How to make perfect KFC coleslaw

Kentucky Fried Chicken isn't the same restaurant from the 1970s that dominated chicken sales and the airwaves with The Colonel pitching his famous 11 herbs and spices chicken. But the rebranded KFC is making a comeback. In fact, if you haven't been in one in a while, you'll be surprised to be greeted with a "welcome back" from the dutiful KFC employee. It's no "my pleasure" but it's a start.

One thing KFC has over many other chicken spots is their coleslaw. People will go out of their way to get their hands on that patented flavor — a tangy punch that cools you down on a warm summer day. Can we make perfect KFC coleslaw? You bet we can. And it's so simple you'll be surprised.

Let's get cooking!

We're not actually going to be doing any "cooking" here since this is a cold dish, but you get the idea. Here's what you need to make perfect KFC coleslaw: A single head of cabbage, baby carrots, green onions, tarragon vinegar, Miracle Whip (seriously, no substitutions), sugar, paprika, and celery salt. You might have envisioned a much longer list of ingredients, but this is really all you'll need! Or, if you want to go the really easy route and not spend a big chunk of your day chopping vegetables into tiny pieces (because who does?), you can skip the head of cabbage and the baby carrots, and just pick up a bag of finely diced cabbage and carrots. Most grocery stores carry it, and if yours doesn't, you can find it at any restaurant supply store. It's the very same thing — and possibly even what they use at KFC. It'll cut the prep time by way more than half, and you'll never know the difference — and we certainly won't tell.

You'll get the full ingredient list and step by step instructions (for both methods) at the end of this article, so stick around.  

The cabbage

Coleslaw is cabbage. It's that simple. The Dutch created koolsla — It literally means "cabbage salad." They brought it to New Amsterdam, and the rest is delectable history. Making homemade coleslaw is as simple as just buying a bag of "coleslaw" from the vegetable section of your grocery store and throwing some milk-based sauce in there.  

But don't be afraid to challenge yourself. A head of cabbage isn't as intimidating as you may think. It cuts rather easily, and you can use cabbage in a variety of dishes, from Irish to Asian. You want a firm head of cabbage and you'll give it a 30 minute bath in cold water; that will help the leaves firm up for a little extra crunch, and take some of the bitterness out.  

KFC doesn't use purple cabbage at all – it's just white. Those are readily available everywhere.  

The carrots

As a faithful internet reader, you know that carrots weren't originally orange; they were purple or yellow. Regardless of a full, Bugs Bunny eating style, the fancy rectangular ones you get with chicken wings, or the little baby ones, a carrot is a carrot. You can use any shape you desire, but if you do use a raw carrot, make sure you peel it first. As you can see, I'm using baby carrots, because that's what we eat around here.  

The best green onions

Green onions are a vital component to many a dish, and they happen to be one of the easiest things to grow. A green onion will grow anywhereeven indoors. I'm not trying to put the green onion wholesale growers out of business, but I haven't purchased a green onion in over 4 years. Just drop them in some soil in the ground, or in a jar, and you'll have perpetual green onions.  So if you must buy a green onion, go ahead, but plant the root in the ground and in about a week you'll have some more.

Xanthan gum and sugar

What exactly is Xanthan gum, and do I really need it to make coleslaw? According to the official recipe, yes, you do need it. Xanthan gum is a gluten-free binder — and it will do exactly that in the final dish, bind the wet ingredients together so that what you end up with will be a little like … well, paste. But don't worry, it's not like the kind you ate in second grade. This kind of paste is commonly used in yogurts, which is why there's a bit of a yogurt texture to the actual juice of the KFC coleslaw. Without it, our dressing would just drip off of our veggies every time we grabbed a fork-full, leaving us with a sad, soggy coleslaw that no one wants to eat.

Sugar is a common addition to coleslaw, and it'll help with the bitterness of the cabbage — somewhat. Make sure you don't skip on the sugar.

Spice

Can there be anything more generic than reading that an ingredient is "spice"?  What does that even mean?  Spice, it turns out, is an actual FDA defined term, which refers to any of the following a number of different items used for flavoring.

So there's two ways we can figure this out, make 35 different coleslaws and figure out which one is closest to KFC's, or use our refined taste buds and determine the mystery spice. Basically, it comes down to celery seed, cumin seed, or mustard flour. Mustard flour is just mustard seed crunched up. There seems to be a "mustard" taste to the KFC version, without the yellow — however we know tarragon is in here (more on this in a bit), so it's not mustard. My strong suspicion is that celery seed is the "spices" the official ingredients mention. If you don't want your coleslaw to have a bunch of seeds in it, you can get medieval on your celery seeds and grind them up or mash them with a muddler.

The other spice that's specifically listed is paprika. This isn't smoked paprika, there's no hint of smokiness to the coleslaw, just go with the plain old Hungarian paprika. You won't need a lot, but the official recipe says it's there so it must be.  

