This one is for Katharine, my sister-in-law, with whom I’ve had many a discussion about the vast differences between Irish cole slaw, and, well, everything else. She lived for a while in Australia, I live in the US and there and here things in the cole slaw world tend to get a little watery.
To be clear we’re talking about mayonnaise-based, not vinegar, slaw.
What is cole slaw but cabbage and mayonnaise, maybe carrot and onion, sometimes other veg and fruit. The basic ingredients going into the bowl aren’t what’s in dispute, it’s what happens when you mix it all together. Fruit and vegetables contain a lot of water and when you add salt or sugar they release that water. But not in Ireland. In Ireland the water is mysteriously wicked away by the tidy cole slaw fairy.
I used to think the solution was to add more mayonnaise as Irish cole slaw is very heavy on the mayo, but the extra dressing just slipped right through and joined the pool party at the bottom of the bowl.
The last time Ken and I were in Dublin I took a long look at ingredients lists and saw nothing but cabbage, carrot, onion, mayonnaise and spices. This time, however, I saw xanthan and guar gum on the list and then it made sense. Both are stabilizers that would help keep the water suspended in the mayo. Anyway, I tried adding a little guar gum, put the slaw in the fridge overnight and… it worked. Rich, creamy cole slaw with nary a drip of slurry at the bottom of the tub. Yay.
Guar gum isn’t the sexiest sounding addition to any recipe, but it’s simply the powdered endosperm of the guar bean. Still not sexy? Oh well. Similar to xanthan gum, it’s a powerful thickener and both are often used in gluten-free baking to help hold things together. Gurar gum tends to be much cheaper than xanthan gum, and though they are often used together, I didn’t see the point in adding both if one alone did the trick. Guar gum is available in most health food stores and you can sometimes find it in the baking section of grocery stores.
Irish Cole Slaw (makes about 1 quart/liter, serves about 8)
Why is there more volume going in that coming out? When you measure the raw vegetables they’re stiff and take up more room in the measuring cup. After softening in the mayo they’re more pliant and compact. Do the best you can with measuring the vegetables and simply add enough mayo to make it creamy. The 1/8 teaspoon guar gum should be enough to hold it all together even if you add more mayo than suggested.
1 pound green cabbage, cored and sliced or chopped (about 4 cups or 1 liter)*
2-4 carrots (depending on size), peeled and grated or chopped (about 1 cup or 240ml)
1/4 cup (60ml) onion, very thinly sliced
1-1/4 (300ml) cup good quality mayonnaise–I found Best Foods or Hellman’s worked best
1/8 teaspoon (.625ml) guar gum powder
1/4 teaspoon (1.25ml) sugar, or to taste (optional)**
1/4 teaspoon (1.25ml) celery seed, or to taste, toasted and ground (optional)***
*A small head of cabbage is hard to find. For this recipe I used half a small cabbage. Because this slaw only lasts for about 2 to 3 days and is quite rich, unless you’re making slaw for a lot of people, I would make this amount and use the remaining cabbage for something else.
**I like a hint of sweetness to my cole slaw, but if you don’t, omit the sugar.
***Celery seed, for me, has a flavor that just says cole slaw. Toast the seeds in a frying pan over medium heat for several minutes until fragrant. If you don’t have a mortar and pestle to grin the toasted seeds, chopping them with a sharp knife works just as well to break them down.
In a small bowl sprinkle the guar gum evenly over the mayonnaise a little at a time, stirring thoroughly after each sprinkling. Guar gum can clump if you dump it in all at once. Add the sugar and celery seed if using.
In a large bowl, dress the cabbage, carrot, onion with the mayonnaise mixture.
Let the flavors meld for a few hours before serving. The cole slaw will keep for several days.