~ "By wisdom a house is built, and through understanding it is established; Through knowledge its rooms are filled with rare and beautiful treasures." ~ "Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing" ~ "But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy." ~ "Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths."~

Monday, December 20, 2010

Romanian Sarmale....Stuffed Cabbage Rolls (a lighter version)

Romanian Sarmale....Stuffed Cabbage Rolls (a lighter version) It's been quite awhile since I last posted a Romanian recipe....I don't know why it's been so long:). Anyway, this post is about a very popular Romanian dish called sarmale. There are innumerable variations of the Romanian sarmale... and probably every Romanian household has their own recipe and method for making them. But, this is my attempt at making a lighter version of the sarmale...
Traditionally, sarmale are made with pickled cabbage, ground pork meat filling, and various herbs and spices. Now, most Romanian families have their own recipe and often make it the way they were brought up. The recipes vary from region to region... and the variations are endless. Sarmale are usually a winter dish, served around Christmas or other festive occasions. Since the pork sarmale can be quite heavy( though delicious!), I chose to do mine using ground turkey with a bit of cooked bacon for flavor. Most times, I will use ground chicken for the meat filling and even skip the bacon. I find they are just as delicious. The sarmale recipe I am posting is basically just a guide.... as it can easily be adapted according to personal preference.
Personally, I think the best sarmale are made with pickled(sour) cabbage. But since pickled cabbage isn't easy to find(or make), I like to use a quick brine to sort of "mimic" the pickled version. I also like to use some store-bought sauerkraut to provide that extra pickled flavor. For this post, I ended up using tomato paste....but sometimes, I will use tomato sauce or even fresh tomatoes. It always depends on what I have on hand. You can definitely make a vegetarian version by using mostly rice and sauteeing some onions, carrots, peppers, mushrooms, etc...and keeping the same method for stuffing, layering and cooking.
Sarmale can be served with polenta, sour cream, and sometimes hot peppers. While the sarmale taste great the day they are made, they taste even better the following day. In any case, I thought it would be nice if I would show how sarmale are made....the basics, of course:). Hope you enjoy...

Note: For those of you who would like to make your own sauerkraut cabbage leaves, you can see how to make it HERE

You will need: makes about 35-40 medium size stuffed cabbage rolls

For Cabbage: Some folks skip the brining and just simmer the cabbage in plain water....others will freeze the cabbage head and then defrost it so that the leaves wilt and are easier to roll. Feel free to use whatever method works for you.

1 head of cabbage
(I used a an ex-large (4 lb) cabbage and got enough leaves, but you many need to use 2 heads of cabbage).

15 cups water
2 TBS Kosher salt
1/2 cup vinegar

For Filling:

2 lbs ground turkey( or pork*, veal, beef, chicken or any combination thereof )
8 slices of bacon(definitely optional )
2 medium onions, chopped
3/4 cup short grain rice( you could use less or more)
2 TBS olive oil
1/2 cup water**
1 TBS tomato paste
2 tsps smoked paprika( you can use regular)
1 TBS fresh dill, chopped, or to taste
salt and pepper to taste

*if using the traditional pork, you can also add some smoked bacon/ham pieces to the pot

** instead of the water, you can add 1 or 2 eggs...this helps with making the filling a bit lighter in texture and not so dense.

Shredded Cabbage For Layering:

25 fl oz. sauerkraut, (preferably without preservatives, as it tastes more homemade)
1 tsp fresh dill, chopped (to be mixed with the shredded cabbage)

leftover shredded cabbage( from cabbage where leaves were used for the filling)

Liquid to cover sarmale:
3-4 TBS tomato paste mixed with 1 cup water
sauerkraut juice and/or lemon juice to taste
extra water as needed to cover cabbage rolls
2-3 bay leaves
extra dill
salt* and pepper to taste
* if using sauerkraut juice, limit the amount of salt

Serve with:
sour cream
hot pepper


1. Wash cabbage and cut core out.
2. Prepare cabbage brine, by placing water, salt and vinegar in a large pot( at least a 6 QT) and bring brine to a boil.
3. Lower heat to low and add head of cabbage to the brined water...removing each cabbage leaf as it wilts and placing it on a plate.
4. Continue removing most of the outer leaves...you may need to cut a bit more from the end core( as you get towards the middle of the cabbage) so that the leaves release. Try not to forcefully remove the leaves before they wilt...as they can tear on you.
5. If you are using 2 cabbages, do the same with the second cabbage. You will need about 18-20 large leaves, cut in half...to yield about 35-40 medium size rolls.
6. Place the cabbage leaves back in the brined water( with heat off) while you work on the filling.
7. Cut the middle part of the cabbage in thin strips(julienned/shredded) and set aside.

