Vibrant in color, pickled red cabbage (col lombarda encurtida) is a delicious, healthy garnish for salads, soups, and sandwiches. It adds a crunchy, sweet tanginess; the perfect punch of flavor to make your dishes stand out.
Why make it?
Red cabbage is a delicious condiment that has been used in many cultures since ancient times. In Spain, it’s called col morada (purple cabbage), col roja (red cabbage), or col lombarda (lombard cabbage). The first names come from its reddish-purple leaves. The last one comes from the region where it originated: Lombardy.
Pickling is an old method of preserving food involving fermenting vegetables or fruits in brine or vinegar. It’s a great way to preserve food and add a new flavor to dishes when used as a condiment. Here in Spain, it is most commonly added to salads, but can also be eaten on its own or in a variety of dishes.
Red cabbage packs high levels of antioxidants and vitamin C. When pickled, its bright color and delicious sweet and sour flavor really help your dishes stand out.
If you like semi-sweet dill pickles, this may just become your new favorite condiment. (That said, even my husband, with an aversion towards pickles and vinegar, loves the tangy flavor of this delicious recipe!)
When choosing the cabbage, ideally, choose vibrant, fresh heads with crisp leaves. Avoid wilted or soft cabbage. If choosing halved cabbages, look for the ones with the most purple and least amount of fibrous white parts.
For the vinegar, you can use pretty much any vinegar that you have on hand. White vinegar works well, as does apple cider vinegar. For my latest batch, I used a mixture of homemade unfiltered apple cider vinegar and kombucha vinegar (kombucha left until it went quite sour). Sweet, mild vinegars such as rice vinegar or homemade ginger vinegar give a milder flavored pickle. Wine vinegar can also be used.
To flavor the vinegar, you can optionally add herbs and spices. I usually add mustard seeds, allspice berries, bay leaves, and black peppercorns. You can also try adding other flavors like fennel seeds, coriander seeds, dill, turmeric, garlic cloves, cinnamon sticks, whole cloves, and/or dried chiles. (Dried chiles and pepper flakes would make a spicy condiment.) Fresh ginger would also be delicious.
I bought a supermarket brand made with cloves and didn’t personally like it that much. I prefer simpler flavors so that the sweet tanginess stands out. Experiment to find which combination of spices you prefer!
For sweetness, you can use sugar, honey, maple syrup, or whatever sweetener you prefer. It’s fine to use white sugar, brown sugar, or both. I made my last batch with honey and it was delicious. You can even try a low-carb sugar substitute, such as stevia, for a lower-calorie condiment.
To keep the cabbage crunchy, I first salt the cabbage to help draw out the moisture from it. I generally use sea salt, but, again, use whatever you have available.
To begin, wash the head of cabbage thoroughly under cold running water. Remove any ugly outer leaves. Cut out the stem and remove any overly hard, fibrous areas. Slice the head into quarters to make it easier to slice the cabbage crosswise into thin strips. Use a sharp knife or mandolin slicer to cut the cabbage into strips that are as thin as possible.
Add the shredded cabbage to a large bowl, layering the slices with a bit of salt as you add them. If possible, add a weight to press down on the cabbage. This will help draw the liquid out from the cabbage. Cover the bowl and let sit at room temperature for around 2 hours.
After 2 hours, drain off the salty liquid that was released by the cabbage. Then rinse the cabbage well of any salt. Soak the rinsed cabbage in fresh water, changing the water every 20 minutes or so, until you find that the cabbage no longer tastes overly salty. (I generally taste the larger, overly fibrous pieces that I don’t want to add to my finished pickle.)
While the cabbage is soaking in water, you can begin to prepare the vinegar. In a medium saucepan, heat the vinegar over high heat until it starts to boil. Turn down the heat to medium-low and simmer it with the spices and sugar for 10–15 minutes. (If using honey or other sweeteners, you can add them after the simmering process.) The vinegar should become slightly thicker and less acidic. Add more vinegar, if necessary, to achieve the desired level of acidity. Once the vinegar has cooled somewhat, pour it through a fine-mesh strainer to strain out the spices and sugars. Discard the solids.
