Everything You Need to Know About Cauliflower

“Cauliflower is nothing but a cabbage with a college education.”  -Mark Twain

Over the years, many fruits and vegetables have made their way into our diets by disguising themselves as not-so-healthy fan favorites. Kale chips posed as potatoes and earned their spot in the snack aisle; frozen bananas made a name for themselves in the form of “nice cream” and perhaps most classically, veggie burgers stood in for traditional beef patties and landed a lead role on the menus of restaurants all over. Recently, cauliflower has risen to the top of vegetable charts by doing the same. In taking on the form of popular carbohydrate-heavy classics like pizza crust or meats like steak and chicken, it has become a staple for longing vegans and low-carb dieters alike. But cauliflower is not just a stand-in for other ingredients — it shines as the lead as well.


This versatile veggie is believed to have originated in ancient Asia Minor, and there is some evidence that the Romans also cultivated it. At first, cauliflower and broccoli were identical plants — until humans began to breed them for their most desirable traits and they became distinct from one another. Over time, cauliflower became popular in Europe. During the 16th century in France, it was all the rage in Louis XIV’s court. The French considered cauliflower to be a delicacy, and they served it in rich and elegant dishes — like Madame du Barry’s creamy cauliflower soup. After rising to prominence in Europe, it was later introduced in North America in the late 1600s. Although references to cauliflower consumption were mentioned in writings from United States residents as early as the 1800s, it was not commercially available here before the 1920s. Up until recently, people primarily prepared the vegetable by boiling it. However, over the past few years, it has been recognized for its versatility and now appears in a number of more interesting and palatable dishes.


California grown cauliflower is available year-round but is especially abundant in the spring and fall. It is grown in the Monterey, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Imperial and Fresno counties. These areas meet the temperature requirements for successful growth, around 60 degrees Fahrenheit. In addition to being easily affected by temperatures that are either too hot or too cold, cauliflower must be grown in a particular type of soil, with a pH level of about 6, in order to thrive. Unlike its brassica oleracea cousins — such as broccoli, kale and cabbage — most cauliflower is white. Though it also comes in purple, orange and green varieties, the type we know best maintains its pale hue because of the dark green leaves that surround it while it grows. These leaves serve as sun protection, meaning that no chlorophyll is produced. Thus, the cauliflower’s white color is upheld, making it the optimal choice for starch substitutions. The hue of the vegetable also comes into play when selecting a cauliflower at the store. It is important to seek out tightly compact heads of uniform color, with no soft or discolored areas, as they may indicate rot.


Sneaking vegetables into food is an age-old game for parents who want their children to benefit from the vitamins and nutrients they bring to the table. So while cauliflower alternatives were initially developed for those with gluten intolerances, many also seek them out as a way to easily incorporate more vegetables into their diet. In doing so, they can still indulge in beloved foods when facing diet restrictions. Ironically, many are playing mom’s classic vegetable-sneaking tricks on themselves, and the benefits include an increase in levels of Vitamin C, Vitamin K, manganese and omega-3. Cauliflower is also said to be very weight-loss friendly. The estimated amount of calories in a medium-sized head clocks in at only 150 calories. Such an impressive nutritional scorecard makes it an increasingly popular ingredient, and Jordan Rost, vice president of consumer insights for Green Giant, recognized this by saying, “The cauliflower trend is pervasive. We’re seeing it in everything from cream cheese to baby food. Products that contain cauliflower are experiencing faster growth in sales than their overall categories. It’s driving growth across all foods.” Clearly, this ingredient has made a name for itself, and it looks like it’s here to stay.


Much like its cruciferous cousin, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower can taste delectable or disgusting depending on how it is prepared. As with certain legumes, you can turn it into flour as a replacement for traditional starches in biscuits and pizza crusts. It can also be roasted, boiled, fried, steamed, pickled or served raw. Across the globe, it appears in a variety of dishes ranging from creamy soups to light, fresh salads. In India, cauliflower is often used in curry dishes alongside potatoes and onions. Spices like turmeric, cumin and saffron complement it’s relatively neutral flavor nicely. In Sardinia, it is paired with olive oil, garlic and capers to form a salad. With such versatility, it seems impossible not to be inspired by this mighty ingredient. If you’re looking to act on that inspiration, check out this Herbed Cauliflower Rice from Bon Appétit. Or, dine like a French royal with Madame du Barry’s Creamy Cauliflower Soup.


Due to its resemblance to curds of lumpy milk, the head of cauliflower is sometimes referred to as its “curds.” Many have also commented on its brain or ear-like appearance. But the real name for cauliflower comes from the Italian words caoli and fiori which translate to “cabbage flower.”

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