1. Cut bacon into strips and fry till almost crisp..not quite. Remove bacon from fat and set aside.
2. Remove bacon fat and discard and add 2 TBS oil along with chopped onion. Leave the bacon browned bits in the pan for flavor.
3. Saute onion till soft and golden, adding a bit of water to help release the browned bits. (Step 1 and 2 can be skipped if you don't mind the bacon fat.... just saute the onion along with the bacon).
4. Add rice and cook for a minute or so.
5. Add the tomato paste, paprika, 1/2 cup water and dill. Mix to combine.
6. Remove from heat and allow to cool a bit.
7. Season the ground meat with salt and pepper.
8. Add onion/rice mixture to ground meat and combine fully...(if not using water in step 5, you can add 1-2 beaten eggs or skip the eggs altogether:).
1. Take each cabbage leaf and remove the tough veins. If the cabbage leaf is large, cut it in half along the middle vein.... otherwise, just cut the tough end vein and use the whole cabbage leaf.
2. Place 2 TBS( for medium size) of meat mixture at the bottom of the leaf and roll once to encase the filling.
3. Fold over one of the outer edges and finish rolling the entire length. You should still have one of the sides still open...which you can tuck in. OR simply roll the stuffed cabbage as you would a burrito.
4. If you have any leftover leaves, just cut them up and combine them with the reserved shredded cabbage that you set aside earlier( from the middle of the cabbage).
5. Add sauerkraut( I used a jar of store-bought) and dill.... combine together.
6. Place some of the combined shredded cabbage on the bottom of a large pot( at least 6 qt.) If you have a dutch oven, it would be ideal to use that. I have a regular soup pot.
7. Arrange a layer of stuffed rolls on top of the shredded cabbage and continue to do a second layer ending with shredded cabbage on top. Place bay leaves on top and extra dill to taste.
8. Combine the tomato paste with about 1 cup of water and pour over the entire surface. Add some sauerkraut juice( from the jar...only if it is w/o preservatives) and pour it over the entire surface. Add enough water to barely cover the stuffed rolls. ( If using sauerkraut juice which can be quite salty, you may not need to add anymore salt..if using lemon juice to sour the rolls, you will need to add some salt. I usually add a bit of lemon juice as well... even when using sauerkraut juice)
9. Cover pot and cook on low for 2-3 hours...adding a bit more water if needed towards the last hour of cooking. You can then uncover and bake for about 30 minutes at 350 or so...though baking is optional.
~~~~ ~~~~~~~ ~~~~~~ ~~~~~~ ~~~~~~ ~~~~~ ~~~~~
You can also cook the stuffed cabbage rolls entirely using any one of the methods below:
a) stove top
b) in the oven
c) slow cooker
d)pressure cooker( about 18-20 minutes or so)...my favorite as of late(much quicker and very tasty).
Serve with polenta, a dollop or two of sour cream, and maybe some hot pepper.


Ashleyta said...

Thank you SO much for putting up this recipe...I've helped mom make them quite a few times but I've wanted to make it on my own from start to finish...was never brave enough w/o a recipe...so thanks again! =)

Ellie said...

Ashleyta, You are very welcome! I know pictures help me a great deal...so I am hoping the step- by- step photos I posted will be of some help to you as well as others...

As for the kind of meat, spices,and cabbage you use....well, that can be left to one's own personal preference.

Thanks for stopping...
Happy cooking:)~Ellie

Mihaela said...

Ellie, felicitari pentru sarmale! Si mie imi plac de Craciun, si le am in plan, dar cu varianta originala cu porc :)) Si varza o fac la fel, in apa. Eu o sa folosesc numai zeama de varza, am facut eu, numai ca in bidonasele mici pe care le-am avut nu mi-au incaput verzele intregi. Anul asta din pacate am pus prea putina sare, dar perseverez, poate la anul chiar pun reteta de varza murata pe blog! :)) Numai bine, Sarbatori fericite si un an nou cu multe impliniri tie si familiei tale!

Judy said...

I must send my DIL over here...she is Romanian and might like to try an authentic recipe.

Thanks for stopping by this morning...and taking the time to comment on the Christmas punch.

from Mennonite Girls Can Cook

Ellie said...

