February 4, 2023

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Simple Impartial Cooking

Romanian Cabbage Rolls (Sarmale) – Jo Cooks

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Here’s my mom’s recipe for traditional Romanian Cabbage Rolls (Sarmale) which I’ve been making for decades. They’re stuffed with pork and rice and baked with lots of bacon in between. They’re the best cabbage rolls you will ever have!

a plate stacked with freshly cooked romanian cabbage rolls.

The Best Romanian Cabbage Rolls Recipe

This recipe for Romanian cabbage rolls is tried and true. I’ve made it probably a hundred times, and have rolled thousands of them! The big difference between Romanian cabbage rolls and others are that we make them with sour cabbage. You can find sour cabbage at pretty much all grocery stores sold in jars. You can also find sour cabbage at your local Polish or Ukrainian stores!

The beauty of using sour cabbage is that you don’t need to boil cabbage or freeze it to soften the leaves. So basically there’s very minimal work in prepping the cabbage leaves. But besides that, cabbage rolls made with sour cabbage pack so much more flavor!

This is my mom’s recipe for sarmale and it’s my favorite. I won’t eat cabbage rolls made any other way. The other piece that separates Romanian cabbage rolls from the rest is that we add some kind of smoked meat. This time I used smoked bacon. Now I’ve got your attention, hey?

freshly baked romanian cabbage rolls in a dutch oven.
ingredients needed to make romanian cabbage rolls.
  • Vegetable oil – We’ll be using this to saute the onion and rice. You can use any type of oil that you have handy.
  • Onion – I used a large onion because this recipe makes a lot of cabbage rolls. Every bite should have a little bit of onion in it!
  • Long grain rice – I prefer Jasmine or Basmati rice. I wouldn’t use brown rice as it takes a lot longer to cook than white rice and you may end up with crunchy bits in your rolls.
  • Ground pork – I love to use pork because it has a higher fat content and makes for some nice juicy rolls. You can use any type of ground meat you like, but keep in mind that leaner meats like chicken or turkey will come out drier. You can even combine meats, for example half pork and half beef.
  • Fresh parsley and dill – Using fresh herbs makes such a big difference in how the flavor develops in your rolls!
  • Salt and pepper – Season the mixture to your own discretion but be careful with the rolls because the sour cabbage is quite salty.
  • Sour cabbage leaves – This is what really sets the Romanian version apart from the rest. The little hit of vinegar is to die for! Sour cabbage is basically fermented cabbage, same as sauerkraut but it’s sold as whole cabbage instead of chopped.
  • Bacon – Find yourself a nice thick-cut smoky style of bacon.
  • Tomato juice – This is what our rolls are going to sit and cook in.

This recipe is super easy to prepare. The hardest part is getting through rolling all of that filling, but I promise it’s worth it. Make a day of it and invite some friends and family to help!

process shots showing how to make romanian cabbage rolls.

As I mentioned, there’s very little prep that’s needed to get the cabbage ready for rolling. What I do like to do is soak the sour cabbage in cold water overnight, but usually I forget and I’ll soak it for about an hour while I prep my other ingredients and do other stuff in the kitchen. I do this, to remove some of the salt from the cabbage, as it can be quite salty.

Once the cabbage has soaked in water for a bit, you want to take each leaf and cut some of the core from it. However, if you’ve already bought a jar of cabbage leaves, you may not even need to do this. Then I cut each leaf in half, since I like to make my cabbage rolls smaller.

process shots showing how to make romanian cabbage rolls.

Another thing that sets our cabbage rolls apart is that we actually cook the onion and the rice for a bit before adding it to the meat mixture. So basically you’ll want to sauté the onion in some vegetable oil for about 3 minutes until softened. Then add the rice and toast it for 1 minute. Let it cool while you get the other ingredients ready.

process shots showing how to make romanian cabbage rolls.

Now, in a large bowl, you’ll want to add the ground pork, salt, pepper, parsley, dill, and the onion mixture. Mix it well with your hands until well combined. Use the salt sparingly since the cabbage leaves are brined.

Now is the time to preheat your oven, so get that going to 375°F (191°C), so that it’s nice and warm when we put our cabbage rolls in.

process shots showing how to make romanian cabbage rolls.

Fill each leaf with about a ¼ cup of the meat mixture and roll tucking in the ends as you see in the video. Repeat with all the remaining meat and cabbage leaves.

process shots showing how to make romanian cabbage rolls.

If you have any leftover cabbage leaves you’ll want to chop that up and spread some on the bottom of a large Dutch oven. Then place the cabbage rolls on the chopped cabbage in a single layer. Next, you’ll want to top with bacon, and be generous.

process shots showing how to make romanian cabbage rolls.

Finish with another layer of cabbage rolls, more bacon and a bit more chopped cabbage. If you like you can also season with some ground pepper.

process shots showing how to make romanian cabbage rolls.

Now, you’ll need to pour the tomato juice over the cabbage rolls and add additional water as needed. You want to make sure the rolls are completely covered with liquid.

process shots showing how to make romanian cabbage rolls.

Cover the Dutch oven with a lid or aluminum foil if your pot doesn’t have a lid and transfer it to the oven. Bake for 2 hours, then remove the lid or foil and cook for another 1 to 1.5 hours.

Can I Make This Recipe With Fresh Cabbage?

Using sour cabbage is what sets Romanian cabbage rolls apart from the rest. If you can’t find any, then you can use fresh cabbage instead.

