Sarmale are Romanian cabbage rolls, made with a filling of ground pork, smoked pork, rice and spices wrapped in sauerkraut and slow cooked until tender and golden.
Cabbage rolls are a beautiful symbol of how culinary traditions reflect both what sets us apart and what makes us the same.
By many accounts, cabbage rolls and other stuffed vegetables originate in the Ottoman empire. According to food historian Priscilla Mary Işın in her book Bountiful Empire: A History of Ottoman cuisine, cabbage rolls were known in Ottoman cuisine as early as the first decades of the 1500s as evidenced by a recipe in a Persian cookbook for "dulma-ye kalam (stuffed cabbage) that the author described as 'cooked by the people of Rum (the Ottomans) and 'not well know' in Iran".
But what's at least equally as interesting as where cabbage rolls originate, is where they've spread and how they've evolved.
Cabbage rolls are made in at least 30 countries around the world. The highest prevalence of cabbage rolls as a culinary staple is in the Middle East, the Balkans, and Central and Eastern Europe. But cabbage rolls are also enjoyed in China, South America, and Quebec.
Cabbage rolls are made all around the world. And why wouldn't they be, it's really a sort of obvious development. It isn't a far stretch for any hungry human to see see a large pliable cabbage leaf and come to the conclusion that it would be much tastier if stuffed with some rice and a bit of meat.
In the grand scheme of things we are more alike than we are different. There's a sort of beautiful universal message in there of shared human experience and the commonalities that bind humanity...it's right there wrapped up alongside the rice and meat, in the layers of a cabbage leaf.
What's different about Romanian cabbage rolls?
Cabbage rolls come in many different varieties. Different countries have different traditions, and even within countries there are regional differences, and differences in families.
This is also the case in Romania. Our East/West culinary divide means that cabbage rolls made in the northwest of the country tend to be larger (the size of a small to medium sized potato) and more similar to the cabbage rolls of countries like Germany, Hungary, Ukraine and Poland.
In the southeast where I'm from, the cabbage rolls are made very small (the width of a sausage), more similar to the cabbage rolls in Turkey or Egypt.
What does hold true throughout Romania though is that cabbage rolls are made with sauerkraut (not fresh cabbage), pork meat and smoked pork for flavor.
This is a near universal fact. It's common enough to see the ground pork mixed with ground beef, and for the seasonings to differ slightly by region or family.
But in general, this is the "formula" for traditional Romanian cabbage rolls and this is the recipe you'll find in this post.
Ground pork: Ground pork is the traditional choice, either alone or in combination with ground beef.
Whole pickled cabbage: Romanian cabbage rolls are always made with pickled cabbage i.e. sauerkraut. You can usually find whole pickled cabbage (especially around the holidays) at Eastern European grocers. If you can't find whole pickled cabbage, then maybe try a cabbage roll soup instead.
Bacon & smoked pork: Bacon cut into small strips is a really easy way to add that smoky flavor characteristic of Romanian cabbage rolls. A more advanced technique is to use smoked meat (like the smoked pork ribs shown above or a smoked ham hock even) which is either cut very finely and added to the filling, or otherwise layered amongst the sarmale as you'll see in the photos below. If you can't find smoked pork no worries, bacon is enough. You also don't have to be super precise about this addition - you can even double the quantity of bacon given here since it will render and not take up much space.
Yellow onions: Yellow onions diced finely add a lot of flavor to the filling. Traditional Romanian cabbage rolls don't contain garlic.
Rice: Usually a short grain white rice like Arborio because it swells up a lot and due to the high starch content, gives a very creamy texture to the filling. If you don't have short grain rice you can also use long grain.
Oil: Oil is necessary because without it the outside of the cabbage rolls won't brown. Plus fat equals flavor.
Tomato paste and tomato puree: Tomato paste goes into the filling to bring some deep, umami flavor and tomato puree is used to cover the cabbage rolls, contributing both moisture and flavor.
