I’ve spent the last couple of week’s trying to clean up cabbage’s malodorous profile. Cabbage is abundantly local and abundantly nutritious — a good source of thiamin, calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus and potassium, and a very good source of dietary fiber, vitamins C, K and B6, folate and manganese. Even organic versions of cabbage are relatively inexpensive.
According to Harold McGee in “On Food and Cooking; the science and lore of the kitchen,” the “cooked cabbage smell” is attributed to the plant’s two kinds of defensive chemicals: flavor precursors, or glucosinolates, which contain both sulfur and nitrogen, and enzymes that act on the precursors to liberate reactive flavors. When a cabbage, cauliflower, or Brussels sprout cell is damaged, the two stockpiles are mixed, and the enzymes start a chain of reactions that generate strong smelling, bitter, pungent, compounds, the kitchen smells of James Joyce interiors. These precursor and enzyme amounts differ for members of the cabbage family, even at different seasons of the year. Young, active leaves of Brussels sprouts are packed with glucosinolates; indeed, at 35, brussels sprouts have the highest level of relative sulfur pungency precursors in the cabbage family. Green cabbage has 26. Broccoli has 17. Red cabbage has 10. Cauliflower has 2.
In the case of Brussels sprouts, the precursors collect in the center of each sprout; by halving Brussels sprouts, and cooking them in salted water, the offending enzymes are released, making them milder, but probably not enough for small children to stop holding their noses; the greatest glucosinolate and enzyme battle lives in a Brussels sprout.
In the case of cabbage, aggressive and prolonged cell damage — as in boiling — gets those glucosinolates and enzymes busy. A fresh pot of bubble and squeak, the classic English boiled cabbage and potato casserole may remind people that the notorious World War I mustard gas was inspired by the cabbage family’s unique defenses.