Perfect coleslaw

Growing up in Southern California I don’t remember coleslaw being a thing.  My mother never made it, and while it was often available at picnics and potlucks, it was always the gloopy, white, mayo-coated variety, probably picked up from a grocery store deli counter or created with dressing made by Kraft.* I actually really like mayonnaise, but somehow glopping it on cabbage never did it for me.

So, when I moved to the South, the coleslaw was a revelation.  Southerners take their coleslaw seriously, y’all. It’s an essential element of Southern barbecue, and Southern barbecue is serious business. Here in North Carolina they seem to favor a tangy, vinegary coleslaw, and, while they do sometimes use mayo, I’ve yet to see anything that could be described as “gloopy.”

Inspired by the local rendition, a few summers ago I set out to perfect a coleslaw recipe. I’m pretty pleased with my results.  It’s always a hit at parties, and since it has no mayonnaise, it’s very forgiving for picnics on hot summer days.

home-made coleslaw

Perfect coleslaw

Tangy Carolina Coleslaw
Adapted from this  recipe by Diana Rattray.


  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 cup cider vinegar
  • 1/4 cup white vinegar
  • 2 teaspoon dry mustard
  • 1 teaspoon celery seed
  • 2/3 cup vegetable oil


  • medium head green cabbage, shredded
  • 1/2 medium red onion, sliced thin
  • 1 carrot, shaved or grated
  • 1 bell pepper, color of your choice (I like yellow), sliced thin

Nothing makes me crazier than trying to figure out what constitutes a “medium” cabbage or onion or whatever. I would say that a medium cabbage is about 3lbs, but here’s what I really do. I buy a cabbage that looks good, then I grab a bowl in whatever size I think is going to be appropriate for the group I am feeding. I cut the cabbage into quarters, cut out the core, and start slicing the quarters into thin, crosswise strips. When it looks like I have about the amount that I want, I stop and add thinly sliced onion, shaved carrot and possibly bell pepper, if I’m feeling fancy, until all the bright colors look nice together.

To make the dressing, I add the sugar, salt and vinegars to a small sauce pan and heat them just until everything is dissolved. Don’t let the vinegar boil too long, or you will feel like you are trying to inhale a pickle. Vinegar fumes are intense. Meanwhile, measure the mustard and celery seed into a jar, then add the hot vinegar and the oil. Shake to combine. Pour the warm dressing over the slaw to taste, then chill until you are ready to eat or head out to your picnic. I find this recipe makes lots and lots of coleslaw. Even when I’m taking it out to a party, I usually have cabbage and dressing left for another night, which is awesome. The dressing works just as well cold from the fridge, but do let the slaw sit for at least a few minutes before serving 

If you grow your own cabbage you can also be unbearably smug about your coleslaw. This little dude made four very generous servings.

*I just talk to my mother and she tells me that her favorite coleslaw recipe involves canned pineapple and raisins in addition to mayonnaise. I love you, Mom, but, gross.

This entry was posted in Adventures in the green kitchen, Recipes that worked! and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Perfect coleslaw

  1. donna says:

    going to try this tonight, just put in fridge to chill for a few minutes (burgers are already cooling off)

  2. Jean Kreider says:

    I have made this many times over, my husband loves it! Compliments every time.

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