Follow these steps:

  1. Carefully separate the leaves from your head of cabbage. Bring a large and generously salted pot of water to a boil, and cook the leaves for about 3 minutes.
  2. Remove the leaves and let them cool. Cut out the thickest part of each leaf at the bottom by slicing on each side of the rib to form a triangle.

That’s it! You can follow my method for rolling the perfect cabbage rolls by checking out the video in the recipe card.

a plate stacked with freshly cooked romanian cabbage rolls.

Can I Make Cabbage Rolls Ahead of Time?

This recipe is perfect for making the night before. You can assemble all the rolls, chopped cabbage, and bacon in your baking dish, cover well with plastic wrap or foil, then pour the tomato juice in when you’re ready to cook the rolls.

How Do You Serve Romanian Cabbage Rolls?

Traditionally we serve these with a side of polenta and a big dollop of sour cream.

Can I Make These In The Crockpot?

Absolutely! Check out my Crockpot Cabbage Rolls recipe for complete instructions.

a plate stacked with freshly cooked romanian cabbage rolls.

Storing Leftover Cabbage Rolls

These will last in your fridge for 3-4 days. Cover the baking dish well with plastic wrap or foil, or you can transfer the leftovers to an airtight container. They will also last 3-4 months in your freezer in an airtight container. Make sure to save all that juice as well! You’ll need it to reheat the rolls.

How to Reheat Cabbage Rolls

If they’re frozen, transfer them to the fridge a day before you want to eat them so they can thaw. Place the rolls to a baking dish, with the juice, and bake at 350°F (177°C) for about 1 hour. If you want a quicker version, pop them in the microwave for 2 to 3 minutes and dinner is served.

two cabbage rolls on polenta and garnished with sour cream.

Craving More Romanian Recipes? Try These!

Romanian Cabbage Rolls (Sarmale)

Prep 30 minutes

Cook 4 hours

Total 4 hours 30 minutes

Here’s my mom’s recipe for traditional Romanian Cabbage Rolls (Sarmale) which I’ve been making for decades. They’re stuffed with pork and rice and baked with lots of bacon in between. They’re the best cabbage rolls you will ever have!

Instructions 

  • Soak the sour cabbage in cold water overnight or at least an hour before making these. If you don’t have time, rinse the cabbage well under cold water. Then take each leaf and cut the core from then cut it in half if the leaves are too big.

  • Heat the oil in a skillet, add the onions and cook until softened and translucent. Add the rice and cook for another minute. 

  • In a large bowl, add the ground pork, salt, pepper, parsley, dill and the onion and rice mixture. Be careful with the salt, not too much is needed because the sour cabbage is already salty. Mix well using your clean hands.

  • Preheat the oven to 375°F (191°C).

  • Fill each leaf with about a ¼ cup of the meat mixture and roll tucking in the ends as you see in the video. Repeat with all the remaining meat and cabbage leaves.

  • If you have any leftover cabbage leaves you’ll want to chop that up and spread some on the bottom of a large Dutch oven. Then place the cabbage rolls on the chopped cabbage in a single layer. Next, you’ll want to top with bacon, and be generous.

  • Finish with another layer of cabbage rolls, more bacon and a bit more chopped cabbage. If you like you can also season with some ground pepper.

  • Pour the tomato juice over the cabbage rolls and add additional water as needed. You want to make sure the rolls are completely covered with liquid.

  • Cover the Dutch oven with a lid or aluminum foil if your pot doesn’t have a lid and transfer it to the oven. Bake for 2 hours, then remove the lid or foil and cook for another 1 to 1.5 hours.

  • Serve with polenta and sour cream.

Notes

  1. I usually find sour cabbage leaves at my local grocery store like Sobey’s or Safeway, but you can also find them at European markets. You can also order it from amazon here.
  2. You can use fresh cabbage instead of sour cabbage, but more work is required. You first have to blanch the cabbage. To do so, core the cabbage first, one large cabbage should be enough for this recipe. In a large pot of boiling slated water, add the cabbage and blanch it for 5 to 8 minutes or until leaves are softened. Remove from the pot and chill under cold water.
  3. Another alternative to softening the cabbage leaves is to wrap it in plastic wrap and freeze it for a couple days. Remove the cabbage from the freezer and thaw it out at room temperature. Once the cabbage has thawed out, the leaves should be softened.
  4. Recipe yields about 30 cabbage rolls, depends on the size of your rolls.
  5. These will last in your fridge for 3-4 days. Cover the baking dish well with plastic wrap or foil, or you can transfer the leftovers to an airtight container. They will also last 3-4 months in your freezer. Make sure to save all that juice as well! You’ll need it to reheat the rolls.

Nutrition Information

Serving: 1rollCalories: 137kcal (7%)Carbohydrates: 3g (1%)Protein: 7g (14%)Fat: 11g (17%)Saturated Fat: 4g (25%)Polyunsaturated Fat: 1gMonounsaturated Fat: 5gTrans Fat: 0.01gCholesterol: 29mg (10%)Sodium: 94mg (4%)Potassium: 197mg (6%)Fiber: 0.3g (1%)Sugar: 1g (1%)Vitamin A: 224IU (4%)Vitamin C: 8mg (10%)Calcium: 11mg (1%)Iron: 1mg (6%)

Notice: Nutrition is auto-calculated for your convenience. Where relevant, we recommend using your own nutrition calculations.

freshly baked romanian cabbage rolls in a dutch oven.

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