Cauliflower 101 – The Basics (UPDATE)

This is an updated and expanded edition of my original post for “Cauliflower 101 – The Basics.” If you have questions about cauliflower, are looking for nutrition information, or tips on how to use cauliflower, along with some recipe ideas, this should help!


Cauliflower 101 – The Basics (UPDATE)

About Cauliflower
Cauliflower is a member of the cruciferous vegetable family, so it is related to cabbage, kale, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and other such vegetables. There are many different types of cauliflower, including those with different colors in orange, green, and purple. In the United States, most cauliflower sold is white with a fairly large, compact head (or “curd”) with undeveloped flower buds that resemble broccoli florets.

The history of cauliflower dates back about 2,000 years. It appears to have originated in the area of modern-day Turkey. Many cultures prefer a loose curd variety of cauliflower (similar to broccoli rabe) over the tight compact head variety often seen in American grocery stores. Cauliflower is more popular in other parts of the world than in America, although popularity is increasing with the new ways of preparing it with the “low carb” trend. China and India produce about 74% of the world’s cauliflower.

Nutrition and Health Benefits
Cauliflower is an excellent source of Vitamin C, Vitamin K, folate, pantothenic acid, and Vitamin B6. It also supplies a lot of choline, fiber, Omega-3 fats, manganese, phosphorus, biotin, Vitamin B1, Vitamin B2, Vitamin B3, potassium, and magnesium. It is a very low-calorie food, with one cup of raw cauliflower having only 25 calories.

Like other members of the cruciferous family, cauliflower is high in antioxidants (specifically glucosinolates) that are known for fighting inflammation and reducing our risk for serious diseases. Also, cauliflower, like its cousin broccoli, contains choline, a compound that protects our nervous system and helps to ward off serious neurodegenerative conditions such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

When eaten at least once a week, cauliflower has been associated with a lower risk of colorectal cancer. Cauliflower has also been shown to lower the risk of prostate cancer. Cauliflower has been included in assorted research projects studying the effects of cruciferous vegetables on the risk of cardiovascular diseases. These studies have repeatedly shown a decreased risk for such diseases. Because cauliflower has been shown to bind to bile acids in the digestive tract, eating cauliflower has been repeatedly associated with improvement in blood cholesterol levels. Furthermore, in a study focusing on the intake of broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts in middle-aged women, the rate of obesity was reduced when subjects increased their servings over time to about three servings per day.

Raw vs Cooked Cauliflower. Both raw and lightly cooked cauliflower have strong nutrient profiles, both in their vitamin and mineral content, as well as their phytonutrients, like sulfur-containing compounds and flavonoids. Despite the fact that cooking does cause some loss of water-soluble nutrients, it also increases the availability of other phytonutrients (specifically carotenoids like lutein and zeaxanthin) that are hard to utilize in the raw vegetable. However, when raw cauliflower is chewed very well, plant cell walls are broken, making these carotenoids more bioavailable. This same effect appears to hold true for cauliflower’s sulfur-containing compounds (such as the glucosinolate sinigrin).

The “take-away” information here is to enjoy your cauliflower lightly cooked or raw. But if you eat it raw, be sure to chew it very well to get the most nutritional benefit from the vegetable.

How to Select Fresh Cauliflower
Select fresh cauliflower with a clean, firm, compact head that is creamy white in color. It should feel heavy for its size. Avoid those that are soft, lightweight, have brown areas or dark spots on the curds. If leaves are attached, they should appear fresh and not wilted. Cauliflower heads with a lot of thick, green leaves still attached will be better protected from damage and will be fresher. The size of cauliflower heads does not indicate quality.

How to Store Fresh Cauliflower
Store uncooked cauliflower in the original plastic packaging or in a paper bag in the refrigerator. Place it stem side down to protect the florets from damage and excessive moisture that may accumulate in the bag. Use it within one week from purchase.

How to Prepare Cauliflower
The simplest way to wash cauliflower is to cut or break it into desired size pieces, then wash it. First, remove the leaves then remove the florets by cutting the central stem out where it meets the floret stalks. The florets can easily be removed and cut down or broken into smaller pieces, if desired.

If you are making cauliflower “steaks” then simply cut through the entire head into the desired width of slices needed for your recipe. The leaves and any undesired stem pieces can easily be removed after slicing.