When the cabbage is no longer overly salty, strain out the excess water, and place the cabbage in a clean glass container. (I like to use glass jars such as mason jars.) Pour the infused vinegar solution over the cabbage until it is completely covered. (Add additional vinegar, if necessary.) Seal the jar tightly and store it in a cool, dark spot. Over the next hours, the cabbage and its pickling solution will become a beautiful shade of bright fuschia pink!
Why the pink color?
Red cabbage, in its fresh form, is a beautiful shade of purple. So why is pickled red cabbage such a beautiful, vibrant shade of pink?
The answer lies in the pH. Red cabbage has an interesting property of changing in color dependent upon the pH of its environment. I took advantage of its fun properties when I made a homemade color-changing food coloring several years ago.
When in a more neutral environment, the cabbage is a pretty shade of purple. My hard water, on the alkaline side, changes the color to a light baby blue. (I found that out when trying to rinse out the bowl of cabbage liquid.) If you add something even more alkaline, like baking soda, you end up with a greener shade of turquoise.
Vinegar, on the other hand, is acidic. It turns the cabbage a rich shade of pink. That’s why the cabbage and its tinted vinegar solution become such a beautiful color. Its bright color looks a lot like cooked beets, which is why many people here think the salad topping is beets rather than pickled red cabbage!
Food science magic
You can test out its color-changing properties by saving some of the liquid released by the red cabbage when salted. (You can also save the soaking water used to remove the excess salt.)
Kids especially love doing these sorts of impromptu science experiments.
Try dividing the liquid into 3 small white bowls. Add some vinegar to one, some baking soda to another, and leave the other one plain. You should end up with a purple bowl, a pink bowl, and a blue bowl.
My son loved this experiment and kept playing with the solution, adding more vinegar and baking soda to the various bowls to try to get them to change back and forth. Eventually, the bowls lost most of their color, becoming grayer instead. That, in itself, was an interesting discovery. I’d love to hear the reasoning behind it if anybody knows!
Once your pickled red cabbage is ready, you can serve it right away. Or, you can let it sit for a day or two before serving it.
Pickled cabbage is delicious on its own, but it’s also great on top of grilled meats and sausages, roasted vegetables, and soups. It’s very versatile and adds color and a burst of flavors to a variety of dishes. Here in Spain, it’s often served on mixed salads at restaurants. Try adding the cabbage to sandwiches or use it as a garnish to decorate charcuterie boards or other dishes. It would also be a beautiful addition to noodle bowls or grain bowls.
Once your pickled cabbage is done, refrigerate it immediately. It will keep well for about 2 weeks, maybe longer, depending on how it was made. The shelf life will depend a lot on the remaining acidity of the vinegar, how much salt remains, and how much sugar (or what sweetener) was added.
In general, a saltier, more acidic pickle with more sugar will keep longer than one with milder flavors. Toss your batch if you find any mold growing on top or any unusual changes in flavor, scent, or texture. (They could be a sign of bacterial growth.)
You can try extending the shelf life by fermenting it with a bit of whey as I did when making fermented ketchup.
Watch how simple it is to make this crunchy condiment!
Pickled Red Cabbage: Col Lombarda Encurtida
- ½ red cabbage
- ½ cup salt
For seasoned vinegar
- 2 cups vinegar (have more on hand, just in case)
- 1 teaspoon mustard seeds
- 1 teaspoon allspice berries
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 tablespoon honey (or other sweetener, to taste)
Salt the cabbage
- Rinse and dry the red cabbage and remove any ugly outer leaves.
- Slice the red cabbage as thinly as possible.
- Layer the red cabbage in a bowl with salt. Use your hands to mix the cabbage and salt to make sure it is all completely coated. If possible, place a weight on the salted cabbage to help draw out as much moisture as possible.
- Leave the salted cabbage in cool place, undisturbed, for around 2 hours.
- After 2 hours, drain off the released liquid. You can save this brine for adding back salt later, if needed.
Desalt the cabbage
- Rinse the salt off the cabbage and soak it in fresh water. After around 20 minutes, strain off the water and add more clean, fresh water.
- Continue soaking the cabbage and changing the water until the cabbage no longer tastes salty. (It may have a bit of salt, but shouldn't be overwhelmingly salty.)
Prepare the vinegar
- While you are desalting the cabbage, you can begin to prepare the vinegar. Bring the vinegar to a mild boil, and then lower the heat and simmer the vinegar with the spices for several minutes.