Here is my cherished family recipe for Romanian Cabbage Rolls (Sarmale), which I have been perfecting for years. Filled with a flavorful mix of pork and rice and baked with generous layers of bacon, these rolls are sure to be the most delicious you've ever tasted!
In this easy cabbage rolls recipe, I'll take you through the steps of making these savory delights with sauerkraut, using three different methods that I've come to love: the traditional way that reminds me of home, a convenient crock pot version for those busy days, and an Instant Pot method for modern, quick cooking. Each method brings its unique touch to this cherished recipe, and I'm excited to share it with you.
The Tastiest Romanian Cabbage Rolls
You need to try the authentic taste of Romania with my family's traditional cabbage rolls recipe. This dish wonderfully captures the essence of my cultural background. I am in my 50s, so you can imagine that I made these cabbage rolls many times during my adult life, and I can confidently say that this is more than a recipe.
The cabbage rolls are part of the Romanian identity, a staple, especially during Christmas, New Year, or Easter, but also at every significant event, from weddings to funerals. However, each country in Eastern Europe has a version of this dish, and you will hear about the Ukrainian grandmother who makes the best ones, and the Hungarian cabbage rolls that are better than the Serbian ones, etc.
What sets this Romanian sarmale apart from all these versions is the use of sour cabbage (pickled in brine or sauerkraut), available in jars at most grocery stores, online, and in Eastern European stores. This not only simplifies preparation but also eliminates the need to boil or freeze the cabbage. This dish is truly comfort food and a great way to celebrate family traditions.
We traditionally prepare these rolls with ground pork, often mixed with beef, and always add a touch of smoked meat, like bacon, or smoked ham, for an extra layer of flavor. As they get better after a day or two, the cabbage rolls are perfect for large gatherings or potlucks and can be made in advance.
💝 Why You Will Love These Cabbage Rolls?
- Effortless Preparation: Though they simmer for hours to perfection, preparing these cabbage rolls is surprisingly straightforward. No need for specialized equipment or advanced cooking skills – this recipe is accessible to all.
- Ideal for Advanced Prep: These cabbage rolls only get better with time, making them perfect for preparing in advance. Store them in the fridge for a quick meal during the week or freeze them for future dinners. Their versatility and long shelf life make them an excellent choice for meal planning.
- Crowd-Pleaser: Whether it's a family dinner, a potluck, or a festive gathering, these cabbage rolls are always a hit. They're a fantastic way to introduce guests to Romanian cuisine and impress them with your culinary skills.
📝 Ingredients you need
- Cabbage leaves(Sauerkraut): Cabbage rolls are typically made with pickled cabbage (sauerkraut) in the winter, which adds a unique tangy flavor, and with fresh cabbage in the summer. The choice of cabbage type is closely tied to seasonal availability and preservation methods.
- Ground meat: I prefer ground pork for its higher fat content, which adds richness and ensures juicy cabbage rolls. However, you're welcome to experiment with a mix of half pork and half ground beef, which brings a nice balance between flavor and fat content.
- Rice: For this recipe, any rice you have on hand will work, whether it's long-grain like Basmati or short-grain like Arborio. Growing up, we used basic long-grain white rice. Don't stress over the type; even brown rice is fine. We use it for binding the ingredients together.
- Spices: Salt and pepper are the basics, while thyme (or summer savory), marjoram, dill, and bay leaves are very traditional.
- Onions: Regular yellow onions are what you need. Use a large one, as the filling needs flavor.
- Bacon: Often, the rolls are layered with bacon or smoked meat for added flavor. They are typically cooked in a tomato-based sauce, sometimes with the addition of a little sauerkraut juice or water for moisture and flavor.
- Tomato Sauce: While I've used tomato sauce for this recipe, feel free to use any canned of tomato product you have on hand. Tomato paste, puree, or juice are all excellent alternatives and will each add a slightly different depth and texture to the dish.
- Water: Water helps the tomato sauce to dilute and create a sauce for the cabbage rolls. They will simmer on the stove or in the oven for a few hours, so they need enough liquid to cook the meat and rice.
💡 Expert tip:
There's no need to pre-cook the rice or onions. I always use uncooked rice and onion in the meat mixture. As the cabbage rolls cook, the rice and meat will cook together perfectly. Pre-cooking the rice risks it becoming too mushy inside the rolls. This approach is just my preference, and I find it works well in preserving the texture of the rice.
👩🍳 How To Make Romanian Cabbage Rolls
Step 1. Prepare the cabbage leaves: Using jarred cabbage leaves really simplifies the process since they're typically prepped for stuffing. If you opt for a whole sauerkraut cabbage, a bit more prep is needed. Simply cut it in half, separate the leaves from the core, and they're ready to be stuffed.
Remove the thick part that connects the leaf to the cabbage core. This step makes the leaves more pliable. When you are done with this step, set them aside.
Note: Do not throw away the parts you removed from the leaves. You can slice them thinly and add them in between the cabbage rolls.
