What summertime outdoor entertaining situation is complete without a big bowl of coleslaw? If you’re making burgers and dogs, you better be making a hearty bowl of slaw to enjoy alongside. This classic side is as simple as it gets — a heaping bowl of shredded cabbage tossed in a mayo-based dressing.
That said, there’s plenty of room for mixing up the mix-ins and tweaking the dressing, which led me to wonder what makes a truly outstanding coleslaw. To sort that out once and for all, I did what any curious, summer-loving individual would do and gathered four popular recipes and tried them all out, side by side. Is there a perfect coleslaw dressing? What’s the ideal ratio of veg to dressing? Are there any unexpected ingredients that I haven’t been adding that I should be adding? These are all the pressing questions that I set out to answer. Here’s how it all went down.
Meet Our Coleslaw Contenders
When it came time to browse around for some popular recipes to include, I searched high and low for coleslaw recipes that felt true to a classic slaw, yet offered something a bit unexpected. Because most coleslaw recipes follow the same method of chopping and slicing all your vegetables, then whipping up a mayo-based dressing, and finally dressing prepped vegetables with said dressing, there wasn’t a ton of variation in the method. Ultimately, I picked four recipes that felt true to form, but offered some sort of unique perspective that I was excited to try out.
Something told me that Ina would have a hot take on coleslaw, and I’m pleased to report that I was correct. The queen of sophisticated upgrades uses two kinds of mustard plus apple cider vinegar in her dressing, adds some fresh parsley for an herbal hit, and — here’s the kicker — she adds 1 1/2 cups blue cheese. That’s not a garnish. That’s a commitment. I personally love blue cheese, so I was curious to see how it all played out.
Sunny Anderson‘s slaw caught my eye because she includes apples and golden raisins in the mix and her dressing incorporated a healthy amount of sour cream. I’m all in when it comes to incorporating sweet ingredients in savory dishes and am always curious about an unexpected dressing addition, so I was more than excited to give this one a whirl.
Sometimes what a classic dish needs is a fresh perspective, and that’s just what Nigella Lawson‘s recipe seemed like to me. Her New Orleans Coleslaw had a few ingredients — buttermilk, pecans, scallions, and maple syrup — that piqued my culinary curiosity and she doesn’t call for chilling the slaw. The recipe title, with its nod to the Southern city, only added to the intrigue. This one was a must-make.
Damn Delicious‘ recipe dares to ask, “What if we called for less mayo?” The coleslaw isn’t marketed as such, but with a brief glance at the measurements I noticed that the recipe called for 2 tablespoons of mayo as opposed to 1 to 2 cups of mayo in the other three recipes. That’s a pretty substantial difference. There were also apple matchsticks, poppyseeds, and a mix of green and purple cabbage here. Would any (or all) of that add up to my ideal coleslaw?
How I Tested the Coleslaw Recipes
All of the ingredients for my coleslaw tests were purchased on the same day from the same local grocery store. (I had to go to a different store to find Savoy cabbage for Sunny Anderson’s slaw.) I prepared all of the coleslaws in one sitting. All of the recipes except for Nigella’s called for covering and chilling the slaw for at least an hour before serving. I compared the other three chilled slaws against the non-chilled Nigella slaw to determine my favorite.
After trying all four salads, I will admit that there wasn’t an obvious winner and there also weren’t any duds. Tough job, I know. Ultimately, each slaw had qualities that I really enjoyed while also possessing small flaws that I would tweak if I made the slaw again. No slaw was perfect, and I think that your ideal coleslaw might be different than the next person’s. After some thought-provoking deliberation, I was able to land on my favorite, but I’d argue that among these four, there’s something for everyone.
1. The Best for Funky-Cheese Lovers: Ina Garten
I can’t think of an ingredient more polarizing than blue cheese. You love it or you hate it. Lucky for me and my refined taste buds, I love it, so when I saw that Ina was putting blue cheese in her slaw, I knew that I had to give it a go. You probably could have guessed this, but Ina did not lead us funky-cheese lovers astray — I really enjoyed this coleslaw.
