A cherished Polish recipe for amazing Stuffed Cabbage Rolls makes a perfect dinner for a leisurely weekend. Seasoned ground beef and rice fills cabbage leaves to bursting, then everything is simmered in a tangy, fragrant tomato sauce. Enough for seconds, and maybe even thirds.
Stuffed Cabbage Rolls, also known as stuffed cabbage leaves, Golabki, or Golumpki, are considered a delicacy in Eastern Europe and beyond—but every region has its own special recipe. The Hungarian stuffed cabbage rolls, for example, have sauerkraut in the tomato sauce and use a generous quantity of bacon. Then they’re topped with shocking amounts of sour cream!
There’s a secret ingredient in this recipe that you’d probably never guess in a million years. Even though it’s unusual, this magical ingredient has been used by generations of cabbage roll makers. Are you ready? (Drumroll, please.) Crushed gingersnap cookies. They simmer into the tomato sauce and give every bite some sweetness, spice, and body. If you’re in doubt about this, just trust the recipe; you won’t be disappointed.
- Green cabbage. Just a basic head of cabbage from the grocery—the bigger, the better.
- White rice. If you’re trying to lower your carbs, try this recipe with cooked quinoa and skip the rice cooking step in the instructions.
- Onions. Actually, two. One to be grated into the filling, and another to make the fragrant Onion Piqué.
- Ground beef. However, you can also make this recipe with ground veal, pork, or turkey. You can also use Polish sausage or Italian sausage in cabbage rolls.
- Diced tomatoes. For this recipe, one 14.5 ounce can.
- Tomato purée. For this recipe, one large 28-ounce can.
- Brown sugar.
- Lemon juice. Or apple cider vinegar.
- Whole cloves.
- Gingersnaps. Yes, really! The cookies get crushed up and added to the tomato sauce for a little spice and sweetness.
How to prepare cabbage for Stuffed Cabbage Rolls:
- First, cook the cabbage to soften the leaves. Grab a large stockpot or Dutch oven, fill it with lightly salted water, and bring it to a boil.
- Here’s how to cut cabbage for cabbage rolls: cut a deep, cone-shaped incision into the bottom of the vegetable to remove the core. This will make the leaves easier to remove as they cook.
- Then place the whole cabbage head into the simmering water. Cook the cabbage, turning occasionally with a fork or tongs, until its outer leaves soften. Make sure the cabbage cooks on all sides.
- Once the outer leaves look soft and wilted, carefully remove the cabbage and trim off the wilted outer leaves with a paring knife. Place the loose leaves in a colander, then return the cabbage to the pot.
- Then repeat this process, until you have removed about 20 leaves of cabbage. Take out the rest of the cabbage and let it cool. And don’t forget to save the cooking water for the rice!
How to make Stuffed Cabbage Roll filling:
- To begin, reheat the cabbage water. Bring the water to a boil over hight heat. Add the rice and cook until tender—about 13 minutes. Drain the rice through a strainer and give it a thorough rinse.
- Place the cooked rice in a bowl and add the raw ground meat, the grated onion, and some salt and pepper. Mix it all together. This will be your filling for the cabbage rolls–it will cook as it simmers in the tomato sauce.
Assembling the cabbage rolls:
Getting those soft floppy cabbage leaves to roll up into tidy little packages might take some practice, so here are some good tips.
- First, place the cabbage leaf on a clean work surface with the thick rib facing you. Trim that thick rib out with a paring knife, making a narrow, triangular cut.
- In the center, place two spoonfuls of the filling on the cabbage leaf, just above the cut you made.
- Then fold the sides of the cabbage leaf over the filling.
- Finally, roll the bottom edge of the leaf up and over the filling until the cabbage roll looks neat.
- As you assemble the cabbage rolls, place them seam-side down. They will also be seam-side down when they cook in the tomato sauce.
How to cook Stuffed Cabbage Rolls:
That wasn’t so bad, was it? Now that the tricky part is over, you can get down to the business of cooking those rolls!
- First, grab that Dutch oven you used to cook the cabbage. Shred up the remaining head of cabbage and spread about half the cabbage around in the bottom of the pot.
- Next, place the cabbage rolls (seam-side down) on top of the shredded cabbage. Fit them in close together, so they don’t unfurl while cooking.
- If your pot can’t fit them all, make a double-decker layer of rolls. Add more shredded cabbage, then a second layer of cabbage rolls. Sprinkle any remaining cabbage over the rolls. The more, the merrier.
- In a medium bowl, mix together the tomato purée, diced tomatoes, water, brown sugar, lemon juice, and a little salt. Pour this over the cabbage rolls.
- Next, make the Onion Piqué. This is a culinary technique that the French use to flavor soups, stews, and sauces. Not only is it easy to do, it makes fishing out the spices much easier when you’re ready to serve.
- Poke a few whole cloves into a peeled onion—that’s it! If you’re using a bay leaf, you can tack the dried leaf right onto the onion with a couple cloves. (After the sauce is cooked down, the onion can be taken out, as well as the cloves along with it.) Then nestle the studded onion down into the tomato sauce.
- Bring the pot of cabbage rolls to a boil, then reduce the heat to a gentle simmer. Cook for about 30 minutes.
