cabbage rolls, or the Romanian "sarmale"
Updated: Aug 20, 2021
Cabbage rolls "sarmale" are a huge thing in Romania. I grew up eating them almost every weekend. While stuffed cabbage rolls may not be a typical dish enjoyed by most Americans, this amazing dish is enjoyed all year round in Romania, being especially popular at Christmas and other holidays. My grandmother and my mother are experts at making them (but then again every Romanian lady is, I think). Even though "sarmale" are specific to the Romanian culture, stuffed cabbage rolls recipes are found throughout Eastern Europe. There are a lot of variations of stuffed cabbage leaves. One can make them with sweet cabbage or with sour cabbage, with pork ground meat or with a combination of pork/beef/or veal. One can make them with no meat at all and then usually the substitute is mushrooms. My way of making them always includes souerkraut, European bacon, onion, a lot of dried herb condiments, smoked paprika, ground beef, tomato sauce, rice, and lots and lots of fresh dill.
One of the secrets in having the perfect "sarmale" is the organically sourced meat. In Romania the meat and the bacon needed for "sarmale" come from locally sourced meat. Usually at Christmas every family in Romania is engaged in pig slaughtering. Pig slaughtering is one of the oldest traditions in Romania and pork is the main meat that Romanians eat on Christmas.
Given it is not possible for me in Michigan to find Romanian bacon, I always use an awesome Hungarian bacon that I purchase at a local store. In case you want to get the same I found out that Amazon carries the same brand. It is called Kolozsvari Szalonna Hungarian Brand Smoked Bacon.
Another secret in obtaining the best "sarmale" is the mixture of condiments one uses. It is traditional to have dried/fresh dill and dried/fresh thyme in the mixture, as well as smoked paprika, salt and pepper. I like to also add dried coriander, garlic powder, and dried lovage. Onions play a huge role in enhancing the "sarmale" flavor. I add between 2-3 chopped onions, depending on the size of the onions.
In Romania we make "sarmale" with a tomato sauce made in house called "bulion". The taste is very similar to the tomato sauce found in stores over here, however the consistency is quite thin when compared to the classic American tomato sauce. What I found that resembles the "bulion" almost exactly is the original V8 vegetable juice.
What cabbage you use is also important. If you make the "sarmale" with fresh cabbage then you have to make sure that the cabbage leaves have been softened before removing them from the cabbage. By allowing the cabbage to soak in hot water before hand, makes for the leaves to easily be removed from the cabbage, therefore making the rolling easier. As I mentioned earlier, my favorite way of making "sarmale" is with sour cabbage. In Romania the method for making sauerkraut or sour cabbage involves preparation through lacto-fermentation for several weeks of whole heads of cabbage, not just separate leaves. Given I don't do the cabbage fermentation of the whole cabbage in US, I found a more convenient solution-I buy the already fermented leaves in a jar. Again, I buy the cabbage at a local European store, however if you are interested in getting the same, Amazon carries several brands of sour cabbage leaves. They come rolled (see second picture bellow) in 54-56 ounce jars.
INGREDIENTS (makes approximately 50x 3 inch long "sarmale")
3 medium-sized onion, finely chopped
1 cup European bacon, finely chopped
1 tablespoon dried paprika
1 tablespoon dried thyme
1 tablespoon dried dill
1/2 tablespoon dried coriander
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1 tablespoon dried lovage
salt to taste
black pepper to taste
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
3 pounds ground beef (I use 20/80)
2 1/2 cup white rice
2 cups tomato sauce
2 cups water
1 bunch fresh dill, finely chopped
1 whole egg
2 x 56 ounces jars of sour cabbage leaves
2 cups tomato sauce
water to cover
In a big pot place the onions, bacon, paprika, dried thyme, dill, coriander, lovage, garlic powder, salt, pepper, and vegetable oil. Sauté on medium heat until the onions and bacon are lightly brown in color, about 8-10 minutes. Mix from time to time. Add the ground beef and incorporate into the onion mixture. Add the tomato sauce and continue to mix for another 5 minutes until the mixture resembles chili mixture (see picture bellow).
Add the water and rice and mix to incorporate. Allow for the rice to fully cook. Mix from time to time using a wooden spoon. When all the liquid has cooked the mixture is ready. Add the fresh dill and whole egg and mix thoroughly until incorporated (see picture bellow).
Now the tricky part in making the "sarmale" is rolling up the cabbage leaves. With time and practice this process becomes easier and easier. If you end up getting the jarred leaves, they come rolled into 2-3 leaves in a bunch. Each leaf will be a different size. I found some leaves are extremely large while others medium-sized, or small. I usually cut the larger leaves into 3, the medium ones into 2 and the small ones I leave as they are. Another important step is to remove the leaf stem/veining from the leaves, as that part is tough, therefore making it harder for the cabbage rolls to be formed (see picture bellow).
When all the leaves are prepped, begin forming the "sarmale". I always start at the wider end and go towards the more narrow end of the cabbage leaf. Place about two good tablespoons of filling in each leaf. Fold the lateral edges over the filling and then fold the wider part of the leaf over the edges, then keep rolling until all the leaf is used. Hold each cabbage roll in your fist and tuck whatever ends or filling are loose (see steps pictured bellow).
Have a large/wide pot on hand. Begin arranging the "sarmale" really tight together using a circular shape. Start on the outer sides of the pot and continue towards the center. Finish one full row of "sarmale" before you start with another top row (see picture bellow).
To cook, add the tomato sauce and as much water as to just cover the last row of "sarmale". In oder to avoid the "sarmale" to raise at the surface or to open while boiling, place a heavy plate or lid right on top of the last row of "sarmale" (not on top of the pot). Boil on medium heat for about two hours. Middle boil, add a cup of water since some of the liquid would have evaporated by now. Serve with fresh sour cream, bread, and/or hot pepper.