Submerge the pieces into a bowl of water to rinse away any dirt or tiny insects that may be in there. It would be unusual to find insects in grocery store-purchased cauliflower. However, if the cauliflower was picked from your garden or bought at a farmer’s market, insects may be among the florets. In this case, soak your prepared pieces for 15 minutes in a bowl of salt water or a bowl of water with either lemon juice or vinegar mixed in. This will kill any insects that are lurking inside and also helps to remove any trapped dirt. After soaking, rinse the cauliflower well in fresh water, then proceed with your recipe.

Most people just eat the cauliflower florets. However, the stems and leaves are also edible, so include them if you want to enjoy the full benefit of the vegetable. Some people reserve the leaves and stems for soups or vegetable stock.

If you are opting to cook the cauliflower whole, then submerge the entire head for 15 minutes in a bowl of water, or one with salt or vinegar added, depending on where it was purchased. Rinse it well under running water afterward.

How to Preserve Cauliflower
Fresh cauliflower may be frozen, fermented, pickled, and even dehydrated.

Freezing Cauliflower. First, trim off any leaves and cut the head of cauliflower into pieces about 1 inch across. Wash the pieces well. If there is the possibility that insects are lurking inside, soak the pieces for 30 minutes in a solution of 4 teaspoons of salt per gallon of water. Rinse well and drain. Bring a large pot of water to boil, then place the prepared cauliflower pieces in the boiling water. Immediately set the timer for 3 minutes. When the timer finishes, transfer the cauliflower pieces to a bowl of ice water and allow them to cool in the water for 3 minutes. Drain well. Place the cauliflower pieces in freezer containers or bags, and label with the current date. Use them within 10 to 12 months for best quality and flavor.

Dehydrating Cauliflower. Cauliflower may be dehydrated, although there is mixed information among resources as to whether cauliflower should be dehydrated because of the quality of the outcome. The reason for this is that once dehydrated, it may turn orangey-brown in color. Despite this, it should lighten up once rehydrated, although it may never return to its original creamy white color.

To dehydrate cauliflower, wash and cut it as detailed above into 1-inch florets. The pieces must also be blanched for 3 minutes, using the same procedure as above. After the cauliflower pieces have been cooled in ice water and drained, spread them in a single layer on a mesh dehydrator tray. Follow your dehydrator manufacturer’s directions for approximate length of time and temperature for drying the cauliflower. When completely dried, the florets should feel dry and crisp, and have no sign of moisture inside when broken apart. Store the dried cauliflower pieces in an airtight container, preferably a glass mason jar with a traditional lid. It is helpful to place an oxygen absorber in the jar, and remove as much air from the jar as possible. Store it in a cool, dry place away from sunlight.

Fermenting Cauliflower. Cauliflower can easily be fermented and is something anyone can do. Remove the leaves from the head of cauliflower, wash them and reserve them to be used in the final steps of preparing the cauliflower for fermentation.

Wash and chop the cauliflower into small pieces. Place the chopped vegetables in a clean mason jar with a non-metallic lid. One-quart or ½-gallon jars work well. A standard jar lid and rim may be used, but they will be prone to rusting from exposure to the salt brine. Plastic mason jar lids will not erode. Fill the jar with cauliflower pieces to the shoulder of the jar, where it curves inward toward the mouth of the jar. If you do not have enough cauliflower pieces to fill the jar, either use a smaller jar or add another vegetable, such as diced carrots on top of the cauliflower to fill the jar. (It is important to fill the jar with vegetables or the fermentation process may not work well.)

Next, mix your brine solution. Different salt to water ratios are suggested by different sources. I prefer one measured teaspoon of canning/pickling salt to one cup of filtered or distilled water. Do not use iodized salt, nor regular tap water. (The chlorine in the water, and the iodine in the salt will hinder the fermentation process.) Dissolve the salt in the water in a measuring cup. I prefer to add a starter culture to the first cup of water added to the jar. This can be any commercially available starter culture you prefer. I have found that a mere ¼ teaspoon of starter culture is enough to ferment a one-quart size jar of vegetables. Instead of commercial starter culture, you may use about ¼ to ½ cup of established brine from prior fermented vegetables, if desired. Then fill the jar with the salt/culture water solution. Prepare additional salt water solution as needed to fill the jar. Culture only needs to be added once, not with each cup of water used.

