sweet vinegar slaw

Sweet vinegar slaw

17 June 2015

Mealtimes with my gregarious Ohio family are much more about socializing than cooking. Impromptu family gatherings call for pizza – round pies cut in snacky squares, as is the norm here – but planned family events, like all four of my kids’ baptisms, are accompanied by takeout from our favorite local barbecue joint.

The smoked beef brisket and pulled pork from City Barbeque are deeply flavorful and tender, but I have a thing for sides: saucy beans with bits of brisket, sweet tea and vinegary cole slaw. City BBQ has mayonnaise-based slaw too, but ever since they started offering the vinegar option, we’ve never gone back. It has a light, fresh crunch, and its sweet-tart taste is a piquant contrast to smoky meat.

It’s such a simple salad – shredded cabbage with a touch of onion, bell pepper and grated carrot, with an irresistible balance of sweet and sour – that I’ve been meaning crack the code on a recipe for ages. But I’m always so busy eating it that I forget to set some aside for recipe development. This week, we had a City BBQ night for Sunday’s Warriors-Cavaliers playoff game, and I finally remembered. So here’s my take, in time for July 4th and the rest of grilling season.

The balance here is all about vinegar and sugar. It seems like a lot of sugar, but think of the mixture as more brine than salad dressing – the vegetables will soak in flavor, and you’ll see that a good deal of the liquid gets thrown out when the salad is all eaten. Many recipes call for equal amounts of vinegar and sugar, but I think 25% less sugar than vinegar is just right.

Heat sugar, vinegar, salt and dry mustard (except I forgot the mustard for the picture). After heating, add a little salad oil and set aside.

vinegar dressing

Pre-shredded cabbage is often old and dry in the bag, but a whole cabbage stays fresh in the fridge until you’re ready to use it. If you have a halfway decent knife, shredding is quick and easy, and you’ll be amazed at how much shredded cabbage comes from one compact head.

Just a quick illustration, in case you haven’t done this before. Cut the cabbage in half, and make two cuts in each to remove the triangle of core.

coring cabbage

I don’t want the shreds too long – no one wants to eat slaw with a knife – so I turn the cabbage as I cut it to keep the lengths shorter.

shredding cabbage

shorter shreds

It look me forever to learn to cut my bell peppers around the core, to keep seeds from getting everywhere.

cutting bell pepper

I like how City BBQ dices the onion and bell pepper very fine, so that they flavor the slaw subtly. The carrot is more for color than flavor, but you can always adjust proportions to suit your taste.

Pour the warm dressing over. It looks like a lot of cabbage, but it shrinks down a lot as it marinates.

slaw vegetables

Keep turning the vegetables in the dressing. If you are making this ahead of time, you can just leave it out (or keep it in the fridge) and stir it occasionally.

mixing slaw

My version is less oily than the City BBQ slaw, and I think the sweet-sour balance is right on.

slaw taste test

This slaw is perfection with pulled pork and baked beans. But it’s also excellent with burgers, hot dogs or anything else you might grill this summer.

sweet vinegar slaw dish

And no mayo makes it a worry-free picnic dish. With this and my no-mayo lemony potato salad, you’re set for even the hottest Fourth of July.

sweet vinegar slaw

Sweet Vinegar Slaw
Inspired by the deliciously sweet-tart, no-mayo slaw at local Columbus, Ohio chain City Barbeque, this is an ideal worry-free side dish for any summer grilling.


  • 1/3 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
  • 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 cup white vinegar (or apple cider vinegar)
  • 3 tablespoons salad oil (olive, or your choice)
  • 1 medium cabbage, shredded (about 1 3/4 pounds, or 8-9 cups)
  • 1 carrot, grated
  • 1/2 green pepper, diced fine
  • 1/2 medium onion, diced fine
  • Roasted peanuts (optional)


  1. In a small saucepan, mix sugar, dry mustard, salt and vinegar. Heat and stir until sugar dissolves. Remove from heat, add salad oil, and set aside.
  2. To shred cabbage by hand, cut cabbage in half through the core. Make two cuts to remove the wedge of core from each half. Then place cabbage cut side down on a board, slicing thinly with a knife.
  3. In a large bowl, add cabbage, grated carrot, diced green pepper and onion. Pour warm dressing over and mix well. The cabbage will wilt and shrink down in volume as it soaks in the dressing. Adjust seasonings to taste (salt, sugar, pepper if desired). You may leave out at room temperature if serving the same day; otherwise refrigerate overnight. Top with roasted peanuts for serving, if you like.

Makes 6-7 cups slaw.


  • I know it seems like a lot of sugar, but think of the vinegar mixture as more brine than salad dressing – much of it will get thrown out when the salad is all eaten. You may cut back on sugar and it will be more tart, but this ratio is already less than the 1:1 vinegar-sugar ratio used in many versions of this slaw.
  • Pre-shredded cabbage is often old and dry in the bag, but a whole cabbage stays fresh in the fridge until you’re ready to use it. If you have a halfway decent knife, shredding is quick and easy, and you’ll be amazed at how much shredded cabbage comes from one compact head.
  • You may add a dash of celery seed, a classic slaw seasoning, or a bit of cayenne pepper for a subtle heat.
  • Don’t put peanuts in ahead of time, or they will get soggy.
  • To double the recipe, buy a large (~3 lb) cabbage and use 2 carrots, 1 medium onion and 1 green pepper. Double the vinegar mixture.

Here’s the link to a printable version.

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

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Lisa M in Indy 17 June 2015 at 4:24 pm

I love this slaw! The recipe has the same flavor as my Great Aunt Opal’s tried and true ‘refrigerator slaw’. Except: she boils the sugar, water and vinegar til it thickens slightly. No oil. No peanuts or carrots. I made it with minced garlic once. BIG mistake. This slaw is so sweet and tangey that garlic it too overpowering for this delicate salad. I could eat a whole bowl full! A medium cabbage makes a lot of slaw. Thanks! Veto the mayo on cole slaw.


cg 18 June 2015 at 8:36 am

hi lisa M in indy – you are awesome for sharing great aunt opal’s wisdom! i could also eat a whole bowl, so i couldn’t take a stab at serving size. at city bbq they estimate this amount serves 8-10, but not when i’m around. =P thanks for sharing your garlic experiment too – the charm of this salad is its simple but utterly compelling flavor, so even a little celery seed is too distracting for me.


Sheila 19 June 2015 at 5:07 am

This looks delicious! The sugar amount does not seem too much at all considering you are working with vinegar to obtain a sweet/sour concoction. Thank you for the wonderful tutorials and all the wisdom they teach.


cg 25 June 2015 at 8:30 pm

hi sheila – thank you for reading, and for taking the time to comment! i really appreciate it.


Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: