Cauliflower is one of those vegetables about which most people have a strong opinion one way or the other. While it is very versatile in terms of what you can do with it, and it is quite healthy to eat, both its look and its flavor simply rub many people the wrong way and have caused generations of parents to admonish their children to stop complaining and eat what is put in front of them.
Botanically, cauliflower is a member of the Brassica genus in the Brassicaceae (more commonly referred to as crucifer, mustard or cabbage) family of flowering plants. It is one of the main ‘cole’ crops and is very closely related to broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, turnips, and kale. Cauliflower is an annual plant – meaning that new seeds must be planted by farmers and gardeners each spring – grown for its edible ‘head’ (also called the curd, because it resembles cheese curd), which is actually a tight formation of immature flower stalks. Cauliflower heads can range in size from 4 to over 10 inches in diameter, depending on the cultivar. Most parts of the cauliflower plant are technically edible; however, generally speaking, only the head of the plant is usually eaten. While cauliflower heads can grow in a range of colors (discussed below) the most common commercial cultivars are white.
Cauliflower (along with the other cole crops) can trace its roots back to wild cabbage and is believed to be native to the European Island of Cyprus in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. It was introduced to both the Middle East and the other Mediterranean nations during the late Middle Ages and eventually spread to the rest of Western Europe (where it was often called ‘Cyprus cole’) throughout the Renaissance, during which time it was considered a delicacy by the upper classes. The British introduced cauliflower to Asia (specifically India) in the early 1800s, and the plant was brought to North America by European immigrants around the same time – although it did not become popular either economically or in a culinary sense in the United States until the 1920s.
While exact figures on current worldwide cauliflower production are not available as most agricultural databases lump cauliflower together with its close relative broccoli for statistical purposes, it is estimated that somewhere between 11 and 14 million metric tons of cauliflower are commercially cultivated each year. China and India are the world’s leading producers – together accounting for about 75 percent of annual production – followed by the United States, Mexico, Spain, Italy, and France. In the US, California accounts for about 90 percent of commercial cultivation, followed by Arizona and New York.
Cauliflower is considered a cool-season crop and can be extremely challenging to grow, particularly for home gardeners. It is very sensitive to both frost and heat, even short periods of drought, and a number of pests and diseases. The plant does best in mild temperatures between 60 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit; the heads have a tendency to button or bolt in prolonged temperatures of over 75F, and so the seeds are usually planted in the early spring in most areas so that the heads are fully developed and ready for harvest prior to the summer heat. The plant requires a great deal of attention throughout the growing season, and many of the most popular varieties require ‘blanching’ (discussed below) while still growing to produce a quality head.
Nutritionally, cauliflower is very low in fat and calories and provides a decent amount of dietary fiber. It is an excellent source of many of the B vitamins – particularly 5, 6, and 8 – as well as vitamins C and K, potassium, manganese and phosphorous. Like most of the cruciferous vegetables, cauliflower contains high levels of antioxidants and phytonutrients and is also believed by some researchers to be useful in slowing the growth of some cancer cells, as well as being helpful in lowering blood pressure and improving the function of the kidneys.
So what are some of the types of cauliflower on the market today?
White cauliflower is, by far, the most popular type out there, and what you will normally find for sale at your local market or grocery store. By some estimates, well over 90 percent of all commercially cultivated cauliflower falls into this category. Generally speaking, the whiter and creamer the head looks, the better the quality is considered to be.
Although cauliflower plants need a lot of sunshine to thrive, direct exposure to sunlight will discolor the heads of most varieties of white cauliflower – turning them yellowish, brown or a dull green – and can also significantly impact the flavor. When young, the heads are naturally protected from the sun by the plant’s leaves, but as they grow the leaves open up, exposing the head. To combat damage from this direct exposure to the sun, the heads of many white cauliflower cultivars must be ‘blanched’ – a time-consuming process that involves manually tying the leaves back over the heads using twine, rubber bands, or special tape when the heads begin to be exposed. Over the years, several cultivars of ‘self-blanching’ white cauliflower have been developed by horticulturalists in which the leaves remain wrapped around the heads throughout the growing cycle.
