Traditional coleslaw is a mainstay at picnics and barbecues. Top pulled pork sandwiches with crunchy coleslaw or serve it with burgers. Alter the ingredients and you can create an entirely new dish. Soy sauce, lime juice, ginger and cashews creates an Asian-inspired slaw. Add lime juice and chili powder for Southwestern flair. Whichever flavorings you choose, make coleslaw just a few hours before you serve it for the best flavor and texture.
From a food safety perspective, coleslaw can be made three to four days in advance if it's kept covered and refrigerated at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or cooler, advises U.S. Department of Agriculture. Although the vinegar in the dressing acts as a preservative, quality quickly diminishes beyond the three to four day mark and the vegetables may begin to spoil.
Although you can safely make coleslaw three to four days ahead of serving it, you may not be happy with the quality. Coleslaw should be made ahead and refrigerated to meld the flavors, but if you make it more than 24 hours ahead, it becomes watery and limp. The ideal time frame seems to be between three and six hours ahead of time -- long enough to thoroughly chill the salad and mix the flavors, but short enough that the cabbage and other vegetables stay crisp.
Tips for Success
Bagged coleslaw mixes work in a pinch, but for really crisp coleslaw, shred the cabbage yourself. Choose cabbages that feel heavy for their size. Wash and shred them the day before you need to make the slaw. Place the shredded cabbage in a colander and salt it well. Pour boiling water over it and drain it thoroughly. Then bag the cabbage and refrigerate it overnight. This extra step doesn't cook the cabbage but adds flavor and makes it crisper. When you're ready to make the coleslaw, make sure all the ingredients are cold. Drain the coleslaw mix again before you add the dressing and refrigerate it until serving time.
If you're pressed for time and really need to get a head start, try these strategies: Chop the cabbage ahead of time or buy bagged coleslaw mix. If you're adding vegetables, such as peppers and onions, cut them and store them in individual containers at 40 F up to 24 hours in advance. Make the dressing up to three days ahead of time and keep it refrigerated in a covered container. With the prep work taken care of, you can toss the slaw together in less than five minutes a few hours before serving it. Cover and refrigerate it and you're ready to go.
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Julie Christensen is a food writer, caterer, and mom-chef. She's the creator of MarmaladeMom.org, dedicated to family fun and delicious food, and released a book titled "More Than Pot Roast: Fast, Fresh Slow Cooker Recipes."