What you see: Brown spots on cauliflower
What it is: Bruising, most likely from bumping into other cauliflower heads, or cold temperatures
Eat or toss: Eat! This is a physical issue, not a sign that a harmful microbe has moved in
Cauliflowers are just big tender heads.
As cruciferous vegetables go, cauliflower is harvested when it’s particularly immature, when the curds made up of little buds on its head are still hard and barely resemble the flowers they’d bloom into, if only we left them the field.
Their immaturity also makes them more fragile. So, even though cauliflower can seem frustratingly hard when you’re chopping it for your favorite recipe, it also bruises easily.
(Speaking of favorite cauliflower recipes, here’s mine, though I add way more garlic and rosemary and bake both right in.)
Sometimes, you get a bumpy ride
When you picture crates of cauliflowers traveling in trucks, it’s easy to imagine how they could bruise each other on a bumpy ride. On impact, their cells can rupture or otherwise suffer damage that causes chemicals to leak and mingle with each other and oxygen. All this results in that brown color. Too-cold storage temps can also hurt the cells enough for them to release the enzymes that lead to browning.
“It’s not going to hurt you, it just doesn’t look good visually,” said Chris Gunter, vegetable production specialist at North Carolina State University. “With cauliflower, you’re dealing with an immature inflorescence. So the shelf life is really delicate.”
(That’s right — inflorescence. That pretty word refers to a cluster of flowers on a branch or cluster of branches.)
Inspect and then, eat!
So, if you see these brown spots, don’t worry—your cauliflower is still fine and the spots don’t signal that any microbes are digging into the curds.
But, as usual, the evidence of some damaged cells means you should prioritize eating; it’s now on a faster track to going bad. Inspect for signs any opportunistic microbes or fungus may have set up shop (i.e. visible mold, soft, rotting tissue, or black dots, which could be a fungus). If all you’re seeing are these brown freckles, then go ahead and make that cauliflower mash, or gratin or “steak” or …. Mmm. cauliflower is so good, right?
Chris Gunter. Vegetable Production Specialist. Associate Professor. North Carolina State University.
Cauliflower - Curd discoloration. International Produce Training.
Cauliflower - Recommendations for maintaining post-harvest quality. Trevor V. Suslow and Marita Cantwell. Department of Plant Sciences, University of California, Davis
On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. Harold McGee. p. 269. "Enzymatic browning."
I told you to stop head-butting me!