The type of white cauliflower grown (both commercially and by gardeners) will be largely dependent on the make-up of the soil, the length of the growing season and (commercially) the desired size of the head. In the United States white cauliflower is generally sold in grocery stores labeled simply as ‘Cauliflower’ without a specific variety name attached to it.
The Snowball is an heirloom variety of cauliflower that was developed in France and first introduced to the United States by Peter Henderson and Company in 1888. A fairly hardy and relatively cold-tolerant variety in its original form, over the years the Snowball has been one of the most ‘improved’ cauliflower cultivars out there, and various forms of the Snowball are among the most widely grown types of cauliflower – by both commercial and home growers – throughout the world.
Depending on the specific cultivar the Snowball is either partially or completely self-blanching, and will grow best in USDA Hardiness Zones 5 – 10. The Snowball plant tolerates very short periods of spring frost better than many other varieties and tends to perform best in areas with temperatures ranging from 50 to 75F that have lots of sunshine. It is particularly resistant to mildew, and – again depending on the specific cultivar – will produce mature heads 6 to 7 inches in diameter in between 60 to 75 days. The heads will usually weigh around 2 pounds, are pure or slightly off-white, and normally smooth with tightly and uniformly formed curds. Good for all common fresh or cooked applications, it has the standard mild, slightly sweet and nutty flavor most of us associate with cauliflower. The two most widely marketed types of Snowball cauliflower are the Self-Blanching and Early.
The aptly named Amazing is a Dutch heirloom variety that is among the most popular cauliflower cultivars with home gardeners throughout Europe and North America. Also commercially cultivated on a limited basis – usually by smaller local farmers – the Amazing is a very sturdy plant that stands up to cold better than many other varieties and can tolerate below-freezing temperatures for very short periods of time, allowing it to be grown in USDA Zones 3 – 9. The dense, bright white, fine-textured heads routinely grow up to 10 inches in diameter – making it among the larger common cauliflower varieties – and are protected from wind and cold by quite thick, upright-growing leaves. The Amazing is a semi self-blanching variety that will usually reach maturity in 75 to 85 days and is known for its excellent ‘holding’ ability, meaning that the heads can remain on the plant for a couple of weeks after reaching maturity and do not need to be harvested immediately as is the case with many other varieties. The heads remain crisp for up to two weeks after harvest and have a standard cauliflower taste with just a hint of tanginess. They are good for all general fresh and cooked applications, and – due to the size and density of the heads – are particularly well suited to mashing (in place of mashed potatoes) and pizza crusts.
A hybrid variety released in 1975 by the Takii Seed Company of Kyoto, Japan, the Snow Crown is a fairly popular commercial cultivar – particularly in Asia – as well as a favorite with home gardeners in Europe and the United States. Mildew resistant and fairly heat tolerant, the plant is a vigorous grower and among the fastest of all well-regarded varieties to mature, normally producing high quality, tightly formed 7 to 8-inch heads in 50 to 60 days. The Snow Crown will normally need its leaves tied in the last ten days of growth but is otherwise self-blanching, and will hold on the plant for up to ten days after maturing. The flavor is mild and a bit sweeter than some other varieties. It is not uncommon to find small pink or violet patches on the otherwise snow-white curds of this variety, particularly in warmer areas; these patches normally have no effect on flavor.
Sweet Stem Caulilini
One of the newest and most unique types of white cauliflower, Sweet Stem Caulilini was developed in 2017 by the Aruba Seed Company and Mann Packing and is currently still a propriety cultivar grown exclusively under patent license. Increasing rapidly in popularity in the gourmet and restaurant market, Sweet Stem Caulilini features small, open cream-color florets at the end of a long, thick edible stem. The small florets are firm and have an exceptionally sweet flavor with virtually no bitterness, while the stems have a sweet, slightly grassy flavor and succulent texture. While not available in supermarkets (yet), Sweet Stem Caulilini can be found in some restaurants and select specialty markets throughout the United States, Western Europe, and New Zealand.
