Main Differences Between Brussels Sprouts and Cabbage
Brussels sprouts are a familiar - and sometimes controversial - addition to the traditional Christmas dinner. Their bitter taste tends to mean that you either love them or hate them, but cooked properly, this little vegetable can be a tasty addition to any dish. Brussels sprouts are also thought by some to be a low-carb 'superfood' given that they are low in calories but high in fibre, vitamins and minerals. They are especially rich in vitamin K, which plays a key role in blood clotting and bone health, as well as vitamin C and antioxidants that boost your immune system. A number of studies have linked an increased intake of cruciferous vegetables such as Brussels sprouts to a decreased risk of diabetes.
But what are Brussels sprouts?
With their spherical shape and densely-packed green leaves, they look like mini cabbages, and in fact, the cabbage and the Brussels sprout do both come from the same species of plant - the brassica oleracea. But this doesn’t mean that Brussels sprouts are just baby cabbages. The two plants have different taste and different nutritional values. They are also strikingly different while still in the ground. The cabbage grows a large, single head, close to the ground, while the Brussels sprout grows a tall central stem, with lots of small sprouts clustered around it.
So how can these two different plants both be the same species?
The answer is selective breeding by humans. When our ancestors began farming the original wild cabbage, a plant native to coastal southern and western Europe, they deliberately chose plants with desirable traits - perhaps larger leaves, or a stronger taste - and because different communities selected for different traits, the result was several very different versions of the same plant, known as cultivars.
Thousands of years of history
Cabbages were already a well-established crop in Greek and Roman times. Greek philosopher Theophrastus, who lived around 371 – 287 BC, and is often referred to as the father of botany, mentions three types of cabbage, a curly-leaved cabbage, a smooth-leaved cabbage, and a wild-type cabbage, suggesting that the cabbage had already diversified into several cultivars more than two thousand years ago. The Brussels sprout as it is known today is thought to have been developed later, possibly around the 13th century. It was known to be popular in Belgium in the 16th century, and was likely created there, taking its name from Belgium’s capital city, Brussels.
What do cabbages and canines have in common?
These days the brassica oleracea has several well-known cultivars, including Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, kale and kohlrabi, all of which come from the same species of plant. The closest comparison in the animal world is the dog, which has also been selectively bred by humans to produce various very different breeds. Taking dogs as an example, it seems obvious that a Chihuahua isn’t just a Great Dane puppy, and in the same way, a Brussel’s sprout is not quite the same as a baby cabbage.
There are several other key differences between these two cultivars. From a culinary point of view, Brussels sprouts have a denser texture and a more bitter taste, making them inedible when raw, while cabbage has a milder flavour and is often used raw in salads and slaws. There are also nutritional differences - cabbage has fewer calories than Brussels sprouts, but also fewer nutrients, with sprouts containing higher concentrations of vitamins A and C, Folic Acid, Potassium, Magnesium and Phosphorus. Cabbage does score higher on calcium content, however, and while neither vegetable is particularly high in sugar, cabbage still contains around twice as much as sprouts, which accounts for its less bitter taste.
But despite their differences, Brussels sprouts and cabbage are fairly similar in taste, albeit sprouts are a little more bitter. Raw dishes aside, you can often substitute one for the other, depending on how bitter you like your vegetables. Both can be boiled, steamed, stir fried, grilled, roasted, stuffed or pickled, and both are usually served as an accompaniment for meat or potato dishes.
Brussels sprouts: some recipes
The Brussels sprout has been much maligned in the past, usually due to poor cooking techniques. Sprouts are often over-boiled, leading to an unappealing mushy texture and a sulphurous smell. But once you know how to prepare it, the humble sprout can be a delicious addition to any meal. Follow our tips for brilliant Brussels and you can be sure that everyone will be asking for another helping.
Most importantly, avoid too much boiling. Other cooking methods, such as roasting or frying, can be used to cook the sprouts through without them falling apart, and adding a bit of oil brings out their flavour nicely. But if you like your sprouts cooked the traditional way, be sure to boil them for no longer than five minutes.
To bring out the best in your Brussels sprouts, try pairing them with complementary flavours. They taste great with rich, salty foods like bacon, or sharp lemon vinaigrettes, and can also be served with chestnuts, hazelnuts or pine nuts, to bring out their naturally nutty flavour.
Now you know the basics, here are some of our favourite recipes to help you make the most of this tasty little vegetable:
For a simple side dish, try oven-roasting your Brussels sprouts with olive oil and a pinch of salt and pepper. Roasting will caramelise the sprouts, sweetening them slightly, while retaining their dense, moreish texture.
Brussels sprouts and chestnuts are the perfect combination for Christmas or Thanksgiving. Sautée them in an aromatic mixture of vegetable stock, white wine, balsamic cream and butter for a deliciously savoury and nutty treat.
Now we’ve convinced you that sprouts can be delicious, why not make them the main event with our tasty vegan quiche recipe? Made with a gluten-free crust and a creamy filling of chickpea flour, vegan cheese, Brussels sprouts and potatoes, it makes the perfect brunch-time snack.
For these recipes and more, check out our handy guide to cooking the best Brussels sprouts ever.
Finally, to create a real show-stopping side dish for that special occasion, try our recipe for Brussels sprouts with dates and pine nuts. Sweet, juicy figs complement the bitterness of the sprouts, while pine nuts bring out their nutty flavour. Serve in a large dish, and let your guests help themselves.