How to choose the best coleslaw recipe for YOU (plus spicy upgrades)

Everyone has a different idea of the best coleslaw. Crunchy or soft, zesty or not, and more. With a few simple tricks, you can massage any recipe into the coleslaw you want.

Closeup of a mound of cabbage and carrot coleslaw on a white plate with the text the best coleslaw for you.

Coleslaw is the perfect accompaniment to so many wonderful dishes. It’s combination of creamy and zesty matches perfectly with pulled pork, fish tacos and so much more. But because everyone’s ideal coleslaw is different, choosing a recipe can be a bit of a lottery. Just because it’s well reviewed doesn’t mean it will match your ideal coleslaw. But the good news is you can make sure it does.

Understanding a few key aspects of different styles of coleslaw will not only give you the ability to choose a recipe that’s close to what you’re after. It will also help you make some final tweaks to get it just the way you like it. Then you really can have the best coleslaw.

To figure out the key differences in tastes and textures across different coleslaws, I reviewed thirty recipes for creamy and vinaigrette-based coleslaws. Based on the authors’ instructions and advice, plus the hundreds of comments from readers, I can give you a good sense of the key aspects of coleslaw that will influence whether you love or hate a particular recipe. Hopefully this will help you choose the right recipe for you, tweak one to suit, or pick a general approach if you’re keen to build your own from scratch.

The keys to the taste and texture of coleslaw

If we ignore specific tastes (like celery seed or mustard), there are five fundamental keys to the differences in a typical coleslaw:

  1. Texture of the cabbage.
  2. Amount of acidity (vinegar).
  3. Consistency of the salad.
  4. Level of sweetness.
  5. Whether it’s creamy or not.

These factors are key to how people perceive a coleslaw, and some are directly related to why this unassuming salad is so popular with certain foods, like fish or fatty meats.

Closeup of an off-white bowl full of shredded red and white cabbage and carrots with the text do you like your coleslaw soft or crunchy.

1. The texture of cabbage in coleslaw

Based on how the authors describe their coleslaws, and how many readers respond to the recipes, there are two fundamentally different views about what the texture of the cabbage in coleslaw should be. You’re either in the crunchy camp, or the soft camp.

Of course every coleslaw starts with crunchy cabbage. When you first shred it, or pull it out of the pack of premix, it’s crunchy. But from that point on, there are a number of factors that influence whether it stays that way or not. And some people take intentional actions to make sure it doesn’t stay that way.

Controlling the texture

The crunchiness of the cabbage is affected by:

  • How thinly it is sliced. The thinner it is sliced, the more quickly it will soften.
  • How long ago it was sliced. The longer it has been sliced, the more it will soften.
  • What’s in the dressing. Ingredients like salt and acids (vinegar, lemon juice, etc) will more quickly soften the cabbage.
  • How long it sits in the dressing. The longer the cabbage is dressed, the more it will soften.

Most of these factors are closely intertwined as well. Thinly sliced cabbage in a dressing with lots of vinegar will soften much more quickly than thickly sliced cabbage in a creamy dressing with little acidity.

The authors take advantage of these effects to achieve the texture they want. Those who like crunchy cabbage slice it a little thicker, and advise not to dress the coleslaw until shortly before serving.

The authors that prefer softer cabbage recommend the opposite. Very thinly sliced cabbage is dressed several hours ahead of serving, or even the night before. And some readers like to go a step further, with several commenting they salt their cabbage to draw the moisture out and soften it prior to making their coleslaw.

The good news is you can tweak most of these factors yourself without changing the recipe ingredients at all. Changing the amount of vinegar or lemon juice will also have an impact, but this will obviously influence the taste as well.

2. The amount of acidity in coleslaw

The tang of acidity is clearly favoured in coleslaw, with all thirty recipes including vinegar, citrus, or both. Vinegar is overwhelmingly the most popular, used in all but two recipes, and all but four of the authors prefer apple cider vinegar.

This is not surprising, because vinegar is part of the reason coleslaw works so well with some of the foods it’s so popular with. The acidity cuts through the fatty richness of slow-cooked meats like pulled pork or ribs, or fattier types of fish (fish tacos anyone?).

Vinegar is a polarising ingredient

But while everyone expects some vinegary zest in their coleslaw, it was also the most common point of complaint amongst the readers of these recipes. Many recipes had multiple comments about the coleslaw having too much vinegar. Others had comments about the recipe being bland, and the readers needing to add more vinegar to suit their tastes.

