Traditional Romanian Cabbage Rolls (Sarmale)

20190327_171506erdfgI recently carried out my first experiment fermenting whole cabbage heads.  I did it solely to be able to make these cabbage rolls.  I waited six weeks.  Six whole weeks.  That’s how good these are.  (Psssstt… I have a shortcut if you’re in a hurry.)

20190325_181737(All links open a new page, so you won’t lose your spot when you look around!  Get information on gardening and cultural traditions, recipes, stories, and more!)

My first introduction to these delightful treats came from a Romanian family from our church.  They have made them for our social hour after church on a few occasions.  They have never been a disappointment to eat.  I asked for the recipe, of course, only to be told what I feared I would be told.  What recipe?

20190424_143340It never fails, the hardest recipes to pin down are the ones that have been passed down from one generation to the next simply by practice, not in writing.  Measurements are “a little of this” and “a lot of that”, ingredients are “well, if I have this on hand I’ll use it, otherwise I might just leave it out”, etc.  In other words, there is no real recipe.

What this all means is that getting an authentic recreation of that dish requires a lot of research and a whole lot of patience.  I had to have both in order to get the cabbages right along with the filling.  I’m happy to say, I’m pretty darned sure I nailed it.  At least my family was happy with the results!  When your kids are crushed to find out that they ate the last of a dish, ya’ know ya’ done good.

20190424_143454So what if you didn’t make fermented cabbage heads like I did, but still want these cabbage rolls?  You can prepare fresh cabbages the way I have for an earlier cabbage roll recipe.  You will need to add 1/4 cup of lemon juice to the cabbage cooking water to give it the slightly tangy flavor that fermentation creates, and adjust the salt in the filling since the recipe below assumes fermented cabbage leaves that will already be salty from the brine they would be in.  Otherwise you are good to go!

Romanian Style Cabbage Rolls Recipe

  • Difficulty: it's not as bad as it looks
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Traditionally these cabbage rolls are served with sour cream on the side.  The cool and tangy creaminess of the sour cream really compliments the flavors of the rolls.  If you have any filling and bits of cabbage leaves left over, you can make a quick version of my Cabbage-Beef Soup.  Just follow the directions at the end of my Extra Cabbage-y Cabbage Rolls recipe, which is also where you will find the instructions for preparing fresh cabbage heads if you don’t have the fermented ones.


  • 1 lb. ground pork (beef or even chicken/turkey could also be used, but pork is traditional)
  • 1/2 cup regular white rice (don’t use quick cooking rice, also brown and wild rice will take too long to cook)
  • 1/2 cup diced white or yellow onion (cut into small pieces)
  • 1/4 cup tightly packed, minced fresh dill
  • 2-3 cloves of garlic, finely minced (you can use any garlic that was in the brine with the cabbage heads)
  • 1 15-ounce can diced tomatoes, pureed and divided into 3/4 cup and 1 cup amounts (pureed fresh tomatoes can also be used)
  • 2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil, plus more for the pot
  • salt/pepper to taste (optional)
  • 1-2 heads fermented or fresh green cabbage (the amount needed will depend on their size and the number of usable leaves)
  • 1/2 cup lemon juice
  • Up to 2 quarts very hot chicken or pork broth


If you are starting with fresh cabbage, follow the instructions in my Extra Cabbage-y Cabbage Rolls recipe.  If you are starting with fermented cabbage, either homemade or purchased, make sure the core is removed and that the heads have been thoroughly rinsed to remove the excess brine and drained, core side down, in a strainer.

Put the first seven ingredients, from ground pork to olive oil (using the 3/4 cup portion of the tomatoes), into a large bowl.  Now the fun begins.  It is best to use your hands to smoosh all the ingredients together to best get them combined.

If you are using fermented cabbage heads, you likely won’t need to add any salt or pepper as there will already be quite a bit in the leaves, as well as in the canned tomatoes.  If you are using fresh leaves you may want to add some.  Take a small amount of the meat mixture, about a tablespoon, and heat it either in a pan or a microwave until the meat is cooked, then taste to see how much you may want.  Go easy, there’s more flavor to come!

**By the way, the filling can be refrigerated or frozen if you are short on time, until you are ready to start rolling!**


Generously oil the bottom of a large stock pot.  Take a cabbage leaf and lay it flat, with the curve of the stem facing upward.  Place a spoonful of filling into the curve.  The amount of filling will vary depending on the size of the leaf.  Roll the bottom of the stem over the filling.  Gently fold one side toward the middle, then fold the other side toward the middle.  Roll from the base, making sure that the filling stays tucked in, to the top of the leaf.  If there are tears in the leaf, be sure to push the edges of the torn part together to keep the filling in.  My pictures show me using one hand, but ahem, I had to take the pictures somehow!  You get to use both hands!

20180515_092201Place the cabbage roll into the pot with the “seam” side down.  You want the edge of the leaf tip held into place on the bottom of the pan, so it doesn’t unravel during cooking.  Eventually you will get to leaves that are just too small to use.  Keep them, and any extra filling to make the soup mentioned in the cabbage roll recipe linked above.  Fill the pan with rolls, packing them snugly together.  You can have up to three layers, just be sure to keep them snug.  Too many layers will squish the bottom and they could burn as a result.

20180515_092331Pour the remaining tomato puree and the lemon juice over the rolls and add just enough of the very hot broth to almost cover the rolls.  Quickly put something heavy over the top of the rolls, or they will start floating and become unraveled.  The top layer in my pot wasn’t full, so I put a jelly jar to hold the bottom row down, then a small plate on top to hold the rest of the top layer.

20180515_092410Cover and cook over medium low heat (very low simmer, do not allow it to boil) for about 50-60 minutes, or until rice is tender and meat is completely done.  Check occasionally to see if more broth is needed to keep the rolls barely submerged.  Be careful when removing any plates, etc., as they will be very hot and a bit greasy.  I like to use a couple of spatulas to gently lift out each roll without tearing them.  (As with so many foods, these really do taste better if allowed to let the flavors blend for a day before serving.)  Place them on a platter, and pour off the remaining broth into a pitcher.  Spoon some of the sauce over the rolls as you serve them along with a dollop of sour cream.  (Any leftover broth from the rolls can be put into the soup recipe I mentioned earlier, or hey, just drink it straight up!)  These cabbage rolls can be a meal in one, a side-dish, or even an elaborate appetizer!  You can even freeze them in batches for eating at another time.  Yum yum!

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