Seasoning: The seasoning for cabbage rolls is usually just salt, black pepper, paprika, and savory (i.e. cimbru in Romanian). Some families like to also add a couple bay leaves on top of the cabbage rolls when cooking or some dill (either fresh or dry) in the filling, which adds a sweet, herbaceous note. Cimbru can be found at Romanian specialty grocers or you can buy summer savory online. For the paprika, my favorite is La Chinata Sweet Smoked Paprika, which brings sweetness but also enhances the smokiness of the bacon / smoked pork.
How to get the right ratio of filling to cabbage?
One of the main challenges of making sarmale (besides the rolling) is scaling the recipe right so you have exactly enough filling for the amount of sauerkraut leaves you have.
You can usually get pretty close (as I've tried to do for you in the recipe below) but there are also great ways to use leftovers if you end up with any.
For excess filling, you can make a stuffed pepper or two, since the filling for traditional Romanian stuffed peppers and sarmale are basically the same.
For extra leaves, they can be shredded finely and used in slow roasted caramelized cabbage, another traditional Romanian recipe.
If you aren't ready to make another dish, then both the filling and the sauerkraut can be frozen until you're ready to use them.
How to Make Sarmale
After many years of making sarmale, I've learned that it's much faster to do the process factory assembly style - do each step to completion before starting the next.
In particular, cutting all the leaves and then stuffing them is, in my opinion, much faster than cutting as you go, which is how I used to do it.
- Make the filling;
- Set up your work station;
- Cut the sauerkraut leaves into 'stuffable' sheets;
- Stuff and roll the sauerkraut leaves.
- Arrange and cook the cabbage rolls.
Step 1: Make the filling
The filling for Romanian cabbage rolls is precooked. This has at least 2 benefits:
- Provides an opportunity for more flavor development since the filling ingredients are cooked with a drier heat and can caramelize a bit;
- Gives the rice a bit of a head start. Starting with rice that's already a bit cooked makes it less likely that the cabbage rolls will break open as the rice cooks inside them.
Do note that while the rice and onion mixture needs to be cooked (also with some bacon), the ground meat should not be cooked. It's only added to the pot after the other ingredients have cooled enough that they won't cook the meat.
You can also make the filling a day or two in advance if you prefer. Just store it in a large zipper bag in the fridge until ready to use. You can also freeze it if you need more time.
Step 2: Set up your work station
When you're ready to roll, it's good to start by setting up your workstation.
You will need quite a lot of space to make the cabbage rolls. I recommend setting up at a table where you can take a seat, since the rolling takes a couple hours and you won't want to be standing for that. Bonus points if you involve some friends or family in the process.
For the cutting step, you'll need three bowls (two large and one smaller), a large cutting board, and a knife.
One large bowl will hold the cabbage head, another for the cut sheets, and a third for any discard pieces from the stems or any torn leaves. These discard pieces will be used later to cover the top and bottom of the pot and any leftovers can be used in other dishes as noted above.
You may also want to put a kitchen cloth under the cutting board, since a lot of liquid will come out of the cabbage leaves and can make your work surface a bit slippery.
As a preliminary step you can take the whole head of sauerkraut out of the packaging and set it in a bowl to drain. You can also do this while you make the filling and then get a start on cutting the leaves while the filling is cooling.
Draining is not essential but it helps remove a bit of the cabbage juice which can make your workstation a bit messy and also is a bit harsh on the hands when there's a lot of it.
Step 2: Cut the sauerkraut leaves into sheets
I recommend breaking this step into 2: first take apart the head of cabbage by removing all the leaves to a bowl, and then cut the leaves into sheets.
A whole head of pickled sauerkraut is more delicate than fresh cabbage so you need to be quite gentle with it to avoid it tearing.
Begin by peeling off the layers of leaves one at a time as shown in the photo above.