- Now for the secret ingredient! Take out the onion piqué and sprinkle the crushed gingersnaps over the cabbage rolls. If needed, gently shake the pot to make them settle into the sauce. If you like cabbage rolls with raisins, add them to the pot with the gingersnaps.
- Then let the cabbage rolls simmer for one more hour, uncovered, until the tomato sauce thickens.
- Finally, to serve the rolls, season with salt and pepper then carefully remove the rolls with a slotted spoon and onto a plate (hopefully with lots of mashed potatoes!) It’s natural to lose a couple rolls to the cooking process; sometimes they open up in the pot. Just go with it–the broken ones will still be delicious.
- Serve the sauce separately, spooned over everything.
Oven baked Stuffed Cabbage Rolls:
Making cabbage rolls in the oven is very easy, too.
If you prefer to bake Stuffed Cabbage Rolls, follow the instructions up through the step where you add the gingersnaps. At this point, transfer the Dutch oven into a preheated oven set to 350 degrees. Bake the uncovered Cabbage Rolls for one hour.
How to make Stuffed Cabbage Rolls, slow cooker:
Crock pot cabbage rolls are a great idea when you’re needing to be away from the kitchen. Of course, you have to make the rolls, cook the cabbage, etc. but the rest of the cooking is left to the trusted crock pot.
- Assemble the cabbage rolls as directed, and tuck them snugly into the slow cooker, layering with shredded cabbage.
- Then pour the tomato sauce over the rolls, sprinkle on the gingersnap cookie crumbs, and cook on LOW for 7 to 9 hours, or HIGH for 4 to 5 hours.
Make ahead Stuffed Cabbage Rolls:
The cooked cabbage rolls can be placed in an airtight container and stored for up to 2 days in the refrigerator.
Can you freeze Stuffed Cabbage Rolls?
Certainly! Let the cabbage rolls cool completely first. Place the cooked cabbage rolls in an airtight container (an oven-safe baking dish with a lid might be ideal) and freeze for up to one month.
When you’re ready, let the cabbage rolls defrost in the refrigerator overnight. Then place them in a baking dish and cover tightly with foil. Bake the cabbage rolls in the oven for about 45 minutes at 350 degrees, then remove the foil and continue baking for another 10 to 15 minutes until the rolls are heated through.
Stuffed Cabbage Rolls
For the cabbage:
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- 1 head green cabbage cored (about 3 pounds)
For the meat filling:
- 1/4 cup white rice long grain
- 1 onion grated on the large holes of box grater (see note 1)
- 1 1/2 pounds ground beef (see note 2)
- 1 (14.5 ounce) can diced tomatoes undrained
- 1 (28 ounce) can tomato purée
- 2 cups water
- 6 tablespoons light brown sugar divided
- 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (see note 3)
- 1 onion peeled
- 8 whole cloves
- 3 ounces gingersnaps coarsely crushed (see note 4)
To make the cabbage:
- In a Dutch oven or large stock pot over high heat, bring 4 quarts water and 1 tablespoon salt to boil. Add cored head of cabbage and cook until the outer leaves just begin to wilt, about 3 minutes, turning as needed.
- As each one wilts, use tongs to remove the outer 20 leaves from the head of cabbage, one at a time, and transfer to a colander to cool. Remove the remaining blanched head of cabbage and let cool. Do not discard the water.
To make the meat filling:
- Return cabbage water to a boil over high heat. Add rice and cook until tender, about 13 minutes. Drain rice through a strainer or fine mesh sieve, rinse to cool, and drain thoroughly.
- In a medium bowl, combine cooked rice, grated onion, beef, ½ teaspoon salt, and ¼ teaspoon pepper.
To assemble the cabbage rolls:
- Trim any tough ribs from the cabbage leaves and tightly roll 2 tablespoons of the meat mixture into each leaf (you should have 20 rolls). Shred remaining blanched cabbage (both the head and any remaining leaves).
- Scatter half of the shredded cabbage leaves in a large Dutch oven. Arrange the cabbage rolls , seam-side down, on top of the shredded cabbage, fitting them snugly to prevent unrolling. (If you are using a smaller pot arrange the rolls in two layers). Sprinkle with remaining shredded cabbage over the rolls.
- In a medium bowl, add diced tomatoes and juice, tomato puree, water, 3 tablespoons brown sugar, lemon juice, and ½ teaspoon of salt. Stir to combine, then pour over cabbage. Push the whole cloves into the whole, peeled onion and submerge it in the liquid. Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce it to a simmer, cover, and cook for 30 minutes.
- Discard the clove-studded onion. Sprinkle the crushed gingersnaps into pot and shake pot gently to incorporate them without disturbing cabbage rolls. Continue to simmer, uncovered, until the sauce begins to thicken, about 1 hour.
- To serve, gently transfer the cabbage rolls to a serving dish using a slotted spoon. Stir in the remaining 3 tablespoons of brown sugar to the sauce and season to taste with salt and pepper. Spoon some sauce over the rolls and pass the extra sauce separately.
- Onions: You'll need two; one for grating into the filling, and another for the fragrant Onion Piqué.
- Ground beef: Or substitute, ground pork, turkey, or sausage.
- Lemon juice: Apple cider vinegar also works. We're just seeking a little acidity to brighten things up.
- Gingersnaps: Trust me! Crush up the cookies then add them to the tomato sauce for an unexpected yet totally welcome kick of spice and sweetness.