Place reserved cauliflower leaves inside the jar on top of the vegetable pieces so that they will hold the vegetables below the water line. This step is important to prevent mold or yeast from forming on the exposed vegetables that may float. Be sure everything is below the water line, so add enough brine solution to cover all the vegetables, including the leaves on top.

Cover the jar and label it with the date you started. Place the jar in a cloth-lined bowl or tray to catch any spills that may happen as fermentation progresses. Put the fermentation jar in a cool place away from sunlight. Do not place it in the refrigerator at this point, or your fermentation will not take place properly. Monitor the brine level from time to time to be sure it remains above the vegetables. If it drops down at any point, add more brine solution (without additional culture). Taste the vegetables periodically and consider them finished when you like the flavor. Personally, I allow my vegetables to ferment for 10 days.

When the vegetables are fermented and taste like you prefer, place the jar in your refrigerator. They will wait there for months, until you are ready to enjoy them.

To see my video demonstration on how to ferment cauliflower, click here…

Pickled Cauliflower. Fresh cauliflower may also be pickled and used in salads or to flavor or accompany many foods. See the Recipe Links section below for detailed instructions on pickling cauliflower. Two specific links on this topic are provided.

Quick Ideas and Tips for Using Cauliflower
* Top hot cooked cauliflower with a little melted butter, then season with your choice of chives, dill, nutmeg, minced parsley, or lemon juice.

* Add raw cauliflower to an appetizer tray with dip or hummus.

* Add cauliflower, raw or cooked, to your favorite green salad.

* Add chopped cooked cauliflower to a quiche or scrambled eggs.

* Roast cauliflower and broccoli together, flavored with olive oil and garam masala.

* When preparing fresh cauliflower, remember that the stems and leaves are edible. If you don’t want to include them in your dish, save them for soups, stews, or making stock.

* To cut a fresh cauliflower, first remove any leaves that are attached to the head. Then cut at the base of the floret stems to separate the large pieces. The florets may be cut smaller from there, if needed. The inner core may be cut into small pieces and cooked or eaten as desired.

* For best results when cooking cauliflower, cook it for the least amount of time and with the least amount of liquid possible. The longer it cooks, the more nutrients and flavor will be lost, and the more sulfur odor will be released.

* Cauliflower can be exchanged with broccoli in most recipes. So, if you have some favorite broccoli recipes and want to eat more cauliflower, try those same recipes with cauliflower instead of broccoli.

* When you’re blanching or cooking cauliflower in water, keep it creamy white by adding either 1 or 2 tablespoons of lemon juice, or 1 tablespoon of vinegar, or 1 cup of milk. The milk will also give the vegetable a sweeter flavor.

* One medium head of cauliflower will yield about 3 cups of chopped cauliflower, or 4 cups of florets.

* Do not cook cauliflower in an aluminum or cast-iron pot. The chemicals in cauliflower will react with the metals and cause the cauliflower to become discolored.

Herbs and Spices That Go Well with Cauliflower
Basil, bay leaf, capers, caraway seeds, cardamom, cayenne, chervil, chili pepper flakes, chili powder, cilantro, cinnamon, coriander, cumin, curry powder, curry spices, dill, fenugreek, garam masala, horseradish, marjoram, mint, mustard seeds/powder, nutmeg, oregano, paprika, parsley, pepper, rosemary, saffron, sage, salt, savory, tarragon, thyme, turmeric

Foods That Go Well with Cauliflower
Proteins, Legumes, Nuts, Seeds: Almonds, bacon, beans (esp., black, fermented black, green, white), beef, black-eyed peas, cashews, chicken, chickpeas, eggs, hazelnuts, lentils, nuts (in general), peas, pine nuts, pistachios, poppy seeds, pork, pumpkin seeds, seafood, sesame seeds, tahini, tofu

Vegetables:  Asparagus, bell pepper, bok choy, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, carrots, celery, chiles, chives, cress (land), garlic, ginger, greens (in general), kale, leeks, mushrooms, onions, potatoes, scallions, shallots, spinach, squash, sweet potatoes, tomatoes (fresh, sauce, sun-dried), watercress

Fruits: Apples, citrus fruits (in general), coconut, lemons, limes, mango, olives, orange, pumpkin, raisins, tamarind