So while vinegar is definitely important, it’s also the ingredient that seems to have the most variation in taste preference.

This is not surprising though. Acidity, picked up by the sour taste receptors in our mouth, is a strong taste, but like most tastes, different people perceive sourness differently. And children often like sour tastes more than adults do.

As a result, the amount of vinegar in a recipe can dramatically influence how much someone enjoys it. Which means it’s an ingredient that should be added carefully.

Getting the right level of acidity for your tastes

The first step here is obvious. Choose a recipe that uses roughly the right amount of vinegar for you. If you like it, pick one that uses a lot. And if you don’t love it, pick one with less vinegar.

This won’t be hard, because amongst these recipes there is a lot of variation in the amount of vinegar. Some authors use less than a teaspoon of vinegar per cup of cabbage, while others use as much as a tablespoon per cup of cabbage. And don’t forget that eight recipes also add lemon or lime juice, further enhancing the tartness of their coleslaws.

How much vinegar?

On average the recipes use about one teaspoon of vinegar per cup of cabbage, so if you really don’t like the tartness, aim for a recipe that uses less than this. And if you really like it…you get the idea.

The other way to manage the acidity is by adding the vinegar to the dressing last, and adding it gradually. Add a quarter or a third of what the author recommends, mix it in, and taste it. Keep adding a little more until you reach the level of tartness that you prefer. This way you can easily tweak the recipe to suit your tastes.

3. The consistency of the salad

There are again two fundamentally different preferences here. Some people like their coleslaw a bit runny and wet, and others prefer it thicker and drier.

Most coleslaw starts out a bit thicker. Then over time, as the salt draws moisture out of the cabbage and the vinegar starts softening it, the amount of water in the coleslaw increases. This takes quite a few hours.

As you can imagine, getting the consistency you prefer is therefore mainly about timing. If you like your coleslaw a bit runnier, make it the day before you’re serving it up. And if you like it thicker, don’t add the dressing until an hour or so before you serve.

Other ways to control consistency

The thickness of your cabbage slices plays a role in consistency. Thinner slices create more surface area, so will release water more quickly.

Increasing the amount of salt in the recipe can also help if you prefer a runnier consistency. Just be sure to taste test carefully. You don’t want a coleslaw with the right consistency but that tastes like sea water!

There is another important point here too. Some authors like lots of dressing on their coleslaw, while others like it a little more lightly dressed. This will obviously affect the consistency as well, especially with a vinaigrette. A few authors and readers actually recommend only adding about a half of the dressing to your salad mix, tossing that through, then deciding if you need more. Like so many things in cooking, you can always add more, but once there’s too much it’s hard to change.

4. Sweetness in coleslaw

Like tartness, sweetness is also a staple of coleslaw based on these recipes. All but five authors add a sweetening ingredient to their dressing, with sugar being just a little more popular than honey.

Amongst the twenty-five that sweeten their recipe, the most popular amount is between half and one teaspoon per cup of cabbage. A few use a bit less than this, and if you’re a fan of the significantly sweeter KFC-style coleslaw one recipe uses four teaspoons of sugar per cup of cabbage!

Like vinegar, pick a recipe that’s close to your preference. If you don’t like a sweet coleslaw, pick one that uses none, or less than half a teaspoon per cup of cabbage.

And again like vinegar, if you’re not sure, add the sugar in small amounts, taste testing after each addition. That way you won’t end up with too much (or not enough).

5. Creamy coleslaw (or not)

This one’s pretty obvious. Twenty of these recipes contain mayonnaise, sour cream or both. The other ten are vinaigrette (or in two cases, just vinegar) dressed coleslaws. If you like a creamy coleslaw, these are not the ones for you.

If you do like a creamy coleslaw, there’s a lot of variation in how much mayo or sour cream the authors use. And this time there’s not really a most popular approach:

  • Five authors use between half and one tablespoon per cup of cabbage.
  • Four use between one and two.
  • Five use two tablespoons per cup of cabbage.
  • The other six use more than two, and up to four tablespoons per cup.

Not much help there! What it does tell us is that you can dial the mayo and/or sour cream up and down to suit your tastes. Just be careful adding too much more than the recipe recommends as it will start to influence the consistency.

Making your coleslaw spicy

Ten of the recipes are for spicy coleslaw, but the foundations of these recipes are essentially the same as the other creamy recipes.

The spicy recipes are all creamy, and have very similar amounts of vinegar, mayo and sugar compared with the other creamy recipes. The only significant difference is the inclusion of one or more spicy ingredients, either in the salad, the dressing or both.

