Cauliflower is a flowering vegetable that is unmistakable for its knobbly head. Eaten throughout the world, most cauliflower is grown in China, India, and, in U.S. markets, California. The florets are most often separated from the main head, and have a great ability to blend into their culinary environment. Cauliflower's cool-weather ripening and superior storage abilities make it a fall and winter staple for everything from casseroles to soups. It can be eaten raw and adds body and bulk to low-carb recipes, including pizza crust.
What Is Cauliflower?
Cauliflower is a cruciferous vegetable. It's a member of the mustard family, alongside its well-known counterparts 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. The plant's large leaves protect the "curd" (the globe-shaped, cream-colored head) from pests and the sun. Without sun exposure, the curd doesn't produce chlorophyll, which explains its white color. The curd grows to about six to eight inches in diameter and is actually an edible flower made up of bumpy, undeveloped florets that are tightly packed and attached to the main stem (or core).
The plant is native to Asia and the Mediterranean. While it's grown worldwide, China and India lead today's cauliflower cultivation. Nearly all cauliflower sold in the U.S. is grown in California, though Arizona, Florida, Michigan, New York, Oregon, Texas, and Washington also produce the vegetable. Generally reasonably priced, weather conditions, such as drought, impact production and can raise the cost of cauliflower.
The cauliflower head is harvested and the florets are removed to use in a variety of food dishes or eaten raw. Preparing fresh cauliflower is easy, but it does take a little extra time to separate all the florets from the core. However, both the core and leaves are edible as well.
How to Cook With Cauliflower
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 roasted for a stunning presentation.
What Does It Taste Like?
Raw cauliflower is crunchy and can have a sharp bite, which is why it's often served with a dip. When properly cooked, cauliflower has a lightly sweet, nutty flavor.
Cauliflower's semi-neutral flavor and dense texture make it a surprisingly versatile ingredient. There is no shortage of delicious cauliflower recipes. They include traditional casseroles and soups to newer uses like a pizza crust, gnocchi, and even Buffalo "wings."
Where to Buy Cauliflower
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, whereas chill and frost bring out its sweeter side. While you will find cauliflower in nearly any market 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 relatively inexpensive. It's sold fresh by the full head and as pre-cut and packaged florets both fresh and frozen.
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, yellowing, or dry.
Keep cauliflower loosely wrapped in plastic in the refrigerator. Fresh from the market, heads will last up to two weeks. Cut cauliflower into florets and store sealed in a plastic bag in the fridge for up to a week. For longer storage, the florets are best blanched and frozen, and will keep up to a year.
Cauliflower vs. Broccoli
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 common — a stark contrast to broccoli's deep green color. Broccoli grows taller on thick stems that branch off into smaller stems topped by coarse-textured florets, while cauliflower is a short-stemmed plant with florets that are more pillowy in texture.
Nutritionally, the two are nearly identical. However, cauliflower is a little more versatile, particularly when using it as a dietary substitute for flour.
White-headed cauliflower is 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.