Foods We Love: Cauliflower

Cauliflower is a fantastic low-carb substitute for starchy dishes, loaded with beneficial sulfur compounds that support blood sugar control, curb inflammation, and more.

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The Basics

Foods that are white or beige aren’t typically as nutritious as their colorful counterparts—but cauliflower is a big exception. 

Cauliflower is a member of the Brassicaceae or mustard family, which includes other nutrient-dense veggies such as broccoli, cabbage, and kale (collectively referred to as cruciferous vegetables). Whether you opt for the standard white cauliflower or the less common purple, orange, or green varieties, you’ll consume a range of beneficial micronutrients and phytochemicals and minimal carbs.

Cauliflower has just 28 calories and 5.5 grams of carbohydrates per cup of raw chopped florets, so it’s unlikely to spike blood sugar. It also provides fiber and a good chunk of the recommended daily intake (RDI) for several vitamins and minerals, including vitamin C (59-71% RDI), vitamin K (14-19% RDI), folate (16% RDI), vitamin B6 (15% RDI), and potassium (10-13% RDI).

Additionally, all Brassicaceae vegetables are known for high levels of beneficial compounds that may help counter insulin resistance and improve blood glucose regulation.

Metabolic Punch

Cauliflower is a non-starchy veggie that can stand in for some of the starchiest, highest-carb foods, such as rice, pizza crust, and mashed potatoes. For example, you save about 40 grams of net carbs when you trade a cup of white rice for cauliflower rice. Over time, low-carb swaps like these may improve blood sugar, insulin sensitivity, and other markers of metabolic syndrome and thereby help curb the risk of metabolic disorders such as diabetes. 

Cauliflower and other Brassicaceae vegetables are also rich in sulfur-containing compounds called glucosinolates. When chewed, the enzyme myrosinase converts these phytochemicals into isothiocyanates (mustard oils) and indoles. These compounds, in turn, help regulate key antioxidant and anti-inflammatory pathways

Why does this matter? Chronic inflammation is a key driver of insulin resistance, and oxidative stress contributes to the cellular damage that underlies metabolic dysfunction—but cauliflower’s sulfur compounds may help counter these processes. The isothiocyanate sulforaphane, for example, has been shown to upregulate the Nrf2 pathway, which is responsible for activating genes that boost our body’s antioxidant defenses, including the production of the antioxidant glutathione. Simultaneously, sulforaphane downregulates NF-κB, a pathway that turns on pro-inflammatory genes. These mechanisms may be, at least in part, why sulforaphane intake is associated with reduced fasting blood glucose and HbA1c levels in people with Type 2 diabetes.

The sulfur compound indole-3-carbinol acts on similar pathways, and research suggests it may help fight the inflammation and fat accumulation associated with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD)—a condition driven in large part by insulin resistance and obesity and that can lead to consequences such as cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, and metabolic syndrome.

Additionally, several non-sulfur antioxidant compounds—predominantly protocatechuic acid (PCA)—have been identified in cauliflower. Preliminary research on cell cultures and animals suggests PCA may help protect against metabolic syndrome caused by a high-fat diet and inflammation and insulin resistance caused by obesity. 

Keep in mind, cooking can significantly reduce the levels of sulfur compounds and antioxidants in cauliflower. Boiling may lead to a 90% loss of glucosinolates, while steaming, light stir-frying, and microwaving cause lower but still significant nutrient reductions. To reap the maximum benefit, incorporate at least some raw cauliflower and other cruciferous veggies into your diet. 

Buying & Storage Advice

Whole cauliflower heads should be compact and firm and feel heavy for their size, with a uniform white color and firm green leaves at their base. Avoid cauliflower with brown spots, crumbly florets, or yellow, wilted leaves, which indicate an old or improperly stored cauliflower. 

For colored cauliflower varieties, the same general rules apply—just look for a uniform color throughout. These varieties have the same mild, nutty, subtly sweet flavor as white cauliflower but with slightly higher levels of naturally occurring antioxidant plant pigments—carotenoids (in orange cauliflower), anthocyanins (in purple cauliflower), and chlorophyll (in green cauliflower).

