Our expert tips will help you ace this classic summer side.

By Laura Rege
June 28, 2021
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Perfect coleslaw should be creamy and tangy, with just the right amount of crunch to balance out heavier summer fare like ribs and burgers, and creating a dish with this ideal balance is achievable with just a few simple steps. While this dependable summer side might not outshine the main, it's a beloved part of seasonal dinner menus because it lends a crisp, cool counterpoint to richer dishes. It may seem hard to get this cabbage-based side wrong, but a few pointers can help you get it very right.

cream coleslaw in white bowl
Credit: Marcus Nilsson

Shred

Two vegetables are essential for traditional slaw: green cabbage and carrots. They both need a good shred to give a coleslaw the right amount of crunch. For easy cabbage shredding, start by halving the head and removing the triangle shaped core. Then, place the cabbage cut side down on a cutting board, anchoring it so it doesn't roll around, and thinly slice from top to bottom with a sharp knife.

Our preferred cut for carrots is ⅛-inch matchsticks, they are crunchier and make the carrots more prominent in the slaw than just grating. However, if you aren't feeling up to the knife work, you can grate the carrots on the large holes of a box grater.

Dress

Next comes the creamy and tangy parts, which are whisked together into an irresistible balance in the dressing. The perfect coleslaw is dressed in a mayonnaise-, buttermilk-, or sour cream-based dressing. A combination of mayonnaise and sour cream really hits the spot in our Classic Creamy Coleslaw recipe.

Two other key ingredients contribute to the zestiness of the dressing: vinegar and mustard. Apple cider vinegar is a classic we will always return to, but you can swap in any vinegar or citrus juice And while the mustard of choice is bold and rich Dijon, feel free to experiment with your favorite mustard instead. A final key to making the perfect dressing for coleslaw is to balance it out with something sweet and something savory. Start with a large pinch of sugar to round out any bitter notes and then season with salt to taste. We recommend salting the dressing and then tossing everything together, tasting and then adjusting with more salt if you feel the coleslaw needs it.

Marinade

Don't just dress and dine. A truly wonderful coleslaw marinates in the creamy dressing for at least an hour to soften the vegetables a tad; don't worry, it will still retain the crunch. Marinate the assembled and seasoned slaw in the refrigerator so it is a cool counterpart to the rest of the meal. Check seasoning again before serving, as cold temperatures can dull flavors in food.

Customize

Once you've aced the classic, riff on coleslaw by swapping in red cabbage, or other shredded vegetables like cucumber. You can also add in spices like celery seed or herbs such as dill. Grated onion, ginger, apples, or dried fruit like dried cranberries are other tasty add-ons. Another option is to explore dressing variations. There is a whole other category of slaws that depends on tangy vinaigrettes rather than creamy dressings, like our Hold the Cabbage Slaw which is made with fennel, beets, and celery in addition to the olive oil-based dressing.

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