What is Coleslaw?

Diane Goettel
Diane Goettel

Coleslaw, also written “cole slaw,” has become a part of traditional American cooking. In the United States, especially in the South, it is an important side dish, and a staple at picnics, barbecues, and even on some fast food chain menus. Many restaurants that specialize in sandwiches offer coleslaw with their sandwiches, and a few actually include it as a condiment within their sandwiches. While, in America, coleslaw often accompanies barbecue, hamburgers, hot dogs, and sandwiches, it is a common side dish to pizza in Sweden.

Apples are sometimes included in coleslaw.
Apples are sometimes included in coleslaw.

Many culinary experts and historians believe that coleslaw has been consumed, in its most basic form, since Roman times. However, modern recipes, which are usually made with mayonnaise, could not have been developed until the 18th century, when that condiment was created. In its simplest form, coleslaw is a white cabbage salad. Other fruits and vegetables such as apples, pineapples, red cabbage, and carrots may also be added to it. Once the vegetables have been shredded, a tart dressing made of oil and vinegar is traditionally added.

Traditional slaws often include a mayonnaise-based dressing.
Traditional slaws often include a mayonnaise-based dressing.

The popularity and long history of coleslaw has yielded many regional forms of the dish. Currently, the most common kind is dressed with mayonnaise instead of vinaigrette. However, in some places, coleslaw is dressed with mustard. There is a variation made with broccoli instead of or in addition to cabbage that is called “broccoli slaw.” No matter what type of dressing is used or what vegetable variation makes up the slaw, the dish is almost always allowed to sit for a few hours or overnight before serving.

Pineapple can be added to coleslaw to give the dish a sweet flavor.
Pineapple can be added to coleslaw to give the dish a sweet flavor.

The word “coleslaw” most likely came from the Dutch word koolsalade, which means “cabbage salad.” However, in Dutch, koolsalada is often shortened to koolsla.

Oil and vinegar are important components of traditional coleslaw.
Oil and vinegar are important components of traditional coleslaw.

There are many cabbage recipes around the world, and coleslaw has culinary cousins all over the globe. Korean kimchi, for example, is a similar kind of cabbage side dish. Furthermore, sauerkraut is a very popular German cabbage side dish. In fact, Reuben sandwiches, which are traditionally dressed with sauerkraut and Russian dressing, are now often served with coleslaw.

Many delis serve their sandwiches with a side of coleslaw.
Many delis serve their sandwiches with a side of coleslaw.
There are many variations on coleslaw, including slaw made with broccoli or other fresh veggies.
There are many variations on coleslaw, including slaw made with broccoli or other fresh veggies.
Shredded cabbage is a primary ingredient in coleslaw.
Shredded cabbage is a primary ingredient in coleslaw.
Coleslaw is a popular side dish at backyard barbecues, particularly in the southern United States.
Coleslaw is a popular side dish at backyard barbecues, particularly in the southern United States.
Diane Goettel
Diane Goettel

In addition to her work as a freelance writer for wiseGEEK, Diane is the executive editor of Black Lawrence Press, an independent publishing company based in upstate New York. She has also edited several anthologies, the e-newsletter Sapling, and The Adirondack Review. Diane has a B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College and an M.A. from Brooklyn College.

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Discussion Comments

Windchime

@yumdelish - I agree that there is a lot of work involved in making some things from scratch, but it doesn't have to be that way. The best recipe for coleslaw I've ever used involves several vegetables. The trick is to buy them ready prepared!

In my opinion the stores sell them, so someone must be buying them. No need to feel guilty, so long as you can afford to pay a little extra for the convenience.

I buy basic coleslaw ingredients such as shredded cabbage, salad greens, bell pepper, green onions and celery all chopped and shredded. (Okay, I'll admit I buy, wash and slice the carrot myself, but that's quite an easy task.) You can play around with the quantities of vegetables, according to taste.

For the dressing I mix a teaspoon of vinegar with a little sugar, salt and pepper. If it's for adults only I add some horseradish.

You can relax and enjoy the praise that comes from sharing good food. It's a win-win situation in my opinion.

MissMuffet

@jabuka - I like your tip about making it up the night before. It's funny the way that so many things taste better when you leave them be a liitle.

I've tried using low fat mayonnaise alternatives before, but found the taste to be a bit lacking. After some experimenting I found it could be disguised by adding a little of something special to the cole slaw dressing. I've used mustard, wasabi and even curry powder and they were all great.

yumdelish

I find most coleslaw recipes have an exhausting list of ingredients. Who had time for all that chopping, shredding and peeling?

I'd love to mix up my picnic contributions, as I'm sure people are tired of me always bringing along potato salad. I guess what I'm really hoping for is the lazy cook's version of this side dish!

jabuka

Making coleslaw in advance, say the night before will incorporate all the ingredients together and make the coleslaw much better tasting.

Using low fat mayonnaise will help cut the calories.

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