Chow Chow

A plate of chow chow.

Chow-chow (also spelled chowchow or chow chow) is a North American pickled relish. Its ingredients vary considerably, depending on whether it is the “Northern” (primarily Pennsylvanian) or “Southern” variety, as well as separate (and likely the original) Canadian variety, prevalent in the Maritimes. The former is made from a combination of vegetables, mainly green and red tomatoesonionscarrotsbeans of various types, asparaguscauliflower and peas. The latter is entirely or almost entirely cabbage. These ingredients are pickled in a canning jar. After preserving, chow-chow is served cold, often as a condiment or relish.

Chow chow is a condiment, similar to pickle relish, traditionally made at the end of the growing season, as a way to preserve the last little bits of summer from the garden, when there isn’t enough of any one thing to can on it’s own. A last head of cabbage, a few lonely peppers, some tomatoes that aren’t going to ripen before the first frost, maybe a late ear of sweet corn or two. Chop it all up, and cover it with salt, vinegar, and spices and you’ll be eating summer all winter.

I’ll be up front here: If you are looking to make a big batch and can it, please go find a recipe from a trusted canning source such as the Ball Blue Book.* Most of the canned recipes I looked at seemed to use a sugar:vinegar ratio of 3:5, while my recipe is more like 2:3, so my recipe may not have a proper balance of salt, sugar and vinegar to ensure long term safety. (I believe that Taste of Southern’s chow chow recipe is straight out of the Ball Blue Book)

That said, I went ahead and made over a gallon of chow chow. To be fair, I was expecting everything to shrink quite a bit more than it did. I poured the hot chow chow into sterilized jars and put new, clean lids on it, but I did not process it in any way. The jars did seal, and I’ll keep it in the refrigerator and try to eat it up relatively soon.

Rest assured, the recipe I have posted will not leave you scrambling to find jars for 20 cups of relish. It should make about two and a half cups. I knew I’m going to be playing with variations on the soup beans recipe for a while, so I wanted to make enough to get me through that. I started with an estimate that one head of cabbage would make about 8 cups of shredded cabbage, and multiplied my recipe from there. In the end I only used three quarters of a pretty average sized head of cabbage to get 8 cups.

One question any serious student of cooking is probably going to stumble on sooner or later is “how big is a medium onion compared to a large onion”. When I’m comparing recipes to create my own I operate on the theory that two small onions make one medium, and three smalls make a large (so a medium is ⅔ of a large.) I also use the math that one medium onion makes about a cup of chopped onion. Normally going up or down a size probably isn’t going to make that much difference in a recipe that calls for one onion, but when you start multiplying recipes the difference can add up, so it’s good to have an alternate measurement. The same one medium = 1 cup chopped seems to hold pretty true across a lot of similarly sized vegetable, like the tomatoes and bell peppers I used in this recipe.

So how do you make chow chow? You start by chopping your vegetables. If you’re making a small batch, this isn’t any different than making a vegetable soup. If you’re making a big batch, prepare to spend some time chopping. I think I spent about an hour and a half chopping for my 8x batch, and I have a lot more practice at chopping vegetables than most people outside the food service industry. I saw several different version of how small large to cut your vegetables, especially the cabbage. I chose to dice the cabbage, but I saw quite a few recipes that just shredded it like closeslaw or saurkaraut. I aslo saw a recipe that called for running the vegetables through a meat grinder.

Once everything is chopped we add salt. A lot of salt. Make sure you’re using a non-reactive bowl such as glass, plastic or stainless. Mix everything together until the vegetables begin to wilt and release water. Now cover and refrigerate overnight so the salt has time start to break down the cell structure and release excess water.

You can use kosher salt or canning and pickling salt. Avoid table or sea salt because the additives in standard table salt or extra minerals in sea salt can change the flavor or color of your chow chow.

The next day, drain the vegetables and rinse with a couple changes of fresh water. Taste after each rinse. The vegetables should still taste salty, but not overwhelmingly so.

Leave the vegetables to drain while you make the brine. Once the brine has simmered for 10 minutes, add the vegetables and bring it back to a rolling boil, then simmer for another 10 minutes. If you’re making a large batch I highly recommend using a pan that is wider than it is tall- think a dutch oven vs. a stock pot. In a narrower pot the weight of the vegetables will trap heat at the bottom of the pot. I used a stock pot and at the end whenever I stirred it there was a violent release of boiling liquid that had been trapped at the bottom. However the more important consideration is again making sure you’re using a non-reactive pot- you don’t want the vinegar reacting with your pot and changing the flavor of your chow chow.

Finally put your hot chow chow into clean jars and put lids on them. Cool and refrigerate.

Chow Chow

Makes: 2 ½ cups
Prep: 30 minutes (or more for larger batches)
Total: 1 hour plus salting time

1 cup green cabbage shredded or chopped.
2/3 medium onion, chopped
1 medium green tomato, chopped
¾ green bell pepper
⅔ red bell pepper, chopped
¼ serrano pepper, minced
1 Tablespoon kosher salt
1 Tablespoon canning and pickling salt

½ cup granulated sugar
¾ cup white vinegar
¾ cup cider vinegar
¼ teaspoon turmeric
½ teaspoon yellow mustard seed
½ teaspoon celery seed
⅛ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
⅛ teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon ground mustard
⅓ clove garlic, minced
⅔ teaspoon prepared yellow mustard

⅓ cup water
⅛ bay leaf
½ teaspoon black peppercorns
⅛ teaspoon ground allspice
⅛ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ cup light brown sugar
⅓ jalapeno, minced. 

Chop your vegetables into small pieces and put them in a non-reactive bowl. Add salt and mix thoroughly. Cover and refrigerate over night. 

Drain your vegetables and rinse with fresh water a couple of times. Leave to drain while you make the brine.  

Place sugar, vinegar and spices in a wide non-reactive pot and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Add vegetables and bring back to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Pack into clean jars and seal. Allow to cool, then store in the refrigerator for several days before serving. 

*I receive no compensation for mentioning this product.

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