Mihaela, Multumesc mult... stiu ca sarmalele tale o sa fie f.bune. Si eu am incercat sa fac varza acra si a trebuit sa tai din varza ca sa intre container...astept sa vad si eu reteta ta de varza murata:).

Judy, Thank you so much for stopping by my blog...It was kind of you and I appreciate it.
Looks like you are acquainted a bit with Romanian dishes:)

Esty said...

Hi Ellie!

I sent this to my old college roommate. she had sarmale at my house and always wanted the recipe! :)

hope you are well!

Ellie said...

Hi Esty!
Good to hear from you...
Glad I could be of help...though I am sure they don't compare to your mom's:)

I hope you are doing well.

Merry Christmas to you!

Mihaela said...

Draga Elli, ai lucrat, nu gluma la sarmalele astea..!Arata foarte bine ! Mama mea le facea cu o zi inainte de a fi servite si le punea intre haine(groase) , iar a doua zi erau numa bune de mancat(nu mai trebuiau incalzite).

Ellie said...

Mihaela, Esti o scumpa! Imi place idea mamei tale:)..Iti doresc si tie si intreaga familie un Craciun plin de bucurie si har!

megi said...

Hi Ellie,

I love stuffed cabbage rolls and make them often, we make it slightly differently though and would love to try your version, the photos are great too.

Ellie said...

Thanks Megi, If you are familiar with cabbage rolls, these won't be difficult for you at all...like you say, just a different variation. Hope you enjoy them!
Have a great day! ~Ellie

Frutina said...

Hi, I live in Poland and I always thought sarmale (polish "golabki") is a national polish food, I was wrong :)
Best wishes :)

Ellie said...

Kako, Thanks for stopping by...all the way from Poland:) I think our countries have quite a bit in common and am sure some of the recipes have been shared:) So glad you stopped by. Greetings to you! ~Ellie

conntess said...

Maybe Jan Sobieski brought sarmale over?;-)

Ellie said...

Conntess, Hmm...you never know:)...He could have easily done so... Though I think the Romanians have made the sarmale recipe their own just by using "soured" cabbage or varza murata.
I suppose my version uses a bit of both, Polish and Romanian:)...
In any case, stuffed cabbage rolls sure are delicious.
Thanks for stopping by...~Ellie

Roberta said...

Thank you for this recipe. My son served an LDS Mission in Romania. I tried to make this from another recipe but I had no idea what I was doing but now with your wonderful directions I can try again. I didn't have any idea how to make a brine for the cabbage so now I know. He was very excited when he saw this recipe. Thanks so much.

Ellie said...

Roberta, I am hoping you will like it. Using pickled cabbage would be ideal...along with pork meat. But, hopefully the brine along with the store-bought sauerkraut will help a bit. Feel free to use pork and make it more traditional:)...
Hope you enjoy and thanks for stopping by.

Anonymous said...


Ellie said...

Anon, Glad you like the recipes:)...and thanks for stopping by.

Anonymous said...

Well that pretty much looks like a definitive recipe for cabbage rolls.

Yes there are numerous recipes around for preparing them, but I'd give these a try for sure!

Thanks for such an informative post Ellie...

Ellie said...

Amateur Cook, Thanks for stopping by...and for your sweet comment.
I sure hope you like the recipe...even if you tweak it to your own preference:). I am hoping the step-by-step will be helpful...

nutbuni said...


This recipe looks great! I'm going to try it tonight. I was wondering about having them the next day like you mentioned, can you have them cold or do you heat them up? What's the best way to reheat them if you do?



Ellie said...

Amanda, I am hoping you will like the sarmale. As for serving them the next day, you can reheat the sarmale in the oven or toaster oven. You might want to cover the container with a lid, and then remove the lid towards the end of the cooking time. You can opt to reheat it in the microwave as well, if you care to use that....I'd probably use half power. You can probably have them cold, though I always serve them hot.
Hope this helps...and thanks for stopping by.

Sherry said...

Hi Ellie,

I know you posted this a long time ago, but I just made it again for the second time last night. Amazing!!! (It was not quite as good as what I had in Romania because of my newness to the dis, but they were still very good.)

