Based on the recipe from Tried & True contributor, Stefan, this homemade sarmale recipe is the best Romanian cabbage roll recipe out there if we do say so ourselves.
Polish cabbage rolls are the variety most commonly recreated in American households. They’re big and stuffed to the brim with rice, pork, and spices.
Romanian cabbage rolls, also known as sarmale, are smaller and are traditionally prepared with pickled cabbage leaves.
You may not be able to find pickled cabbage leaves, and that’s okay! I have a quick tip for you to add a little kick to your homemade sarmale!
Another difference between Romanian and Polish cabbage rolls: bacon. The few thick slices of bacon in the cabbage roll broth really took this recipe to the next level.
How to prepare this homemade sarmale recipe:
Don’t let anyone tell you that sarmale is an easy affair. While not difficult to prepare, they are time-consuming. If you’re like me, you may end up with half a batch of cabbage rolls and half a batch of cabbage roll soup because you just lose your oomph.
First, boil the cabbage. My tip for those who can’t find pickled cabbage? Add vinegar and sugar to the boiling water. It gives it just a nice little kick. Shock the cabbage in ice water and then peel the leaves off.
On to the filling: Where I differed from Stefan’s recipe is I browned the onion and used uncooked white rice which I toasted with the onion in butter. Place it in a bowl and transfer to the freezer for about 10 minutes to let it cool.
Next, add the meat–pork or beef or a mix–along with freshly minced dill and parsley. Whisk an egg and add it to the filling along with salt and pepper and a shake of garlic powder, if you like. Mix everything together and transfer to the refrigerator until needed.
Homemade broth or canned tomato sauce?
Now, you can make this with a homemade tomato broth or canned tomato sauce, but personally, I find canned tomatoes too acidic on their own, so I made a very quick broth. I started the broth in a wide, oven-proof pot while the cabbage boiled.
For the broth, all you need to do is sauté a finely minced onion, add a large can of crushed tomatoes, and about 5–6 cups of water. Bring to a boil and add chopped bacon and bay leaves. Season with salt, pepper, and a pinch of sugar. One thing to note with Romanian cabbage rolls is that the broth should be quite thin. It is not a thick sauce.
Baking the cabbage rolls:
From there, simply roll the cabbage rolls and place them directly into the broth. Or, if you’re like me, you’ll be yeeting them into the broth as you get to the end of the filling! You will likely need two layers of cabbage rolls in this dish. Add more water at the end to ensure that they are just barely covered with liquid.
Scatter more chopped bacon on top and bake, covered, for one hour and thirty minutes. Check the rolls occasionally, and add more water as needed if it cooks down too much. After baking, you can broil briefly to crisp up the rolls and the bacon on top, but that is optional!
How to serve this sarmale recipe:
Romanian cabbage rolls are traditionally served with polenta (coarse corn grits cooked in water with salt) and Greek yogurt. However, try these with mashed potatoes or served simply on their own with a generous spoonful of Greek yogurt, sour cream, or crème fraîche.
Want to learn more about Romanian cabbage rolls? Read The History of Romanian Cabbage Rolls by Tried & True contributor Stefan Ionescu.
If you made this sarmale recipe, please rate the recipe below and leave a comment to tell me how you liked it! If you take a picture of it, please tag me on Instagram so I can feature you in my feed!
Homemade Sarmale Recipe (Romanian Cabbage Rolls)
- Large pot
- Wide pot
- Medium pot
- 2 small heads of green or savoy cabbage cored
- 3 tablespoons distilled white vinegar or apple cider vinegar
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 4 tablespoons butter
- 2 yellow onions peeled and finely diced
- ¾ cup long-grain white rice
- 2 pounds ground pork or beef
- ⅓ cup fresh dill minced
- ⅓ cup fresh parsley minced
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1 egg beaten
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 2 teaspoons neutral oil
- 1 yellow onion peeled and finely diced
- 28- ounce can crushed tomatoes
- 5–6 cups water
- 3 bay leaves
- 1–2 teaspoons sugar
- 1 pound bacon diced and divided
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 1 cup polenta corn grits I use corn grits from Bob’s Red Mill
- 3 cups water
- Greek yogurt
- Salt and pepper to taste
Prepare the cabbage:
- Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add salt, vinegar, and sugar. Once boiling, add one of the cabbage heads to the water and boil for 7–10 minutes until softened.
- Transfer the cabbage to an ice bath. Once cool enough to handle, remove the leaves.
- Boil the second cabbage head and transfer to an ice bath and remove the leaves. Cut the leaves in half (lengthwise, along the vein of the cabbage leaf) and place on a large plate.
Start the filling:
- Place a wide, ovenproof pot on the stove over medium heat. Add the butter and let it melt. Once frothy, add the onion and cook for 6–8 minutes until it just begins to soften. Add the rice and cook, stirring occasionally, for 3–4 minutes until it begins to toast and turn golden brown.
- Transfer the mixture to a large bowl. Try to even out the layer over the inside of the bowl by pressing the mixture up along the sides of the bowl as much as possible, so that it cools down faster. Transfer to the freezer for 10 minutes. Wipe out the pot and return it to the stovetop.
Prepare the broth:
- While the filling cools, prepare the broth. Heat the oil in the wide pot over medium heat. Once hot, add the onion and cook for 6-7 minutes. Add the crushed tomatoes and water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and add the bay leaves, sugar, and half of the diced bacon. Season with salt and pepper. Continue simmering the broth as you prepare the cabbage rolls.
Finish the filling:
- Remove the bowl of rice and onion from the freezer. Add the pork, dill, parsley, garlic powder, and egg and season with salt and pepper. Mix with your hands until completely combined. Note: microwave or fry a very small piece of the filling to taste it for seasonings at this point.
Prepare the cabbage rolls:
- Preheat oven to 375ºF.
- Scoop one tablespoon of filling and place it in one of the cabbage leaf halves and roll it tightly, tucking in both sides to ensure the rolls don't open as they cook. Place the rolls in the tomato broth, seam-side down. Continue making the rolls. Place them in the pot as close as possible to the other rolls, ensuring they are all snugly arranged in the pot.
- Once the first layer is in the pot, scatter half of the remaining bacon on top. Add another layer of cabbage rolls on top and scatter the remaining bacon on top. Top them off with more water to ensure they are almost covered with liquid.
Bake the cabbage rolls:
- Cover the pot with a lid or tightly fitted aluminum foil. Transfer to the oven for 1 hour 30 minutes. Check the cabbage rolls occasionally to make sure the broth doesn’t cook off too much. Top off with more liquid, as necessary.
Broil the cabbage rolls:
- After the cabbage rolls have finished baking, remove the lid and turn on the broiler. Broil for 2–3 minutes or until the bacon on top begins to crisp up and the cabbage on top chars and crisps up a bit in spots. Remove from the oven and keep covered for 20 minutes.
Make the polenta:
- As you wait for the cabbage rolls to cool off, prepare the polenta. Bring 3 cups salted water to a boil. Add the cornmeal, whisking constantly, and reduce heat to low. Cook, whisking regularly, for 20 minutes until tender. Time may vary depending on the brand or variety of cornmeal used. Turn off the heat.
- Divide polenta between between shallow bowls and place the cabbage rolls on top. Garnish with Greek yogurt and serve with more fresh dill on top. Enjoy!