Kristie Leong M.D. is a family practitioner who believes in the power of nutrition and a healthy lifestyle to prevent and fight illness.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, cabbage is one of the mostly widely consumed vegetables in the world. This leafy vegetable comes in many varieties, including green, purple and red. There are also many ways to prepare it, including raw, boiled, or steamed.
This green, leafy veggie is a polarizing vegetable that people either love or hate. If you're the kind of person who loves it, you might be wondering why it smells so strong—and frankly, a bit stinky.
If you've ever cooked cabbage, you may have noticed an unpleasant aroma filled your kitchen when you cooked it. There’s a simple explanation. This vegetable contains sulfur compounds, which are known to produce the "stinky cabbage" aroma some people find offensive.
Other foods that share this trait include broccoli and Brussels sprouts, both of which are rich in sulfur compounds. Let’s take a closer look at why cabbage stinks and whether there are ways to lessen the odor when you cook it.
Sulfur Compounds in Cabbage
Cabbage is part of the Brassica family, which includes broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and more. Many of the healthiest fresh produce you put in your shopping cart contain sulfur compounds in various quantities. Sulfur helps make amino acids and proteins, which are the building blocks of cells. Your body also uses sulfur to make some hormones, enzymes, and vitamins.
Sulfur compounds also has antioxidant properties, which means sulfur-rich produce fight free radicals—unstable molecules that damage cells by stealing electrons from other molecules. Some animal studies show sulfur compounds from sources like cabbage could lower the risk of some types of cancer. This is an area that needs more research.
Some of the smelliest foods are rich in sulfur, including garlic. The aroma from garlic can stay in your body for several days and cause your urine and breathe to smell of sulfur. This is less likely to happen with cabbage unless you eat very large quantities.
Other Reasons Cabbage May Stink
Although cabbage has a naturally stinky aroma when you cook it, an unpleasant smell could also be a sign it is going bad. Raw cabbage shouldn’t have a distinct smell.
However, rotten cabbage often has a strong odor and may appear wilted, slimy, soft, or mushy. It may also have a brownish or darker tinge on the outside relative to when it was fresh. When it is fresh, the leaves should separate easily when you try to cut them with a knife.
Is There a Way to Reduce the Stink?
As you’ll quickly discover, the longer you cook cabbage, the more prominent the sulfur aroma will become. Ensure your kitchen has good ventilation by turning on the exhaust fan or opening a window when preparing it.
Some sources suggest adding a squirt of lemon juice to the cooking water to reduce the sulfur aroma, although a formal study has never been conducted to confirm this. However, lemon juice adds extra vitamin C to your cooked vegetables.
Cabbage Is Stinky But Versatile and Nutritious
Cabbage is a versatile vegetable you can enjoy raw or cooked. It's delicious in salads, soups and stir fries. You can also use it to make coleslaw, or stuff it into cabbage rolls.
One advantage eating raw cabbage is you won’t notice the stinky aroma. Another advantage is that it will retain more of its vitamin C since heat breaks down vitamin C. One reason people eat fruits and vegetables is to get enough of this antioxidant vitamin.
Try adding raw cabbage leaves to your next salad. Red cabbage also adds a splash of color that makes your salad bowl more appealing to the eye.
Hopefully, you now have a better understanding of why this vegetable has such a strong odor. If someone asks you why your kitchen smells after cooking cabbage, just tell them about the sulfur content in their food and remind them of the health benefits.
- "Cabbage Grades and Standards," Agricultural Marketing Service. https://www.ams.usda.gov/grades-standards/cabbage-grades-and-standards.
- "The Reason Overcooked Cabbage Smells Bad," TastingTable. https://www.tastingtable.com/990668/the-reason-overcooked-cabbage-smells-bad/
- Miękus N, Marszałek K, Podlacha M, Iqbal A, Puchalski C, Świergiel AH. Health Benefits of Plant-Derived Sulfur Compounds, Glucosinolates, and Organosulfur Compounds. Molecules. 2020 Aug 21;25(17):3804. doi: 10.3390/molecules25173804. PMID: 32825600; PMCID: PMC7503525.