That said, serving a slaw full of a pungent roquefort to a crowd gives me hives just thinking about it. As much as I love me some crumbly blue cheese, I am not going to act like this ingredient is serving “crowd-please” energy, you know? Coleslaw is not a recipe for 1, it’s for a crowd, so I don’t know if I’d have the confidence to make this for a summertime cookout. The only situation that I would ever choose this salad is if I was 100% confident that all of my guests were devoted blue-cheese lovers, and when does that ever happen, you know?
Blue cheese hesitation aside, there was plenty to love about this slaw. I enjoyed the mix of red and green cabbage, and the dressing packed a ton of acidic, mustardy flavor, which I really enjoyed. The recipe does make a good amount of extra dressing, so make sure you go easy on the dressing and only add as much as you need to coat the cabbage.
2. The Best for Salty-Sweet Lovers: Sunny Anderson
As expected, the subtle sweet notes did not disappoint and, if anything, I could’ve done with more golden raisins and grated apple.
This slaw definitely fell on the creamier side of the 4 recipes. I really enjoyed the sour cream in the dressing because it provided a ton of tangy, rich flavor. Frankly, I would’ve preferred a little more sour cream and a little less mayo. This coleslaw also specifies savoy cabbage, whereas all the others use red and green cabbage. I didn’t feel like the savoy provided anything groundbreaking, but I certainly didn’t mind it. If you aren’t able to track down savoy cabbage in your local grocery store, I think it’d be fine to substitute green or Napa cabbage.
My least favorite thing about this slaw was probably its appearance. Of course, it’s more important how food tastes than how it looks, but for a dish that’s primary purpose is for summer entertaining, it should be colorful and beautiful. This one was visually one-note compared to the other slaws.
3. The Best for Folks Who Don’t Love Mayo: Damn Delicious
As a mayo fan, I was prepared to be disappointed by this one, but to my surprise, I really loved it. The dressing was much sharper and more acid-forward than all the others, which made for a tasty slaw. Because there was so much less mayonnaise, the vegetables didn’t soften as substantially as they did in the other slaws, and I quite enjoyed the crispy, refreshing cabbage. If you are serving this to a crowd that doesn’t love mayo-based salads (well, maybe it’s time to rethink the people who you are spending time with … just kidding), this slaw would be a great compromise.
And then there were the apples and poppy seeds. I don’t think poppy seeds have a strong flavor, but I thought they looked really appetizing. I was a definitely a big fan of the apple matchsticks — in fact, I think you got a much better sweet and acidic apple flavor from the matchsticks as opposed to the grated apple that appears in some of the other slaws. This slaw had the best crunch and acidity of the bunch, and I have plans to make it again.
4. The Delicious, Delightful, Surprising Slaw: Nigella Lawson
Even though there was something to love about each slaw, when all the points were tallied and final, I have to give the crown to Nigella’s coleslaw. The toasted pecans and maple syrup gave the whole dish a rich, buttery texture and flavor that I couldn’t resist. Not to mention, the tangy buttermilk dressing was packed with acidity and creaminess.
This was also the only slaw that included any sort of allium (a member of the onion family), and I found the sliced scallions in the slaw to be subtle yet interesting. One thing that I really appreciated about this recipe was that the ingredients were given weighted measurements. This may seem like a trivial note, but this was the only slaw that I didn’t find myself tinkering with the amount of mayonnaise or vinegar in order to balance out the creaminess and acidity.
Heads of cabbage come in all shapes and sizes, so it’s much easier to call for a weight of shredded cabbage as opposed to “1 whole cabbage,” you feel me? Of course, if you’re comfortable seasoning your slaw to taste and adjusting ingredients as needed, this isn’t a crucial detail. That said, there’s nothing like a recipe that is properly balanced without having to fuss around with it.
The greatest conclusion from this coleslaw adventure is that I always want to have pecans, maple syrup, and buttermilk in my coleslaw. To me, it yielded the tastiest, most interesting, and decidedly crowd-pleasing slaw of the bunch. Can’t argue with that, can you?