Cut the cabbage

The head of cabbage needs to become tiny little pieces.  If you have a food processor with a shredder attachment, that'll get the job done. A mandolin will also work, but there's two important things to remember. First, use the guide, no one wants a cut hand via making coleslaw. And also, make sure your setting doesn't produce too fine of a shred. That's OK for just any homemade coleslaw, but KFC's pieces of cabbage aren't fine, nor stringy — you're looking for a small "cube" like finish.

Cutting carrots

Using that same mandolin or food processor, we're looking for a similar cut to what we got on the cabbage: small almost squares. Don't forget to peel your carrots if you're working from big ole carrots; if you're using smaller ones, that won't be necessary.  

The green onion

Green onion is just too delicate for any machine. Get out your trusty pair of scissors and cut the green onion into small pieces. If you really want to get fancy you can split the green onion down the middle and then cut it with scissors, but I found that the KFC green onion is actually small pieces of a whole green onion (in other words, with a hole in the middle). It's just the marination process that flattens them out.  

I don't have a mandolin or food processor

If you don't have a mandolin or food processor, you can just break out your trusty knife. You want to get your pieces pretty small — basically cubes. It'll take some time, but if you're really dying to make this from "farm to table," this is the price you pay.

Even easier way

You don't want to buy a head of cabbage? Not feeling the dicing of carrots? Just buy a big ole bag of coleslaw. Or a small bag, however you're making it. I won't tell. Nor judge. And really, unless you're a die hard "from scratch" person, you don't really need to go all out and make it on your own.

I'm not saying that KFC just rips open a bag of cabbage at a store and pours the sauce in, I'm just saying that if you go to a restaurant supply store (food supplies, not cooking utensils), you'll notice that the big bag looks exactly like the stuff KFC serves — minus the green onion.  

If you don't want a giant bag, just purchase a small bag from the grocery section and dice it up a little finer — again, the secret to KFC isn't the cabbage they use, it's the wet tangy sauce in which it sits.

The wet ingredients

There's a tangy flavor to KFC's coleslaw — that's what really sets it apart. The official ingredients call for, sugar, soybean oil, water, distilled vinegar, whole eggs, food starch modified, salt, spice, corn vinegar… and so on. You aren't fooling us. That's Miracle Whip! You may have noticed that a few famous restaurants use the tangy zip of Miracle Whip — guess that's why it's the slogan. There's something else going on there too. You need to invite vinegar to a coleslaw party anyway, but there's a subtle bittersweet flavor that tastes a lot like tarragon. If you read some posts on the internet from alleged KFC employees, they claim that tarragon vinegar is the key — and I believe them. There's a commercial tarragon vinegar sold — but it's difficult to find. Look around and you should be able to track it down.

If you're in a pinch, you can substitute white wine vinegar, a touch of balsamic vinegar, and a few drops of lemon. It won't be the same thing, but it'll get you in the right direction.

Build time

There's a significant amount of cabbage and carrot in the KFC coleslaw; the overall flavor is actually cabbage, with the wet base providing a nice symphony to accompany your palate. If you're going from scratch, you need two cups of cabbage, and a half cup of carrots. If you're ripping open a bag, just go with two and a half cups of the pre-cut coleslaw raw mix. To that add one finely cut green onion.

Next, you're going to add tarragon vinegar, Miracle Whip and mix well. If you want to eyeball this, you're more than welcome to, but start with my measurements (at the end of this article) and increase as you need more flavor.  

Next, add xanthan gum and sugar — but again, give it a taste — you don't want it too sweet. Add in some celery seed as well, crushed if you can to prevent those large seeds from getting stuck in your teeth. The last addition is paprika.    

The taste you're looking for is tangy but not overly vinegary — but remember these flavors have to meld together, so your taste test isn't exactly what your finished product will be.  

Park it

This stuff needs to rest. How long? At a minimum, you need to put this in the fridge for four hours. In a perfect world, parking it overnight will really bring the flavors together, but realistically I know you want to eat this as soon as you make it — I understand.  

This will taste more and more like KFC the longer it sits. How long? Would you believe 48 hours? Honestly, you can go five days in advance, it'll still taste incredible.  

How close are we?

This is close — real close. It's not dead on, I don't want to mislead you, but it's very very close. Want to know what really makes this come together? The celery seed. Really. Just that hint of vegetable gives that extra kick to the cabbage and carrot.

As mentioned, I rested this for four hours, 24 hours, and 48 hours — the flavor got closer with time, but there's something a little more tangy in their sauce — like it's not exactly Miracle Whip but rather their own mash up of it — that separates it from our perfect version.  

Directions

Total time: 50 minutes (plus rest time)

Serves: 6-8 servings

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups cabbage, chopped

  • ½ cup carrot, chopped

  • 1 green onion, finely cut

  • 4 tablespoons Miracle Whip

  • ⅛ cup tarragon vinegar

  • 1 tablespoon sugar

  • 1 tablespoon celery seed, crushed

  • ½ teaspoon paprika

  • ½ teaspoon xanthan gum

Directions:

  1. In a large bowl, combine all ingredients.

  2. Marinate 4-48 hours

Eat and enjoy!