A few weeks ago, I wrote about a cabbage salad that I like to make, and it was fun reading the feedback. Most of the reaction was pretty positive, but human nature being what it is, I want to talk about one that was … less so. It wasn’t negative, really, but it was pointedly critical.
The email didn’t take issue with the recipe itself, but the writer said they’d never make the salad because of something that they see in a lot of recipes. It called for a portion of a head of green cabbage and a portion of a head of red cabbage.
The point was succinct: What am I supposed to do with the rest of this cabbage?
Food waste is an issue that’s always at the front of my mind. I’ve written a lot about farmers, and I consider it a moral failing when I have to toss something that went bad on my watch. And food insecurity is a parallel issue that means a lot to me. So the email resonated.
But, honestly, that’s one of the reasons I like to always have some cabbage in my crisper. I’ve found that it has a pretty forgiving margin for error as far as its life span.
Before I get too deep into my personal practices, I poked around to look for an official guideline on how long cut vegetables are expected to last in the refrigerator. I didn’t really find one.
The Food and Drug Administration has a general rule that says leftovers can be safely kept for four days. When it gets into specifics, it doesn’t address fresh produce but mostly meat, dairy and processed foods. Various sites I found suggested that cut cabbage can be stored anywhere from two days to several weeks. Which didn’t feel like an answer, either.
Whole cabbage is a cold storage crop, meaning that any head you buy at the grocery store was probably harvested weeks, if not months, earlier. How fast is it likely to deteriorate once it gets cut?
I talked to Rachael Jackson, founder of EatOrToss.com and a Washington Post contributor on food safety issues, who said she was unaware of any official guidelines. She said that once you cut into any vegetable, it becomes more susceptible to spoilage, and that any number of variables (moisture levels, temperature, how it was cut) can influence the speed at which that happens.
So where does that leave us?
Here’s my strategy: When you bring home a fresh cabbage, use it for any raw preparations first. Wrap it and keep it in the fridge, and if you want to use it raw again, do it within the next few days. After that, use it only in cooked applications to kill anything problematic that might have grown in the interim. (Experts say leftovers should reach a temperature of 165 degrees or come to a rolling boil.) If you find that it is slimy, smelly or soggy — in other words, in any way unappetizing — pitch it (or, ideally, compost it).
When I got that reader email, I had already been thinking of a dish of tomato gravy over grits and was contemplating ways to make it more substantial without the bacon fat that would traditionally be the base. That’s when I saw the leftover cabbage in my crisper and realized I could solve two problems at once by smothering the cabbage in a tomato gravy flavored with a tablespoon of smoked paprika.
Then I added cabbage to my shopping list, because I was out.