Pickled red cabbage might not be to everyone’s taste, but the cheap, washed-out shop bought varieties have done nothing good for the reputation of this traditional British pickle. When it comes to pickles I am not fussy, however, really good quality, homemade pickled red cabbage is a different animal altogether.
The pleasure of pickles lies in the sharp contrast they provide to very rich or fatty foods, as well as a crunchy texture. And when paired with the right foods they are wonderful. The dish I have in mind for this pickled red cabbage is a steak pie (better with the kidneys), traditionally eaten in Scotland on Hogmanay or on New Year’s Day.
Pickled red cabbage comes into its own with dishes like steak pie, Lancashire hotpot and shepherd’s pie. The crunchy sweet and sour cabbage cuts through the richness and is the perfect accompaniment. It can make what is, yes, a comforting but also quite plain dish, much more interesting. Apart from anything else red cabbage makes such a beautiful looking pickle, a really deep inky pink.
For pickled red cabbage I make the pickling liquor slightly sweeter than I normally would. The amount of sugar doesn’t make it taste sweet; but compensates for the lack of inherent sweetness that red cabbage, unlike a vegetable such as carrots, does not have. The recipe makes enough to fill three 1lb jars. I would leave the pickle for 2 – 3 weeks before you eat it. In that time the flavour of the vinegar becomes more mellow and the cabbage loses its raw cabbagey flavour. In saying that, there is not much that is mellow about pickles.
Pickled Red Cabbage
1kg red cabbage (this is the equivalent of half a large red cabbage)
1 clove garlic, peeled and bashed
2 bay leaves
1 tsp black peppercorns
1 tsp coriander seed
1 small blade of mace
3 juniper berries, bashed
600ml white wine vinegar
30g sea salt
90g castor sugar
Prepare the cabbage by removing any damaged outside leaves, cut it in half, remove the core and slice it very thinly. Put the cabbage in a large bowl with the salt – toss and leave for 2 hours. Turn the cabbage over occasionally to make sure it is covered in the salt/brine.
Meanwhile put the vinegar, sugar, garlic, spices and bay leaves in a pot to heat up. Bring to the boil, making sure the sugar has dissolved, and simmer for 2 minutes. Then leave to cool completely. When the vinegar has cooled completely strain the vinegar through a sieve to remove the spices. Pack the cabbage into sterilised jars, leaving behind the excess liquid. Pour the vinegar over the cabbage.
Poke a metal spoon down into the jar to dislodge air bubbles, which you will see rising to the surface. You can also tap the jar on the work surface to help with this. Screw the lid on tight to seal it. I keep pickles in the refrigerator which helps to keep them crisp, but this isn’t necessary. Eat within six months when they are at their best.