Sarmale, aka Romanian Stuffed Cabbage Rolls

I was very excited this fall when I finally found sour/pickled cabbage leaves in a grocery store in Lincoln Square. Supermarkets are full of sauerkraut and grape leaves, but until this year, I haven’t been able to find the whole cabbage leaves!!! You can of course make cabbage rolls by boiling fresh cabbage, but it’s not the same! The sarmale take quite a long time to make, but they are definitely worth it. It is quite common to make them the day before and then just reheating them. It is said that they taste even better reheated 😉 Romanians “overcook” their food quite often, but this is definitely an example where overcooking means more delicious cabbage rolls 🙂


  • 1 big jar of sour cabbage leaves (1.6 L)
  • 1 lb ground beef
  • 1/2 lb ground pork
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 3 Tbsps rice, rinsed
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 Tbsp olive oil
  • 6 + Tbsps tomato sauce (or a small can of tomato paste)
  • 1 Tbsp savory (or thyme)
  • 3-5 bay leaves
  • whole peppercorns

Mix the ground beef and pork with half of the chopped onion, the rice and season with salt and pepper. 

Heat oil in large pot over medium heat. Saute onion until soft. 

Add tomato sauce or paste and cook for a few more minutes and then turn off the heat.

Now time to stuff the cabbage rolls! Remove leaves from jar. Save the not so good looking ones or the ones with holes to chop at the end. Lay a cabbage leaf flat on the cutting board. Cut the hard stem with your knife in a V shape. Add meat (it varies depending on the size of the cabbage leaf but anywhere from 1-3 heaping tablespoons). 

Roll the cabbage leaf. 

Tuck in the ends.

Arrange in the pot in a circle. 

I swear the leaves in my jar didn’t come from 1 cabbage, because some leaves were huuuge! I ended up cutting some in half and then removing the stem. Keep making rolls until you ran out of meat. 

Closely pack the rolls in the pot. 

Chop the remaining cabbage and cover the cabbage rolls with it. 

Add water to cover the cabbage. Season with savory, bay leaves, whole peppercorns. Add more tomato sauce if the sauce is not red enough.

Bring to a boil, cover and simmer for 2-3 hrs. To make this even tastier you can add pieces of bacon, but since it was a post-Christmas meal I decided against fattening the dish 🙂 Also, my mom usually adds some of the juice from the cabbage, but the one I bought was too sour so I just used water. These were so good and I am so happy I found the cabbage leaves. Holidays are definitely better with a pot of delicious cabbage rolls 🙂

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7 Responses to Sarmale, aka Romanian Stuffed Cabbage Rolls

  1. they’re not just Romanian though 😛

  2. Petric says:

    Do not overcook them for such a long time! After the the first boil sign, let them simmer for 30 minutes more….

    • my cabbage was quite hard so it benefited from a longer cooking time. Yes, the meat probably cooks quite fast, but a lot of the recipes I have seen cook them for a few hours to let the flavors blend. Next time, I will taste one every 30 minutes and see how they compare. Oh, and I meant to say simmer not boil.

  3. Beth McLennan says:

    My friend adds chopped parsley and dill to his and also adds the bacon. A little fat is good for you! Also they just made them this week and took leg of lamb they ground up and used it instead of the beef. They are extremely delicious. I have only had the Polish kind before, and I think these are much better.

  4. I am Romanian and my mother never used tomato paste or tomato sauce in the mixture. She put sauerkraut that comes in a bag on top of the cabbage rolls and then cooks them.She said with the sour cabbage leaves and the sauerkraut they are sour enough that the tomato sauce or paste isn’t needed. Our Romanian church serves these cabbage rolls at all of their dinners and that is how they make them. The Hungarian people use plain cabbage leaves for their cabbage rolls and they use tomato sauce or tomato juice.

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