Grains and Grain Products: Barley, bread crumbs, bulgur, corn, couscous, kasha, millet, noodles (i.e., Asian rice noodles), pasta, polenta, rice, spelt

Dairy and Non-Dairy: Butter and browned butter, buttermilk, cheese (in general, esp. blue, cheddar, feta, Gruyere, Parmesan), coconut milk, cream, ghee, milk (dairy and non-dairy), sour cream, yogurt

Other Foods: Chili pepper sauce, honey, mayonnaise, mustard (prepared, Dijon), nutritional yeast, oil (esp. mustard, olive, sesame, walnut), pesto, soy sauce, sriracha sauce, stock, vinegar (esp. balsamic, rice, white wine), wine (esp. dry white)

Cauliflower had been used in the following cuisines and dishes…
Aloo Gobi, chili, chowders, crudités, gratins, Italian cuisine, mashed cauliflower (like mashed potatoes), Mediterranean cuisines, Middle Eastern cuisines, pasta dishes (i.e., lasagna), pesto, polenta, purees, risottos, salads (i.e., cauliflower, green, pasta), soufflés, soups (i.e., cauliflower, curry, vegetable), cauliflower steaks, stir-fries, cauliflower tabbouleh, tacos

Suggested Food and Flavor Combos Using Cauliflower
Add cauliflower to any of the following combinations…

Almonds + Barley
Almonds + Browned Butter + Lemon
Balsamic Vinegar + Garlic + Olive Oil + Raisins
Bread Crumbs + Capers + Lemon + Parsley
Brussels Sprouts + Capers + Lemon
Brussels Sprouts + Garlic + Olive Oil + Rosemary
Capers + Green Olives + Lemon + Olive Oil
Cashews + Cilantro + Coconut + Nut Milk + Onions + Turmeric
Cheddar Cheese + Mustard
Cheddar Cheese + Parmesan Cheese + Parsley + Pasta
Chickpeas + Eggplant + Raisins
Chiles + Lime Juice
Chili Pepper Flakes + Parsley + Pasta
Coconut + Curry
Garlic + Tomatoes
Ginger + Orange
Lemon + Parsley
Lemon Zest + Mustard + Shallots
Mint + Parmesan Cheese + Pine Nuts
Sage + Walnuts
Scallions + Sesame Oil + Soy Sauce

Recipe Links
Pickled Cauliflower

Pickled Cauliflower with Carrots and Red Bell Peppers

Judi’s Fermented Cauliflower [YouTube Video]

Asian Sautéed Cauliflower

Cauliflower, Fennel and White Bean Winter Salad

Five Ways to Eat Cauliflower

Recipe Roundup: Roasted Cauliflower (links to many recipes for roasted cauliflower)

25 Ways to Cook with Cauliflower

Everything Bagel Style Cauliflower Rolls

Everything Bagel Cauliflower Steaks

Roasted Garlic Cauliflower

Cauliflower Parmesan Crisps

Our 41 Best Cauliflower Recipes

Crispy Sea Salt & Vinegar Cauliflower “Popcorn”

30 Life-Changing Cauliflower Recipes for Every Comfort Food Craving

13 Healthy Cauliflower Recipes

Cauliflower Aloo Gobi

How to Make Cauliflower Rice or Couscous

Asian Sautéed Cauliflower


Cooperative Extension Service, The University of Georgia. (1993) So Easy to Preserve. Bulletin 989. 3rd Edition. Athens, Georgia: Cooperative Extension Service, The University of Georgia.

Joachim, David. (2010) The Food Substitutions Bible. 2nd Edition. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Robert Rose, Inc.

MacKenzie, Jennifer, Jay Nutt and Don Mercer. (2015) The Dehydrator Bible. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Robert Rose, Inc.

Page, Karen. (2014) The Vegetarian Flavor Bible. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.

About Judi

Julia W. Klee (Judi) began her journey enjoying “all things food” in elementary school when she started preparing meals for her family. That love of food blossomed into a quest to learn more and more about health and wellness as related to nutrition. She went on to earn a BS Degree in Food and Nutrition, then an MS Degree in Nutrition. She has taught nutrition and related courses at the college level to pre-nursing and exercise science students. Her hunger to learn didn’t stop upon graduation from college. She continues to research on a regular basis about nutrition as it relates to health. Her hope is to help as many people as possible to enjoy foods that promote health and wellness.

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