Widely available throughout the world, Baby white cauliflower is, in effect, simply regular commercial cauliflower that is harvested before it fully develops. Really coming into its own with cooks in the mid-1980s, Baby cauliflower will normally range from 1 to 3 inches in diameter and is harvested prior to outgrowing their protective leaves. The heads will generally be quite firm (although more ‘crumbly’ than mature heads) with a mild, nutty flavor that will become stronger when it is roasted and virtually no bitterness. Popular uses for Baby cauliflower include stir-fries, pizza topping, and as a component of omelets, pasta dishes, and fresh crudités platters.
Discovered near Toronto Canada in 1970, Orange cauliflower was hybridized at the New York Agricultural Station at Cornell University and the first commercial variety was released to the market in 1981. Work has continued by breeders since then, and today several varieties are grown on a limited commercial basis, mostly in the United States and Northern Mexico. Orange cauliflower is quite similar to white varieties in respect to size, flavor, and growing requirements, although it does not need to be blanched. The orange color is the result of increased levels of vitamin A (beta-carotene) in the head.
Orange cauliflower plants have some tolerance for both cold and heat, and can be grown in USDA Zones 3 – 9, normally reaching maturity in 60 to 70 days. Depending on the specific cultivar, the tightly packed heads will usually be 6 to 8 inches in diameter and will range from dull to quite bright and vibrant orange in color. They have a standard cauliflower flavor, are appropriate for all cauliflower uses, and will retain their color during cooking. The most popular varieties of Orange cauliflower currently on the market include Cheddar (which in no way tastes like the cheese), Flame Star, Orange Dream and Orange Bouquet.
Also sometimes referred to as Broccoflower, Green cauliflower varieties are a hybrid of white cauliflower and broccoli – both of which are part of the same plant genus. Believed to have originally been grown on a very small scale in the Netherlands, the first commercial cultivar was developed by a grower in Salinas, California and released to the market in 1988. Generally speaking, Green cauliflower varieties are slightly more tolerant of heat than they are of cold, and will normally do best in USDA Zones 5 – 10. The firm heads – which will be varying shades of green depending on the specific cultivar and are shaped and put together like their white counterparts – will normally grow to between 6 and 8 inches in diameter, mature in around 75 days, and do not require blanching. The flavor is milder and less bitter than most white varieties, as well as slightly sweeter and nuttier. Some popular varieties of Green cauliflower include the aforementioned Broccoflower, Vorda, Green Goddess, and Alverda.
An heirloom variety that has only been hybridized in recent years, there is some disagreement among horticultural historians (yes, they are a thing) as to whether Purple cauliflower is native to Italy or South Africa. Wherever it originated, Purple cauliflower has been increasing in popularity with commercial and particularly home growers in the last several decades due to both its flavor and its stunningly vibrant violet color. A relatively delicate plant in its original form, more recently hybridized cultivars have been developed to grow in USDA Zones 4 – 8 and will normally mature in around 70 days. The heads will usually be 6 to 7 inches in diameter, varying shades of violet/purple with cream-colored stems and cores, and will tend to be a bit more crumbly than white varieties. The taste is considerably sweeter and nuttier than white cauliflower, and these flavors increase during cooking. Used in both fresh and cooked applications, the violet / purple coloring is due to a high concentration of anthocyanin – an antioxidant also present in red wine. Commercially popular cultivars include Graffiti, Sicilian Violet, Violet Queen, and Purple Cape.
Also sometimes referred to as Roman and not to be confused with the broccoli of the same name, Romanesco is a very uniquely shaped type of cauliflower that has been grown in Northern Italy since the mid-16th century. For many years almost impossible to grow outside of its native region, hybrid cultivars have been developed in recent years that have allowed Romanesco to be successfully grown throughout Western Europe and in Zones 4 – 9 in the United States. The heads will vary in color from bright to yellowish-green, will normally grow to 6 or 7 inches in diameter, and have raised geometrically patterned spiral florets that come to points at the top. Normally developing in 80 to 90 days, Romanesco varieties will generally have a slightly stronger, nuttier flavor than white varieties. Popular cultivars include Veronica, Puntoverde, and Minaret.