Thanks for sharing your Romanian recipes for those of us who have had the fortune to try food in Romania but have no idea how to replicate it. Next time, I'll add a side of mamaliga since that is how it served to me in Cluj.

Ellie said...

Hi Sherry, I am so glad the Romanian recipes are of help:). I'm thrilled that you tried the sarmale recipe and liked it! The thing about sarmale in Romania, is that it varies from place to place... In Cluj they have their own style. I'm glad you've made sarmale twice now, before you know it you'll get the hang of it ... and add all sorts of ingredients you personally like. For example, you can make the sarmale using all pork meat and add plenty of smoked ham/ bacon... some folks even add a large piece of bone-in pork chop at the bottom of the pot(gives extra flavor). You can likewise pour some oil over the layered sarmale... The oil also boosts up the flavor. And of course, adding more or less tomato paste/ sauce/ fresh tomatoes is to personal preference. Obviously, what I posted here is more of a lighter
version.... and the basic steps. The sarmale definitely taste much different if using pickled cabbage and if there's plenty of fat!

Boy, my answer was longer than I intended:) Sure am thankful for your kind comment, Sherry! Appreciate you taking the time to share your feedback... always makes my day when a reader enjoys a recipe I post and let's me know. So, thank you!

Anonymous said...

this is our second Christmas Eve to make sarmales--

the entire family worked together on it--

my daughter who is Romanian LOVES cabbage--

and she gets really excited that her family loves this dish--

we use beef and turkey (ground) combined--

and haven't ever used the bacon--

(not pork eaters)--

they turned out so well last year that we had to have them again--

I actually rolled them up beforehand, so I only have to steam them today--

Thank you, Ellie, for always being here for those of us who love Romanian food (and Romanians!)--

Ellie said...

Anon, Thank you for your sweet comment and for sharing your feedback. You simply made my day:)!

What a delight to hear that you've made the sarmale as a family as part of your Christmas Eve dinner. I am so glad I could be of help through the recipes I post, so it means a ton to know that you enjoyed them!

Thank you for taking the time to let me know... I really appreciate it!

I hope you have a wonderful Christmas as a family!

Anonymous said...

Is it okay if I use some of your pictures for my presentation on Romania? I will give you credit in my bibliography. :)


Ellie said...

Hope, Thanks for asking... sure, you can use the photo for your project. A presentation on Romania sound neat:)!

Otilia Radu said...

Hi Ellie,
felicitari pentru blogul tau! O frumusete! Am petrecut ceva vreme pe paginile lui si voi reveni cu siguranta. Inteleg ca esti crestina, si eu sunt si ma bucur sa vad romance talentate ca tine pe net.Esti plecata de mult din Romania? Eu locuiesc in Australia de 17 ani...

Ellie said...

Buna Otilia! Multumesc mult pentru cuvintele tale dragi. Imi pare bine ca iti place blogul, dar mai mult ca si tu esti crestina:)! Lucrul asta este cel mai important...

Eu sant plecata din Romania de mult timp, de cand eram copil, peste 30 de ani:). Dar imi este drag de Romania, si mancarurile noastre.

De mult vreu sa vizitez si eu Australia... poate intro zi cand ingaduieste Dumnezeu:). Sper sa te mai intorci pe aici... si poate o sa incerci o retetata care iti place si tie.

Multumesc inca odata de vizita... si iti doresc o zi binecuvantata!

erin said...

Multumesc foarte mult! I lived in Romania a few years ago and have been wanting to make these, but needed a good recipe. My husband and I just did. Delicious, thanks!

Ellie said...

Erin, Cu placere:)! SO glad to have been of help. Thrilled that you tried the making the sarmale... and liked them:).

Thanks so very much for taking the time to share your feedback. I SO appreciate it... makes my day.

Happy to hear that you lived in Romanian for a bit and got a chance to experience the culture and food. I've been wanting to go back for a visit:)...

Inthefamilybiz said...

Hi Ellie! I'm American and my boyfriend is Romanian and he LOVES the Romanian food I've been able to make him with the help of your recipes! Thanks so much and multsumesc fuarte mult from him ;)