This means that if you have a favourite creamy coleslaw recipe, but want to try spicing it up, you can do so without tweaking other parts of the recipe.

What type of spice?

The authors use a few different ingredients to add some heat to their coleslaw:

  • Three add one or two jalapenos to the salad, and one blends them into the dressing.
  • Three add up to two tablespoons of sriracha to their dressing.
  • Another three add horseradish to their dressing. While not spicy in a chili pepper sense, this will still deliver a nice heat to the coleslaw.
  • A couple use green chilies, either canned in the dressing or fresh in the salad.
  • Three add up to a quarter of a teaspoon of cayenne to their dressing, all in addition to one of the ingredients listed above.
  • And one uses green Tabasco sauce.

So there’s plenty of choice, and you could obviously use a different spicy sauce or ingredient if you have a particular favourite. Just be careful adding too much liquid, as you’ll start to affect the consistency of your coleslaw.

I’ve listed the spicy recipes separately at the bottom if you’re interested in exploring them.

The essence of the best coleslaw for you

If you’re looking for a new coleslaw recipe, there are two steps to making sure it’s perfect for you:

  1. Choose the right recipe – the one that most closely matches your tastes.
  2. Tweak the recipe to make it perfect.
Closeup of a glass bowl full of coleslaw with two serving spoons sticking out and the text how should you choose a coleslaw recipe.

How to choose the best coleslaw recipe

When you’re choosing a new coleslaw recipe, keep the five keys in mind:

  1. Texture of the cabbage – crunchy or soft. Most authors mention or even highlight how they want their recipe to turn out, so don’t choose one that’s the opposite of how you like it.
  2. Amount of acidity. Remember one teaspoon of vinegar per cup of cabbage. If you like the tang of vinegar, choose a recipe that uses this amount, or even more if you really like it. And if you don’t like it, there are plenty of recipes that use half this amount or less.
  3. Consistency of the salad – runny or not. Like texture, most authors elude to their ideal consistency. And if they don’t, their photos usually tell the story. So choose a recipe that matches your preference.
  4. Level of sweetness. The most common amount of sugar is half to one teaspoon per cup of cabbage. If you’re not sure how sweet you like it, this is a good place to start. And if you know how you like it, go with a recipe that suits your sweet tooth.
  5. Creaminess. Traditionally coleslaw has always been creamy, but there are more and more vinaigrette-dressed recipes out there if you’re not a fan of mayo.

If you start with a recipe that matches your preferences, there’s more chance you’ll like it and less need to tweak it.

How to tweak a coleslaw recipe to perfection

If you can’t find a recipe that really closely matches your perfect style, you can still tweak most of the keys:

  • You can tweak the texture in several ways. If you want it crunchy, don’t slice your cabbage too far in advance, and slice it a bit thicker. And don’t let it sit in the dressing for too long. If you prefer it soft, do the opposite. Slice it thinner, and give it plenty of time in the dressing.
  • You can tweak the acidity, but be careful, because it may influence other things, especially the texture of your cabbage and the consistency of your coleslaw. Try to start with the right recipe if you can. If not, add half the vinegar you think you’ll need, then taste your dressing. If you need more, add it a little at a time, tasting as you go.
  • Timing is the main tool you have for tweaking the consistency. The longer it is dressed, the more the cabbage will release water into the mixture. So if you like it runnier, dress your coleslaw several hours before your serve, or even the night before. Be aware that this process will soften it too though. It’s also good practice to add only half or two-thirds of the dressing, toss the salad and check for consistency before adding the rest so you don’t get too much.
  • Sweetness can be tweaked a little more freely than acidity, but it’s still worth adjusting carefully, taste testing after each addition.

Choose and make the best coleslaw for you

So there you have it – the essence of getting to the best coleslaw for you. Hopefully this makes it easier for you to choose the right coleslaw recipe, and tweak it to suit your tastes.

Once you’ve created your perfect coleslaw, why not try it with some tender juicy pork chops, or a nice rich bowl of chili? It’s great with a beef meatloaf too.

Recipes included in this review

Creamy traditional coleslaw recipes

Spicy creamy coleslaw recipes

Vinaigrette or vinegar-based recipes

2 thoughts on “How to choose the best coleslaw recipe for YOU (plus spicy upgrades)”

    • Thanks Christina! Really appreciate your feedback. With all my posts I try to help people pick the best recipe for them. It’s hard because there are so many great recipes out there! Loved your coleslaw recipe too – green Tabasco is such a good spice hit without going over the top.


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