Seeing as it’s picnic and BBQ season, summer is prime time for wondering “What is the difference between slaw and coleslaw anyway?” But it’s a trick question! Functionally, there is no difference; call it coleslaw, cole slaw, or just slaw, the crunchy, tangy, sometimes creamy vegetable dish is the same thing, though the way it’s made depends on regional and personal factors.
A slaw’s acidic zing lifts your palate from the heavy, smoky, fatty meat usually served with it, whether it’s barbecue pulled pork, smoked brisket, ribs, hot dogs, kielbasa, pastrami, or what-have-you. That slaw’s loud crunch makes the pliant, tender meat even more decadent by default. But it’s great on fish tacos too.
Coleslaw comes from the late 1700s Dutch word koolsla (kool means cabbage and sla is a contraction of salade). The Dutch, who founded the state of New York, grew cabbage around the Hudson River. Although the combination of shredded cabbage and other common coleslaw ingredients can be traced back to Roman times, it wasn’t until the mid 18th century that mayonnaise was invented, so coleslaw as we know it is about 250 years old, according to Deb Perelman in her 2007 Kitchen Window article for NPR.
Raw cabbage is the only entirely consistent ingredient in coleslaw, according to one of America’s most respected cooking lexicons, “The Joy of Cooking” by Irma S. Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker, and Ethan Becker. The type of cabbage, dressing, and added ingredients vary widely.
So “slaw” without the “cole” is just a shredded or chopped salad of raw vegetables, coated in a vinegar-based dressing. If the dressing isn’t mostly vinegar, it’s mayonnaise. Mayonnaise itself contains either vinegar or lemon juice, so it provides the same acidic purpose. Then again, Lexington-style slaw from North Carolina uses ketchup as its base, but that’s pretty vinegary too.
The real difference is that the raw, chopped vegetables in coleslaw are primarily cabbage: Napa, red, savoy, or bok choy. Slaw without the cole can feature any crunchy veggie in place of cabbage, including chopped or shredded broccoli, carrots, snow peas, jicama, and more.
Our slaw slinging varies by region and taste too.
In West Virginia, slaw and chili fight for territory aboard the state’s traditional hot dog. “Made from cabbage, mayonnaise and other ingredients, [West Virginia Hot Dog] slaw should be finely chopped, sweet and creamy,” according to the West Virginia Hot Dog Blog. “Slaw that sits well on a hot dog might not be pleasing if served as a side dish since it has such fine texture.
When coleslaw replaces sauerkraut in the Reuben sandwich, it becomes The Rachel. (No relation to the “Friends” hairstyle mania of yore, you ’90s fiends.)
Across the pond, Harley’s Smokehouse Barbecue Restaurant in Kinvere near Birmingham, England, makes its slaw with shredded white and red cabbage, carrots, onions, coriander, buttermilk, lime, chipotle chili, salt, and pepper. The restaurant considers mayonnaise-drenched coleslaw too heavy for barbecue meat.
Jerry Bledsoe disagrees, extolling the virtues of pairing slaw with barbecue in North Carolina cuisine in his “Crazy Slaw” piece in the 1996 book “Close to Home: Revelations and Reminiscences by North Carolina Authors” by Lee Harrison Child. “[Barbecue] cried out for a complementary side dish,” Bledsoe writes. “Cabbage was plentiful and cheap, and the sweet tanginess of slaw melded beautifully with the smoky flavor of the meat.”
He details three different types of slaw that go with barbecue, defined by color: white slaw made with mayonnaise; yellow with a little mustard added with the mayonnaise; and Lexington red slaw made with ketchup and no mayonnaise.
Bledsoe doesn’t buy this “cole” business either.
“Yes, slaw. I don’t mean ‘cole slaw’ either. I never heard that term until I was grown and had begun to wander beyond North Carolina’s borders, and most of what I saw served under that moniker bore little resemblance to anything I had known before.
“No, in North Carolina, it was just slaw: finely chopped cabbage with vinegar, sugar, and mayonnaise.”
Dig into some of our slaw (and coleslaw) recipes:
Whether or not you pair this slaw with tacos or Tex-Mex, you’ll get a kick out of the garlic, cumin, cayenne, and lime juice that spice up this slaw with a little Latin flair. Get our tangy cabbage slaw recipe.
Carrots can be just as crunchy, sweet, and satisfying in slaw form when dressed with red wine vinegar, country-style Dijon mustard, chives, and orange zest. Get our carrot slaw recipe.
Toss in a bag of shredded broccoli with your shredded red and green cabbage for this healthy, satisfying slaw mixed with Greek yogurt, vinaigrette, walnuts, and dried cranberries. Get our broccoli slaw recipe.
It’s a color riot. Red cabbage and carrots mingle with spicy radishes, cilantro, Italian parsley, and red onion. It’s all brightened by two kinds of citrus. Get our cabbage and carrot herbed slaw recipe.
Blurring the line even further between slaw and salad, we’ve got kale apple coleslaw. There’s raw vegetables, chopped in thin strips plus some cider vinegar, so it counts — to some. Regardless, it’s tart, sweet, and crunchy. Get our kale apple coleslaw recipe.
For heat lovers, here’s the slaw for you. The lime provides a welcome contrast. Get our spicy lime and jalapeño coleslaw recipe.