Ellie said...


Oh, that's so sweet! You are most welcome.

Thank you so much for stopping by and sharing... made my day:)! I am so glad I could be of help to you... and glad to hear that the recipes had great results.

QueenDoll said...

Yea, thanks for this easy-to-follow recipe. I have to make sarmalele for a Romanian cookout this weekend. Where are you in Montana? Want to come over and help me? I'm in St. Ignatius! Hahaha

Ellie said...

Stacey, I'm a bit out of the the way... in the capitol area.:). But I sure hope you enjoy the sarmale.
That sounds like a great cookout... definititely a bit different:).

Thanks a bunch for stopping by... and have fun!

Nancy said...

Hi, my mother was the first child born in the United States after her Romanian parents crossed over back in the twenties. I remember my Grandmother making what we called "Samya" I suspect what sarmale is. We so looked forward to it. But I don't remember it being pink in any way (tomato sauce) except for bits of cottage ham. Unfortunately we never got the recipe. I've tried to make it several times but because I am a vegetarian, it is not the same. My aunt had a recipe that called for it to be in the oven and used lots of paprika, but no tomato sauce. I always remember it being on the stove top and no pink color at all.

Ellie said...

Nancy, Yes, sarmale can be made in a ton of various ways:)... your grandmother's version sounds wonderful! Paprika and cottage ham/ bacon can give a ton of flavor, though I would imagine it would give the sarmale a pink/ red tinge to the meat filling as well.

Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing your memories... wow, in the twenties?? That just makes me realize how far we've come:)...

Btw, making sarmale vegetarian can definitely be a challenge! But, you can add some mushrooms for that umami/meaty flavor... Anyway, thanks a bunch for stopping by!

Unknown said...

Awesome recipe! My grandparents are Serbian / Montenegrin and lived in Butte, MT. "Sarma" as they called it, was always serious business. Every fall we'd all get together and begin the process of pickling dozens of whole heads of cabbage in massive barrels, and use them through the year, especially during orthodox Christmas. My grandmother would make this with half pork and half beef and would sometimes use smoked beef (suho meso) in place of the bacon. Also, she would make a roux out of flour, water, tomato paste and LOTS of paprika and pour it over the rolls before adding water and let it cook in a pressure cooker.
I'm a huge fan of your site, btw. My mom turned told be about it and now before I look anywhere else for a recipe, I always check here first. You do great things and thank you for sharing.

Ellie said...

James, It was such a delight reading your comment! Thank you so much for sharing your memories... some of which are similar to mine:). I love the idea of the roux... I often use that in some of my other Romanian dishes and it adds so much flavor. But I've never added it to sarmale... though I've made the sarmale in pressure cooker and love them. And I didn't realize that others do the same:).

Thank you SO much for your sweet and kind comment, I really appreciate it. Thanks a bunch for taking the time to write... it brightened my day:).

Anonymous said...

I am surprised you recommend 40 minutes in the pressure cooker . I make sarmale every year using my mother in law recipe and I cook them in the pressure cooker for 15 minutes and remove it quickly. Once I left them longer and they fall apart. I have a Kuhn Rikon.

Ellie said...

Anon, Thank you for catching that! I think I meant about 20 minutes.... though 15-18 minutes sounds about right! Thank you for stopping by and letting me know... I'll make sure to fix that. It's always best to cook under than over:)....

Anonymous said...

Hi Ellie, was about to try making these again after a few years and was wondering, does your sarmale freeze well?

Ellie said...

Anon, You know, I always freeze mine and find them to reheat quite well! I would definitely give them a try in the freezer and see how you like them. Everyone has their own preference:)... I normally freeze them in small quantities so I can take out what I need. They are delicious when you are hungry and want something quick. Enjoy!