Eventually you will find it a bit harder as the stalks leading to the stem will be thicker. At this point you can turn the cabbage upside down and cut out the core/stem area. Then you can again gently peel off the cabbage leaves
Lay all the leaves out in another large bowl.
When all the leaves have been removed, you'll begin cutting them and moving them back into the first bowl.
My preferred method for this is to cut out the central thicker stem in each leaf as shown in the photo below and then usually the two side pieces are large enough for a cabbage roll.
Keep in mind that the sizes of sheets shown here are best for smaller cabbage rolls that hold about a tablespoon of filling.
You can also cut the sheets bigger and put more filling into each. Making the cabbage rolls bigger also makes the whole process faster and less effort, which can be preferable especially if this is your first time.
If you do want to make them small as shown in this recipe, then it could be that a cabbage leaf is extra large and you get 5 or even 6 sheets out of one leaf. Or it can be very small - the leaves nearer to the stem may only be big enough for 1 sheet.
Some of the very small pieces may be too small for stuffing, you can save these to cover the bottom of the pot and the tops of the cabbage rolls while cooking.
In the next section below you'll also see how to cut and stuff the tiniest leaves which are only big enough to be one sheet.
Step 4: Stuff the cabbage leaves
Stuffing the cabbage leaves is the most time consuming part of the process. This is when you can involve family and friends, put on some nice music and share the moment together as I did with my granny in this photo below from a few Christmases ago.
To set up for stuffing the cabbage rolls, your workstation should have the cutting board, a knife, a bowl with the filling, a pot for the finished cabbage rolls, and a spoon.
What type of pot to use for cabbage rolls?
Good to know when deciding on a pot is that cabbage rolls can be cooked on the stovetop or in the oven but they need to be covered while they cook.
My preference is to cook them in the oven because the dry heat helps them caramelize and brings out more flavors. I strongly recommend oven cooking.
You can use a lot of different types of pots to make cabbage rolls.
The most traditional choice is earthenware but I personally like cast iron (like a Dutch oven) or enameled cast iron, like my Le Creuset braiser which is pictured.
The braiser pictured is 3.3 liter / 3.5 quart which is big enough for this whole recipe (i.e. 75 cabbage rolls). You may need to use two different pots if you don't have one big enough. That's okay.
Before you start laying out the cabbage rolls, take some of the cabbage in the discard pile and dice it up very finely. Sprinkle that layer of finely shredded sauerkraut over the bottom of the pot as shown here.
Finally, back to stuffing.
To dose out the filling into the cabbage sheets, I like using a measuring tablespoon because it makes the dosing of filling more consistent. It also gives you a good sense for the size of these smaller cabbage rolls.
You can also make them bigger if that's your preference. For example you can use a quarter cup measure instead.
Stuffing cabbage rolls isn't difficult but it is a skill that some people are naturally good at while others have to practice a bit. If it's your first time no worries, you will get the hang of it quickly.
The photo below shows your the basic idea.
- Lay out the cabbage sheet on a cutting board or a plate. You can also just do it in your hand like my granny, but this is a bit 'pro skills'. For me it helps to have the thicker or wider part of the sheet closer to me but feel out what works for you. Use your spoon to put the filling on the leaf on the end that's closest to you;
- Roll the sheet over the filling tight enough that the filling won't fall out;
- Roll the sheet all the way until you get a cigar shape;
- When the sheet is fully rolled, tuck the ends into the roll. You can also tuck the ends in before you fully roll up the sheet - whatever works best for you.
The photo below shows how you can cut and stuff an extra small cabbage leaf. If the leaf is too small or difficult to work with no worries, throw it in the discard bowl and it will get used.
As you stuff the cabbage rolls you should lay them out in your pot either in concentric rings (if the pot is round) or otherwise in lines, as shown below.
When laying out the cabbage rolls you can also layer in pieces of smoked pork if you like as shown below.
