Growing up, I assumed that coleslaw was some sort of joke. Why would I ever want that sorry little paper cup of tough, bland cabbage? You know, the kind that comes as a paltry afterthought with your towering sandwich at the local Greek diner. I always figured it was just a steady, meticulous way to rid the world of a vegetable no one really wanted, one sandwich at a time.
And that was pretty much my view for over a decade, right up until I found the Gospel of Barbecue. With the great tradition of smoked meats, I was presented with coleslaw alongside pulled pork, ribs, and brisket, served in portions that made it seem like something you'd actually want to eat—and best of all, it was!
Good coleslaw provides a light and fresh contrast to heavy, barbecued meats, with a tang that manages to cut through (at least some) of the deliciously greasy fat. So I stopped shying away from slaw and started to embrace it, getting to know a range of variations that have turned me from an uncompromising hater to a full-on lover of all things cabbage salad.
Over the years, I've experimented with making slaw at home, but I never really thought I was killing it until Kenji gave coleslaw the Food-Lab treatment last summer. The trick is to purge your slaw vegetables of all excess moisture, leaving behind a well-seasoned mix that's nice and tender with just the right amount of crunch. The process itself requires simply mixing the shredded vegetables with sugar and salt for about five minutes before giving it a good rinse and a ride in the salad spinner.
Now that I've got that perfect traditional slaw down pat, I've shifted my efforts to varying the dressing flavors.
This was my gateway slaw, the first I ever remember really loving. We met at the second Big Apple Block Party in New York back in 2004 and, while I can't remember exactly who was slinging the vinegar slaw that year, a very close approximation has since showed up in Mike and Amy Mill's book, Peace, Love, and Barbecue.
The dressing is simply a one-to-one mix of cider vinegar and sugar with a little bit of garlic, oil, and celery seeds, which add a light celery flavor and bit of texture. It may be simple, but it works so darn well; those tangy, sweet flavors pair harmoniously with the more complex rubs and seasonings found in most barbecue. Because of its bright, fresh character, I also love it as a sandwich component.
Lexington-Style Red Slaw
When I first heard the term "red slaw," I thought it meant coleslaw made with red cabbage, but in the Lexington area of North Carolina, that's not the case. "Red" refers to the color of the dressing, which uses ketchup in place of the standard mayo.
Mimicking the barbecue sauce also common in that region, Lexington-style red slaw relies heavily on vinegar, with ketchup and sugar used to take a bit of the edge off, along with pepper and hot sauce to add a little heat. It's a combo that's great alongside a pile of smoky chopped hog, with the slaw adding a complementary sweetness, tang, and spice.
Of all the slaws here, this mustard variation is my absolute favorite. I tinkered with the recipe on and off for years before finding the right balance between creamy, sweet, and tangy, with a mellow mustard bite.
My dressing is made of equal amounts of mayo, yellow mustard, vinegar, and sugar. A bit of hot sauce and some celery seeds deepen the flavor without over-complicating things. I love the balanced and depth of flavor of this universal crowd-pleaser.
Tangy Apple Slaw
To add both tartness and fruitiness to this coleslaw, I shred Granny Smith apples into my cabbage and carrots. When settling on an appropriate dressing to pair with this version, I started with sour cream, which makes a more rich and complex base than mayonnaise alone. To keep it from overpowering the other components, I cut it with a touch of mayo, along with vinegar, sugar, honey, black pepper, and mustard powder. I love the texture of celery seeds, but didn't think they'd enhance the flavor profile, so I decided to go with more neutral poppy seeds here. The final slaw is tangy and tart, adding a new dimension to the classic with the bright fruitiness of the apple.
Tex-Mex and barbecue are my two favorite cuisines. Since I've managed to cover a pretty decent range of barbecue-style coleslaws, I figured I'd try out a recipe that has a little something in common with my other great love.
As with the previous recipe, sour cream seemed like the place to start. But this time, I threw in some buttermilk with the mayo. I also scaled back on the vinegar in favor of bright, tart lime juice and added in some supporting Tex-Mex flavors—namely grassy cilantro, earthy cumin, and hot jalapeño. This is the kind of slaw that would be right at home in a fajita.