What Is Cauliflower?

what is cauliflower

The Spruce Eats / Lindsay Kreighbaum

Cauliflower is a common vegetable that is very versatile and perhaps best known for its oft-touted health properties. It has a great ability to blend into its culinary environment, providing body and bulk in low-carb recipes. Cauliflower's cool-weather ripening and superior storage abilities make it a fall and winter staple for everything from casseroles to soups and it's found a home in surprising places, including pizza crust.

What Is Cauliflower?

Molly Watson

Cauliflower is a cruciferous vegetable. It's a member of the mustard family alongside its well-known counterparts of broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kale, and radishes. The word "cauliflower" stems from Latin, meaning "flowers of cabbage" and this low-growing plant does look similar to cabbage until the large leaves begin to open up. This reveals the globe-shaped, cream-colored head that's about six to eight inches in diameter. The head is made up of bumpy florets attached to the main stem.

The cauliflower head is harvested and the florets are removed to use in a variety of food dishes. Preparing fresh cauliflower is easy, but it does take a little extra time to separate all the florets from the head.

How to Cook With Cauliflower

Spicy Roasted Cauliflower. Photo © Molly Watson

Raw cauliflower is often combined with creamy dips and is a popular addition to a raw vegetable or crudite platter. Cauliflower can be roasted, steamed, sauteed, or fried. You can also mash cauliflower to serve as a side dish alternative to potatoes. This form is used as an ingredient as well, transforming flour-based recipes into a low-carb and gluten-free dish.

Whether cooked or eaten raw, cauliflower is most commonly broken or cut into florets. Any outer leaves are removed, which can be cut up and added to a stir-fry or soup (just know that they have a sharp cauliflower flavor). The core is often removed and discarded, but it is just as edible and tasty as the florets. Feel free to chop it up and cook those pieces along with the florets, especially if you're making any kind ​of cauliflower soup. The entire head of cauliflower can also be simply roasted for a stunning presentation.

What Does It Taste Like?

Photo Agnes Elisabeth Szucs/Moment/Getty Images

Raw cauliflower is crunchy and can have a pretty sharp bite, which is why it's often dipped. When properly cooked, cauliflower has a lightly sweet, nutty flavor.

Cauliflower Recipes

recipe for roasted cauliflower
Diana Miller

Cauliflower's semi-neutral flavor and dense texture make it a surprisingly versatile ingredient. There is definitely not a shortage of delicious cauliflower recipes. They include traditional casseroles and soups to newer uses like a pizza crust, gnocchi, and even Buffalo "wings."


Watch Now: Delicious Parmesan Roasted Cauliflower Recipe

Where to Buy Cauliflower

Cauliflower Varieties
Molly Watson

Cauliflower may be grown, harvested, and sold year-round, but it is by nature a cool-weather crop. Sunshine and heat bring out bitter flavors in the undeveloped flower buds that make up the tightly packed florets in a head of cauliflower, whereas chill and frost bring out its sweeter side.

While you will find cauliflower in nearly any market and grocer at any time of the year, it is at its best in fall and winter and into early spring. This is when you'll also find the lowest prices, though it's always relatively inexpensive. It's sold fresh by the full head and as pre-cut and packaged florets, a form most often in a grocer's frozen food cases.

Look for white or cream-colored heads that feel heavy for their size. The deeply ribbed green leaves that envelop a head of cauliflower should look fresh, not wilted or yellowing or dry.


Many Cauliflower at Market
Photo © Molly Watson

Keep cauliflower loosely wrapped in plastic in the refrigerator. Fresh from the market heads will last up to 2 weeks. You can cut cauliflower into florets and stored them, sealed, in a plastic bag in the fridge. They will last up to a week in a well-regulated refrigerator. For longer storage, the florets are best blanched then frozen; it will keep well for up to one year.

what is cauliflower
The Spruce Eats / Julie Bang

Cauliflower vs. Broccoli

Cauliflower Gratin. Photo © Molly Watson

It is not unheard of for people to mistake broccoli and cauliflower for one another. The two vegetables do belong to the same family (Brassicaceae) of plants, but they are from two different cultivar groups. While there are green-colored varieties of cauliflower, the white heads are the most familiar, which is a stark contrast to broccoli's deep green color. Additionally, broccoli grows taller on thick stems that branch off into smaller stems that hold coarse-textured florets; cauliflower is a short-stemmed plant with florets that almost look like fluffy clouds.

Nutritionally, the two are nearly identical. However, cauliflower is a little more versatile, particularly when using it as a dietary substitute for flour.


Purple Cauliflower
Marie Iannotti

The pillowy white heads of cauliflower are the most familiar and recognizable, but there are other varieties available. You may also find Italian purple cauliflower or golden cauliflower heads at some markets. The Veronica Romanesco Hybrid (commonly called "broccoflower") is most unique, with its green, pointy florets that look more like a succulent than a vegetable. These are fun alternatives (particularly for vegetable platters) and can be used just like the more common white cauliflower.