Once all the cabbage rolls are in the pot, they are covered with a mixture of tomato puree and oil.
The cabbage rolls are roasted low and slow for at least 5 hours (maybe more) until they're nicely caramelized, or as we say in Romanian, 'rumenite bine'.
Cabbage rolls are a really important dish in Romania. They're eaten not only during the Christmas period but are also a traditional staple in wedding menus (usually as part of a midnight buffet).
Even though cabbage rolls are a special celebratory meal, they're also eaten throughout the year 'just because'. That's definitely my kind of celebratory meal!
The traditional pairing for cabbage rolls in my region of Romania (Dobrogea) is mămăligă i.e. polenta or otherwise some nice crusty bread.
Usually Romanian cabbage rolls are served with sour cream or yogurt. In North American and Western Europe I find crème fraiche to be a closer approximation to the sour cream we have in Romania.
You can also add a few hot red chilies on the side as shown in the photo below.
Looking for more Romanian meal ideas? Try these:
Romanian Cabbage Rolls (Sarmale)
- 2 kg whole pickled cabbage
- 1 kg ground pork
- 200 grams bacon cut into thin strips
- 200 grams smoked pork rib optional, half diced finely and added to filling and half sliced thinly and layered between rolls
- 1.5 cups yellow onion finely diced
- 1 cup short grain white rice uncooked
- 3 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1 tablespoon dried summer savory
- 2 teaspoons paprika smoked or sweet
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 1 teaspoon black pepper
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil sunflower, canola or other neutral oil
- 1.5 cups tomato puree
- 0.5 cups water
- 0.25 cups vegetable oil
- 1 teaspoon dried savory
- 0.5 teaspoons salt
- 0.5 teaspoons black pepper
- 0.5 teaspoon paprika
make the filling
- Finely dice the onion, cut the bacon into thin strips, and finely dice the smoked pork (if using).
- Sauté the onion in 2 tablespoons of oil over medium heat until translucent and aromatic.
- Add the tomato paste, savory, paprika, salt and black pepper. Sauté a minute or so until aromatic.
- Add the bacon and smoked pork and sauté until it the fat begins to render and the bacon turns darker. It doesn't have to get crispy, just enough to render out some of the fat.
- Add the rice, sauté a few minutes to toast the rice a bit.
- Add 2 cups water, continue cooking while stirring frequently until the water fully absorbs then turn off heat.
- Allow the filling to fully cool before adding the ground pork.
prepare the cabbage leaves
- Remove all the cabbage leaves from the head of sauerkraut and place in a large bowl.
- Use a sharp knife to cut each of the leaves into as many sheets as they can make (see recipe post for details). Set the sheets aside in a large bowl until ready to stuff. Put the discard pieces and stems into another small bowl.
assemble the cabbage rolls
- Finely shred some of the discard pieces, enough so you can cover the bottom of the pot and the tops of the rolls.
- Lay out a few sheets of cabbage on a cutting board or plate.
- Use a spoon to dose out an even amount of filling on the part of the sheet closest to you.
- Roll the sheet over the filling and away from you until you make a little carpet-like roll. Use your finger to push the loose ends into the roll.
- Arrange the rolls in your pot. Continue rolling until the pot is full. If you end up with a few extra rolls, you can cook them separately in another smaller pot.
cook the cabbage rolls
- Preheat oven to 165 C / 330 F.
- Whisk together the ingredients for the tomato sauce and pour it evenly over the rolls.
- Cover the pot either with a lid or a few layers of tight aluminum foil. You may want to place a parchment lined sheet pan underneath the pot so it catches any liquid that bubbles over (much easier to clean up this way).
- Cook for at least 5-6 hours.
- Check on the cabbage rolls at the halfway point to make sure they aren't burning (there shouldn't be any char). Reduce heat to 150 C / 300 F if necessary.
- Cook until the cabbage rolls are golden and the sauerkraut is thin and fork tender.