a cabbage. Wash and scrub them and snip off their stems and pointy lil’ tips, but don’t bother peeling them. Don’t bother! It’s fine to just not peel them, so long as they are clean! Moving along now!

You absolutely 100-percent can stop there, as far as accumulating vegetal action for your slaw goes. Cabbage and carrots make a fine basis for a slaw. However, I am going to suggest, in a very chill sort of way that makes it clear that I personally have nothing at stake, that you seek out, acquire, and wash and peel a nice baseball-sized jicama, and that you also slice up a couple of hot peppers and chop a fistful of cilantro leaves. My reasoning here is that you might want to replicate the slaw in the photo up at the top of this blog, which had that stuff in it because it was made with tacos in mind. Also that jicama, hot peppers, and cilantro will simply make your slaw taste better. Some other veg action that can be good in a slaw includes thinly sliced onion (yellow or white or red), broccoli (if you have some means of rendering its stalks into thin strips, as we’ll get into below), cauliflower (same), and cherry tomatoes (though it is not Tomato Time yet). For now we are going to proceed as though you’re using cabbage, carrots, jicama, sliced hot peppers, and cilantro, because that’s what’s in the slaw in the photograph.

Then there is the non-vegetable stuff. You will need some vinegar. Not more than a third of a cup of the stuff. Apple cider vinegar is fine for this, and is probably the most convenient choice, since it brings along some welcome sweetness; if you use, by contrast, plain white vinegar (also fine!) and want to bump up the sweetness a little, then you will have to dissolve some sugar or honey in the vinegar, which adds a minor step to the whole deal. By all means, use white vinegar if that is what you have! Just double-check the bottle or jug or whatever to make sure that is not special cleaning vinegar, which might mean that it has added floral scents or whatever, or, like, possibly things that are poisonous in it? One time I grabbed a jug of white vinegar for dying Easter eggs and used it in haste and only then discovered after dropping the lil’ color pills into cups of it that the vinegar was scented like lavender and soap. Kind of weird in combination with the smell of hard-boiled eggs! Anyway don’t do that.

You will need some salt. Probably not more than a modest pinch of it. And you will need some stuff to make it so that this slaw does not just taste like cabbage and carrots and vinegar. If you decided to go the jicama and hot peppers and cilantro route, bravo! Your slaw will have lots of flavor already. In this case, as well as in other cases, such as you not using that stuff but just liking the taste of lime, I recommend getting a lime. If you used white vinegar or any other particularly unsweet type of vinegar, then I recommend keeping a tablespoon of sugar or honey handy. Some other things that can be good for the job of adding flavor to your slaw, if you were with me as far as cabbage, carrot, and vinegar but went no further, are: celery seed, black pepper, a minor amount of brown or yellow or Dijon mustard, hot sauce, hot pepper flakes (if you’re not using fresh hot peppers), dill (or dill pickle brine, even!), minced garlic, and yes, mayonnaise. The dreaded mayonnaise. I like mayonnaise, and I like mayonnaise slaw! But many otherwise terrific people do not, and perhaps you are one of them. We can still agree on slaw. The slaw up there at the top of this blog is not a mayonnaise slaw. Frankly I would think the photo made that quite clear.

Let’s friggin’ make this stuff.

The first thing to do is shred the cabbage and carrots (and jicama if you went that route) somehow. You can use a regular box cheese grater for this, though it might be a pain in the ass. You can also, tediously and with many curse words, use a big sharp knife. Cut the cabbage into halves, lay one half flat-side-down on a cutting board, and slice it crosswise as thinly as you can manage. Cut the carrot into long thin, uh, like, sheets? Sheets of carrot? And then slice each sheet into strips, once again as thinly as you can manage.

If you have access to more specialized equipment, then a mandoline slicer, on its second-thinnest setting, will do a great job on the cabbage: Hack that big ol’ cabbage into quarters, and run them through the mandoline, starting at the end farthest from the stem. If you have a julienne peeler (these kick ass, but unfortunately do not have all that many practical applications), it will do a good job on the carrots and jicama. It’s fine if you do not have these things. Please do not run screaming from your home to spend money on these things purely for the sake of making slaw. That would be ludicrous.