Also, you can use them on the bottom of the pot before you start adding the cabbage rolls. This way, the rolls will not stick to the pot.
Step 2. Prepare the filling: The Romanian cabbage rolls have a combination of meat, rice, onion, and spices inside, so you will need rice, onion, pepper, thyme, marjoram, and some bay leaves.
Mix everything together in a large mixing bowl and make sure all the spices are incorporated properly. Set the bowl with the meat aside.
Step 3. How To Assemble Stuffed Cabbage Rolls: Lay a cabbage leaf on the table or on your hand and place a small amount of meat mixture on one side of the leaf. Wrap the meat inside the cabbage leaf. You will need to close the edges of the leaf so the meat doesn't come out when it cooks.
Step 4. Place them in the baking dish: Slice some cabbage and spread it on the bottom of the pot. The cabbage will create a cushion and keep the rolls from sticking to the bottom.
Optional you can add some bacon in between the rolls for flavor, but this is only your choice. I love the smoked-flavored bacon in between. The bacon makes these stuffed cabbage rolls really special, and who doesn't love bacon, anyway?
Start adding the cabbage rolls one by one. Continue rolling until you finish the meat and the cabbage leaves. If you have leftover cabbage leaves, just slice them into thin pieces and cover the stuffed cabbage rolls with them.
At this point, add more pieces of uncooked bacon(optional) and bay leaves. Also, add tomato paste or tomato juice and water to cover them.
I added some more thyme and made sure they had enough water to simmer in the pot for about 2 hours.
I covered the pot with the lid and put it in the oven at 375 F. They cooked for about 1 ½ - 2 hours. I removed the lid and allowed the stuffed cabbage rolls to bake to get a golden crust, for another 30-45 minutes.
If you notice the water evaporates and there is no liquid left, add a little bit more water, but make sure not to fill up the pot again.
❄️ How To Store
- Refrigerate: Place the rolls in a single layer in an airtight container. If stacking, separate layers with parchment paper to prevent sticking. Store for 3-4 days.
- Freeze: For freezing, use a gallon zip-top freezer bag. Arrange the rolls in a single layer or stack with parchment paper in between. Freeze for up to 3 months.
- Reheat: Thaw in the refrigerator overnight if frozen, then reheat in the microwave or in the oven until thoroughly warmed.
🙋♀️ Recipe Faqs
If you use fresh cabbage, place a large pot of water with salt on the stove and bring it to a boil. Meanwhile, grab a whole head of cabbage and separate the cabbage leaves from the core, trying not to damage them.
Place the leaves in the boiling water for 2 minutes, remove and drain them. Now they are pliable and easy to use. Make sure you remove the core from each leaf, as I explained in the post.
Follow the rest of the recipe.
Yes, this recipe is one of the wonderful recipes out there that are slow-cooked. Therefore a crockpot is a wonderful tool to use.
Follow the same method of making the rolls, but cook them in the crockpot on "Low" for 6-8 hours or 4-5 hours on "high."
I would still put them in the oven for another hour, at least uncovered, to bake them on top and give them a golden brown finish.
Yes, follow the recipe as I describe it. Close the pot and press the "Pressure Cook" manual button, setting the time for about 18-20 minutes. Do a natural pressure release.
🥬 More Recipes With Cabbage
More Eastern European Recipes
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Easy Romanian Cabbage Rolls (Sarmale)
- 1 pound ground pork or a mixture of pork and beef
- 1 large onion diced
- 1 cup Arborio rice uncooked
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 3-4 dried bay leaves
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon dried marjoram
- 1 head of sour cabbage (sauerkraut) or a large jar of cabbage leaves
- 1 cup tomato juice
- ½ cup tomato paste
- 2 cups water or enough to cover the cabbage rolls
- Optional: ½ pound bacon chopped
Make the filling:
- In a large bowl place together ground meat, diced onions, rice, thyme, ground pepper and marjoram. Mix everything really well. Set aside.
Make the cabbage rolls:
- Prepare the cabbage leaves by removing the core. If the leaves are too large cut them in half.
- Grab a cabbage leaf and place one tablespoon of meat mixture on it. Wrap the meat inside the cabbage leaf to obtain a neat roll.
- Place shredded cabbage on the bottom of the pot, then start adding the rolls.
- Optional, add a layer of chopped bacon over each layer of rolls.
- Fill up the pot with cabbage rolls, then mix together the tomato juice and the paste and pour it over the rolls.
- Add water to cover the rolls.
- The final layer should be shredded cabbage.(use leftover cabbage)
- Sprinkle more bacon, thyme and bay leaves and cover with a lid.
- Bake in the oven at 350F for about 2 hours.
- Remove the lid and allow the cabbage rolls to bake for another 30-45 minutes. You might notice the water evaporated, so you can add a little bit more, but do not fill up the pot again.
- Serve them warm with a dollop of sour cream on top, fresh bread or polenta and hot peppers.
Published on January 2018 and republished on January 2023 with new images and text.