Pre-cut cauliflower florets should also be firm and free of dark spots. If cauliflower at home develops small dark spots, as long as most of the cauliflower looks and smells good, cut off the spots and use the rest.

Depending on how quickly you plan to eat your fresh cauliflower, you can store it in the refrigerator or freezer:

  • Refrigerator: Store cauliflower in a perforated or loosely sealed plastic bag stem-side up, and don’t wash it until you’re ready to use it. This storage method helps prevent moisture from accumulating on the head and speeding spoilage, and it typically keeps cauliflower fresh for up to five days. 
  • Freezer: First, cut a head of cauliflower into florets and blanch (boil for 2 minutes, then immerse in an ice bath for another 2 minutes). Next, strain the florets and pat dry, spread over a sheet pan, and do an initial freeze. Once frozen, place the florets into freezer bags and store them in the freezer for up to 12 months. 

No time for prep? Consider buying frozen cauliflower florets or riced cauliflower without sauces and marinades, which may contain excess sodium and low-quality fats. 

Ideas for Eating

Cauliflower’s mild taste complements all types of flavors, and it also responds well to a variety of cooking and preparation techniques, making it super versatile.

  • Raw cauliflower florets: To transform a head of cauliflower into bite-sized florets, remove the leaves, cut the head into quarters, remove the core, separate into florets, and then rinse and pat dry. 
  • Crispy roasted cauliflower: To roast cauliflower, cut it into florets, toss with olive or avocado oil, sprinkle with your favorite herbs and spices, and bake at 425 F for 25-30 minutes, tossing halfway through. 
  • Cauliflower buffalo wings: Take roasted cauliflower to the next level and make cauliflower buffalo “wings” with additional ingredients like hot sauce and almond flour for the perfect spicy-crispy finish.
  • Cauliflower rice: Grate or food process cauliflower until it resembles rice, then sauté it in a large skillet with oil and seasonings such as salt, pepper, garlic, scallions, soy sauce, or coconut aminos. Serve this cauliflower “rice” as a simple side dish, transform it into fried rice, or use it as a low-carb base under curries, meatballs, or chili. 
  • Cauliflower pizza crust: Mix riced cauliflower with ingredients like eggs, grated cheese, and dried herbs and form into a dough. Spread the dough onto a baking sheet until it’s about ¼-inch thick, and bake at 400 F until golden, about 25-30 minutes. Check out this recipe for complete instructions.
  • Cauliflower bread: Cauliflower bread can serve as a tasty, low-carb alternative to traditional sandwich bread. Create your own using cauliflower rice, almond flour, eggs, and olive oil, or buy pre-made sandwich thins at the store.
  • Cauliflower tabbouleh: Take your favorite tabbouleh recipe (or try this one) and use lightly sauteed riced cauliflower instead of traditional bulgur wheat.
  • Cauliflower mash: For a creamy, low-carb take on mashed potatoes, combine cooked cauliflower florets with butter or oil, salt and pepper, garlic, and a bit of parmesan cheese, and puree until smooth using a food processor or immersion blender.
  • Cauliflower alfredo sauce: When you thin out the “mashed potato” mixture above with a little milk and add some extra cheese, it can also serve as a creamy “alfredo” sauce that’s delicious drizzled over roasted veggies and low-carb pasta alternatives
  • Cauliflower steaks: Slice 1-inch thick parallel slabs of cauliflower, drizzle both sides with oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and bake at 425 F for 30-35 minutes, until golden brown. Serve cauliflower steaks over a bed of greens and finish with a spread of pesto, hummus, or chimichurri.
  • Cauliflower smoothie: Add a cup of frozen cauliflower florets or riced cauliflower to your next smoothie for an extra thick, fiber-filled finish that does not taste like vegetables.
  • Pickled cauliflower: Make a quick pickle (or refrigerator pickle) with cauliflower by combining raw cauliflower florets in a mason jar with vinegar, water, salt, and flavor-boosters such as garlic, dill, and peppercorns. Follow this quick tutorial