WOOSTER, Ohio - Knowing what varieties of cabbage make for good sauerkraut, coleslaw or other dishes is the first step in growing a product that meets production criteria and satisfies consumer preferences.
Matt Kleinhenz, an Ohio State University Extension vegetable specialist and researcher, said that quality is a leading priority in the world of growing and marketing cabbage in Ohio.
"Crop quality seems to be getting elevated to a greater position of importance every year," said Kleinhenz. "In past years we focused on yield, but now we include other indicators of crop performance that relate to the quality of fresh heads or those that will be made into kraut or slaw. Physical and chemical qualities are what more and more people in the business focus on."
Kleinhenz and his associates with the university's Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center recently evaluated over 40 cabbage varieties to identify those that meet market characteristics and could be grown in Ohio. Results of the cabbage trials are available online at http://ohioline.osu.edu/~vegnet/.
Researchers analyzed both grower and buyer characteristics and found that 20 percent of varieties studied met criteria from both groups and had potential to be analyzed further by the industry.
"You have to look at factors that are important to both the grower and the buyer - yield, maturity, resistance to insects, diseases, and heat and moisture stress, as well as color, density, flavor, head size, texture and taste," said Kleinhenz. "The ideal fresh market or slaw cabbage is not the ideal kraut cabbage and vice versa."
For example, flavor is more important to fresh or slaw cabbage than to sauerkraut cabbage, since flavor is added to sauerkraut through pickling. Processors seek cabbage with high dry matter content in making sauerkraut, but cabbage that is too dry or even too wet produces undesirable texture for coleslaw. Optimal core size within the head is sought by both coleslaw and sauerkraut processors. The smaller the core, the more cabbage can be shredded.
Kleinhenz works to help strengthen the link between what buyers want and what the industry produces, in part through these types of studies and the educational programs in which they are discussed.
"What consumers prefer in their cabbage is not well documented, scientifically. What we can help do is establish what people look for in cabbage and assist the industry in delivering it," he said. "So if it's a sweet, crunchy, white cabbage or one that is a little green in color with a mild flavor that consumers want, then through our studies we can find out what steps are required to grow a product with those qualities."
Ohio is a leading producer of cabbage for fresh, slaw and kraut markets, with a total of approximately 2,000 acres harvested in the northwest and south-central regions of the state. The value of fresh market cabbage (heads sold directly to consumers) was nearly $4 million in 2000, according to the Ohio Department of Agriculture. The value of cabbage processed for coleslaw and sauerkraut is difficult to track, but Kleinhenz speculates it could be as high as $40 million when the multiplier effect is taken into account - a basic economic concept whereby the value of a product increases as it changes hands in the production and marketing process.