ham and cabbage soup

Ham and cabbage soup

31 January 2013

I hear what you’re thinking: First she dishes out health advice (bleh), followed by salad (lady, it’s cold out, give me some real food!), and now soup? With cabbage? Enough already!

But truly, this soup is no punishment – it’s honest comfort food for dreary days. Technicolor summer calls for bright, gorgeous food. But the gray of winter welcomes a homely but warming meal.

I wanted to call this a chowder, which sounds so much heartier and more appealing than soup. And this recipe does have milk, onion, potato, corn – all good chowder ingredients. If we were chatting in real life, I would sell you on this unexpectedly fantastic chowder I just made. But this is the internet, and I didn’t want to rile New Englanders for misappropriating the word chowder on a seafood-less concoction, much less one with cabbage.

Cabbage gets a bad rap, and though I like it, I also often overlook the unremarkable pale green rounds of it at the store. Cabbage just doesn’t call out for attention. But I’ve been using it as an inspired salad accent, as you know, and when I set out to make a bean soup with some country ham rescued from the freezer, I thought, why use beans when I have the better part of a cabbage in the fridge? Cabbage and ham love each other.

Ham too gets a unfair rap, no doubt due to the awful jellied canned variety. But traditional hams – typically cured hind leg of a hog – have a long tradition, dating to pre-Roman times, that includes prosciutto in Italy and jamon Ibérico in Spain. China has an even longer history of ham-curing, with Jinhua ham the most well-known. And America has its Southern country hams, Virginia’s famed Smithfield among them.

My mom’s good friends, a kind Chinese professor and his wife from my mom’s nervous college years as a recent immigrant, sent as a Christmas gift a box of Old Waynesboro country ham, from Goldsboro, North Carolina. My mom, a fan of Honeybaked Ham’s very sweet and soft ham, was perplexed by the intense saltiness and dense prosciutto-like texture of country ham. I suspect her friends use country ham in Chinese cooking, as Jinhua ham is used as a flavoring for Chinese dishes and especially soups.

Whatever your opinion on eating ham, it’s hard to deny that ham makes a fantastic soup flavoring. Aside from the saltiness, a well-cured ham has loads of umami, the hard-to-define taste of addictively savory goodness.

This is an old-fashioned winter soup, with vegetables that would winter well in a root cellar. In the frontier days of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Ma would have made this with salt pork. And it would have been a steamy, filling, wholesome reward after a long, cold day. Just what I needed this January.

Ma’s root cellar vegetables.

soup vegetables

Amazing what you can get in the mail these days. The original recipe calls for a pound of ham, but with the intense saltiness of country ham, half a pound is plenty.

country ham

Core the cabbage

core cabbage

and slice.

slicing cabbage

Soup can absorb a remarkable amount of vegetables.

cabbage carrot onion

You don’t have to cook the vegetables first. But I think it adds a nicer flavor. And it’s convenient to let the vegetables cook while I cut ham.

cabbage carrot onion in pot

I found it very amusing to cut ham on my mom’s pig-shaped cutting board.

diced country ham

Add ham to the vegetables.

ham and vegetables


ham cabbage soup cooking

I added a few extras since I had them on hand. If I were really organized (like Tamar Adler of An Everlasting Meal), I would collect good scraps for flavoring soups and stock. My mom is that organized – she had kale stems and chicken drumstick bones to contribute to the soup. If we were even more on the ball, we would have made stock first, and then used the stock for soup. But I used canned broth and simply enhanced the soup with our good scraps.

kale stems chicken bones

I added the potatoes about a half-hour before I wanted to eat. But you really can’t go wrong. I could have made bigger chunks and cooked it from the start. Or I could have cooked the cubes from the start and let them melt into and thicken the soup.

diced potatoes

The recipe calls for frozen corn to be added at the end. I didn’t have any, so I used extra cabbage to begin with. But I think corn would add a nice crunch and contribute to the chowder-like feel of the soup.

Dairy is the last step (after I removed my flavoring scraps). If you are using milk or half-and-half, do not let the soup boil again. Cream will generally hold up to boiling, but milk will separate. Your soup will still taste good, but it will look blotchy instead of creamy.

adding milk to soup

Indoor-light photos make everything look unappetizing. So I took my bowl of soup into the drizzle outside to catch the faded glow of winter sun already set. If I’d been eating the soup instead of photographing it, I would have felt perfectly toasty.

ham and cabbage soup

If you are in need of some cheerful food, Bakerella‘s whimsical (and, to me, utterly unattainable) creations are always good for a smile. I was glad to find that Bakerella was just in friendly Columbus, enjoying the mind- and taste-blowing joys of Jeni’s ice cream with friends.

Ham and Cabbage Soup
Ham and cabbage love each other, and the dairy and corn make it chowder-like. A warming, wholesome soup for a cold winter’s day. Adapted from food.com.


  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 3 carrots, peeled (or well-scrubbed) and chopped
  • 6 cups sliced cabbage
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 cups (about 2/3 pound) cooked ham, diced (use less if country ham – 1/2 lb or 1.5 cups)
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 5 cups chicken broth
  • 4 medium baking potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch cubes (about 4 cups)
  • 1 16-ounce package frozen corn (optional)
  • 1 cup cream (or half-and-half or milk)
  • Salt, to taste
  • Black pepper, to taste
  • Cayenne pepper (optional)
  • Parsley, minced, for garnish (optional)


  1. Heat olive oil in a large soup pot on medium heat. Add onion, carrot, cabbage and a generous grinding of black pepper. Cook until vegetables are soft.
  2. Add ham, potatoes, bay leaf and broth. Add a cup of water if you need more liquid to cover the soup ingredients. Cover and bring to a boil.
  3. Reduce heat and simmer 20-25 minutes or until potatoes are tender.
  4. Add corn and simmer a few minutes uncovered until corn is tender.
  5. Add cream, heat briefly without boiling and turn heat off. If using milk or half-and-half, be especially careful not to boil after adding dairy, or it will separate. It will taste fine, but the soup will look blotchy instead of creamy.
  6. Season with salt (depending on the saltiness of your ham and broth, you may not need any), black pepper and cayenne (if using). Serve hot, garnishing with minced parsley if you like.


  • If you are in a hurry, you can skip cooking the vegetables first and simply add them to the soup pot with the ham, potatoes, bay leaf and broth.
  • If cooking ahead of time, do not add cream when cooking soup. Before serving, reheat soup and add the dairy just before serving.
  • If using thin-skinned new potatoes, you may scrub well and leave the skin on.

Here’s the link to a printable version.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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