Cauliflower is a cool-season crop in the cole family (Brassica oleracea), which includes broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, collards, kale, and kohlrabi. However, it is more temperamental than its relatives. The trick to growing cauliflower is consistently cool temperatures, which is why almost three fourths of commercial cauliflower is grown in the coastal valleys of California. However, you can try growing it at home no matter where you live, but timing is important to catch the temperature just right. It also needs rich soil and a steady supply of water and nutrients.
Cauliflower likes temperatures in the 60s. In young cauliflower plants there is a fine balance between leaf and head growth. Any stress tips the balance toward premature heading, or “buttoning,” when the plant makes tiny button-sized heads. This can happen when it’s too hot or too cold. This also happens if plants sit in packs too long, or are stunted by drought or poor soil.
In the Garden
Cauliflower is best started from transplants for both spring and fall crops. Do not transplant sooner than 2 to 3 weeks before the average frost-free date in the spring. Cauliflower is more sensitive to the cold than its cabbage-family relatives. It is important to start cauliflower early enough that it matures before the heat of the summer but not so early that it is injured by the cold. In some seasons, that compromise may be almost impossible to achieve. Transplant autumn cauliflower about the same time as fall cabbage. Use starter fertilizer when transplanting. Start the transplants so that they grow actively until transplanting and never cease growth. Always use young, active transplants. Never buy stunted plants started in flats and held too long before transplanting; results with inferior plants are almost always disappointing.
Space plants 18 to 24 inches apart in the row. Use the wider spacing for fall plantings.
Cauliflower plants should be kept growing vigorously from the seedling stage through harvest. Any interruption (extreme cold, heat, drought or plant damage) can abort development of the edible portion. Large plants that never develop a head are extremely disappointing. Cauliflower must have a consistent and ample supply of soil moisture. Side-dress nitrogen fertilizer when the plants are half grown.
When the head begins to form (shows 2 to 3 inches of white curd at the growing point), it is ready to blanch. Tie the outer leaves together over the center of the plant to protect the had from sunburn and to keep it from turning green and developing an off-flavor. The variety Self-Blanche is named for its natural tendency to curl its leaves over its head. Several other varieties possess this trait, especially when maturing in the fall. Under cool conditions, these varieties blanch very well and tying is unnecessary.
The cauliflower head’s curd develops rapidly under proper growing conditions. It grows 6 to 8 inches in diameter and is ready to harvest within 7 to 12 days after blanching begins. The mature heads should be compact, firm and white. Harvest the heads by cutting the main stem. Leave a few green outer leaves attached to protect the heads. Cut the heads before they become overmature and develop a coarse, “ricey” appearance. Once individual florets can be seen, quality deteriorates rapidly. Because cauliflower does not ordinarily develop side shoots, plants may be disposed of or composted after heads are harvested.
In the Kitchen
Cut off the surrounding leaves (if they’re fresh, they can be cooked, too). For large cauliflowers, cut off individual florets from the central stem and cut again if necessary. You should end up with florets of a comparable size, so that they all cook at the same pace. Then wash. Smaller, baby cauliflowers can be cooked whole. In perforated bag in a cool dark place, or the fridge. It will keep for several days.
The florets are great used raw in a salad or as part of a crudité selection served with dips. Cooked cauliflower florets keep their shape best when steamed (5-10 minutes) – remember to place them upright in the steamer. It can also be boiled (takes 5-10 minutes for florets; around 10 minutes for a whole cauliflower). For both cooking methods, test regularly with the tip of a knife to make sure they don’t overcook.
Some favourite cauliflower recipes:
- Cauliflower au gratin
- Cauliflower in batter
- Cauliflower salad