Now, some slaw preparations will ask you to put all that shredded stuff (or at least the cabbage) in a colander, sprinkle a little bit of salt over it, toss it around a bit, and let it sit for a while (over a bowl or the kitchen sink) so that it can discharge some of its water. This will, indeed, cause the cabbage to wilt somewhat without losing too much of its crunch, and is a nice idea and a fine thing to do. If you want to do that, by God, do it. However! My personal recommendation will be for you to make this slaw a day before you intend to use it, and store it in an airtight container overnight, so that you can get some (figuratively, but also perhaps literally) sweet pickling action going, in which case it’s going to spend plenty of time in contact with salt whether it sits in a colander for 40 minutes or not. So you can skip the salt-and-sit step if you like.

Next up, pull out a lil’ jar or bowl or some other type of cup-shaped vessel (what am I, your frickin’ butler? I don’t know what’s in your damn kitchen!), and mix slaw dressing in it. This is the vinegar, for one thing, and you need less of it than you may think, especially if you’re doing the cool and frankly very attractive thing of making this slaw a day ahead. If you used a whole (modest-sized) cabbage and like four carrots and a normal-sized jicama, then you need not more than a third of a cup of vinegar. Combine this with the juice from that lime (if you used one), that modest pinch of salt, your sugar or honey (if you’re using any), and any of the other flavor-type stuff you went for in that paragraph back up there. If you’re using a mason jar, screw a lid on there and shake this stuff up until the salt is dissolved and all the ingredients blended together. If not, just whisk it all together with a wire whisk or fork or the trident from your collectible Aquaman figurine.

When it’s all blended together and there’s no granulated salt (or sugar) left in there, give it a taste. Does it need more of anything? Salt? Sweetness? More heat? More pepper? Some garlic? Did you go overboard with all that shit and now it needs more vinegar somehow? If it does, I feel I shouldn’t have to tell you that you are permitted to just go ahead and add it. I mean it is not like I am standing camouflaged in the corner of the room with a suppressed pistol, ready to put you down if you go off-script here, so far as you can tell. Trust your tastebuds.

Whenever you’ve got the dressing where you want it—not geographically, it probably ought to remain in your kitchen for now, or at least in the same room as the vegetables, but where you want it in terms of its flavor characteristics—it will be time to assemble the slaw. This is pretty straightforward.

Do you have a sealable one-gallon freezer bag? Great. Dump the vegetables into this bag, remembering (if you went this route, like a true champion) the jicama, the sliced hot peppers, and the chopped cilantro. Pour the dressing in there, seal the bag tightly, and toss it around for a while until everything is mixed together and there aren’t big distinct clumps of cabbage and carrot furtively occupying different corners like the boys and the girls at a middle-school dance.

Do you not have a sealable one-gallon freezer bag? That is fine. Do you have a very large bowl? Dump all the solid stuff into the bowl, pour the dressing over it, and toss and toss and toss with a pair of trusty kitchen implements or your hands until everything’s evenly distributed.

Slaw all assembled? Great. Now it’s Decision Time. You can either put this stuff to use right now, in which case it will be delicious—tart, crunchy, sweet, bright, wonderful—or you can seal it into some kind of airtight container (that freezer bag, say, or perhaps a very large sealable jar, or a tupperware or just a big bowl with some plastic wrap over the top) and sock it in the fridge overnight or for up to a couple of nights. Either way is fine! The former way will definitely be more like eating a bunch of shredded raw vegetables with some flavorful liquid poured over them; the latter way will be a lot more like eating something that has come together to be its own thing, slaw. The vinegar and salt will have had time to work magic on the cabbage and carrot in particular; they’re not truly pickled in the, like, anaerobic fermentation sense, but they’re vaguely pickly in a good and welcome way. If you go this route, the vegetables will release more liquid as they, uh, steep (?) in the dressing, so be prepared to serve this stuff with tongs, and to allow some of the liquid to drain off before, say, heaping it onto a sandwich. It won’t lose any flavor, because the flavor has soaked its way into the vegetables. This is what I recommend. And now it will be time to deploy the slaw.

Your slaw is perfectly fine, and delicious, just served as an independent thing, as a side on the plate next to a grilled protein or in a little dish all its own for a snack. It’s quite nice on a hot dog or grilled sausage. It’s terrific as a topping for black bean soup. It is divine on pulled pork, in a bun or not. But its highest calling—particularly if, as I have been unsubtly hinting and cajoling for like 83 straight paragraphs now, you went for the jicama and hot peppers and cilantro—is in a tortilla with some salty meat (this could be that pulled pork!) or fish or some type of bean deal, and some diced raw onion. This is what I recommend; it’s your slaw, and none of my business, though I reserve the right, as part of the covenant, to judge you mercilessly for your cowardice.