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How to make Romanian style Cabbage rolls (Sarmale)

Updated on December 6, 2014

Cabbage rolls is one of my holiday favorite recipe. I learnt to make it in my country, Romania, and carried overseas to my adoptive country, United States. I make cabbage rolls every Christmas for my american relatives.

In these hub I am going to show you how I make it. All the photos are original, taken during the process. I will also give you some instructions in how to cut the cabbage and some insights in the way you can make it in advance and preserve it for later.

But first, few words about this dish.
Cabbage rolls are called "sarmale" in my country. They are also called "sarma" in other central and Eastern European countries. Sarmale is the plural and sarma is the singular form.
The dish itself dates back in history and has spread in Europe through Ottoman Empire. Romanians cook cabbage rolls at big holidays like Easter or Christmas. They also cook a lighter version in the summer time, with grape leaves instead of cabbage and rice, nuts and raisins, instead of meat.

Here is the recipe for traditional cabbage rolls:

Cook Time

Prep time: 1 hour 30 min
Cook time: 6 hours
Ready in: 7 hours 30 min
Yields: makes 40 cabbage rolls /serves 8 to 10 people


  • 2 heads cabbage, pickled
  • 1 lb ground beef
  • 1lb ground pork
  • 2 cups bacon, chopped
  • 10 slices bacon
  • 1/2 cup rice, rinsed and drained
  • 2/3 cup onion, chopped
  • 1 tbsp savory, dried is ok
  • 1 tsp each salt and pepper
  • 1 10 oz can tomato sauce
  • 2 tbsp tomato paste
  • about 1 cup water
  • 4-5 bay leaves
There is only one store that has pickled cabbage heads in twin Cities. They import it from Canada, around Christmas time.
There is only one store that has pickled cabbage heads in twin Cities. They import it from Canada, around Christmas time.
  1. Preparing the cabbage: Open the package and cut of the center core, the hard part of the cabbage. Using a knife, insert it in the cabbage head, near the core, about 3" deep, and cut around until the hard core comes out.
  2. Starting from the cut carefully remove the leaves, one by one, and set them aside, in a large bowl. These leaves will be your rolls so you want to make sure you don't break them. Stop when the leaves are too small. What is left will be chopped and used.
  3. Making the filling: Saute the onion untill becames translucent. Let it cool.
  4. In a big bowl, mix ground pork, ground beef, chopped bacon, rice, cooled onion, savory, salt and pepper until well blended.
  5. Making the rolls: Place a large cutting board on the counter. Take a cabbage leaf and lay it down. Trim the hard parts. Take a tablespoon of meat mixture, place it on the leave, near the beginning, and start rolling, folding in one side as you go, and tucking in the other side when you are done rolling. Do the same until all the meat mixture is gone. Set the cabbage rolls aside.
  6. Preparing the pot: Arrange a layer of fine sliced pickled cabbage on the bottom of a large pot and cover with few slices of bacon. Then put a layer of cabbage rolls. Repeat until all the rolls are in the pot. If you still have some big cabbage leaves left, then place them on top, covering the rolls.
  7. Mix tomato sauce, tomato paste and water and pour it over. Adjust the liquid, adding more, so that the water covers the cabbage rolls.
  8. Cover and cook it for few hours on medium heat on the top stove. Move it to the oven for the last 2 hours. While cooking, constantly check the liquid, refilling with water as need it. The cabbage rolls are done when the cabbage leaves are tender and the rice is cook.

Stopping for a photo just before beheading the second cabbage

While separating the leaves, I like to sort them by size, so it would be easier to roll them.

Bacon gives the cabbage rolls a smoky tastes that you cannot get from the ground beef or pork.

The meat mixture. This time I did not saute the onion and the rolls had an extra spicy touch.

Comparing 2 leaves. The small one is the ideal size for a "sarma".

Cabbage surgery. The big leaf will lose the middle part that is thick and hard. Then it will be cut in half. Both halves would be used to make rolls.

You can adjust the amount of filling according with your ...hunger.

Here is how to roll it.

And After 30 Minutes...

I am ready to fill the pot..

A little sauerkraut and few slices of bacon will keep the rolls from sticking to the bottom.

Cabbage rolls, first layer.

I like my "sarmale" extra saucy so I add some tomato paste between layers. Now is the time to add the bay leaves as well.

I saved the first leaves of my cabbage heads for covering the top of the pot

There is one missing photo: the one with the cabbage rolls on a plate.

There is an explanation.

I made this dish for Christmas Eve dinner, for my family and for my guests. I made it ahead and froze it, because I didn't have time to cook it fresh. BTW, it freezes very nice, making it even more tastier. Then I work all day in Christmas eve, while my family had dinner. So I didn't get to take a picture with cabbage rolls on a plate. But, I will add one next Christmas.

Rate this recipe

5 stars from 1 rating of Cabbage Rolls


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    • cameciob profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago

      thank you for your comment and i am sorry that it took me ten months to respond. it isn't easy to make cabbage rolls. Your dad must have had a lot of patience.

      Now, is tame for me to make another batch, as I only make them for Christmas.

    • catgypsy profile image


      5 years ago from the South

      My dad used to make stuffed cabbage rolls and they were very similar to these and delicious! Very interesting hub and I loved all the pictures. They look yummy and your American relatives are lucky to have you make these for them...what a treat!


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