Cabbage Rolls are a down-to-earth, comforting, and earnest dish that takes the most modest of ingredients—cabbage, ground meat, and grains—and stretches them to become a nourishing, hearty, and delicious dinner. No wonder they are beloved the world over!
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Cabbage rolls are made by steaming cabbage leaves until they are soft, then wrapping them around a savory mixture of meat, rice (or a similar grain), herbs, and spices.
The stuffed cabbage rolls are arranged in a casserole dish, then baked with a bright tomato sauce until they’re meltingly tender.
The cabbage and tomato provide earthiness and acidity, the meat filling is richly savory, and the rice provides bulk, making cabbage rolls a budget-minded meal.
About Cabbage Rolls
I originally thought of cabbage rolls as primarily Ukrainian or Polish, but I learned that you can find versions of cabbage rolls all over the world!
Cabbage rolls are thought to have originated in the Middle East, as the Turks brought them along when they conquered Europe, and now they stretch to Western Asia and North Africa.
Chou farci in France, lahanodolmathes in Greece, Polish gloabki (“little pigeons”), Ukranian holubtsi (also “little pigeons”), Arabic mahshi malfouf, Jewish prakas…the list goes on and on!
Let’s just say, the entire world loves stuffed cabbage rolls, and if you haven’t tried them, you’re missing out.
How to Make Cabbage Rolls
With its beef and rice filling and tomato sauce, today’s cabbage roll recipe is influenced by Ukrainian and Polish versions, with a bit of Jewish influence in the form of nutmeg and a touch of honey added to the sauce for sweetness.
Cabbage rolls are a bit of a project, but they are so satisfying and absolutely worth it!
They also freeze and reheat like a dream—if you’re planning on making them, consider doubling the recipe to enjoy at a later date.
In a hurry? Try my shortcut unstuffed Cabbage Roll Soup!
- Cabbage. Not only does the cabbage boost this dish’s nutrition, but it also serves as a flavorful and subtly, pleasantly acidic wrapper for the cabbage roll filling. Cabbage is packed with fiber, vitamins, and antioxidants.
- Ground Beef. Adding ground beef to the filling gives this dish protein and flavor. For the best cabbage rolls, it is important to use a flavorful meat, such as ground beef or ground pork (or even a mix of the two).
- Rice. Rice makes the cabbage rolls more filling. It also soaks up the delicious flavors from the meat mixture and sauce.
- Egg. Adding an egg to the filling helps hold everything together.
- Onion + Garlic. For flavor and moisture.
- Spices. The key to making the cabbage rolls and sauce scrumptious. Dried oregano, nutmeg, garlic powder, bay leaves, salt, and pepper are what I used in this recipe.
- Tomatoes. Both tomato sauce and crushed tomatoes are used to prepare the savory sauce. The sauce keeps the cabbage rolls moist and blankets them in rich flavor.
- Honey. For a touch of natural sweetness to balance the acidity.
- Red Wine Vinegar. Adds acidity and depth of flavor to the sauce.
- Cook rice to al dente. Core the whole head of cabbage and peel off any dirty leaves. Simmer the cabbage in a large pot of water for about 15 minutes. Remove the cabbage.
- Sauté the onion. Add the garlic.
- Transfer the onion and garlic to the rice bowl.
- Add the beef, egg, herbs, and spices, mixing to combine.
- Peel 12 larger, tender cabbage leaves from the head. Trim any tough ribs off the leaves.
- Chop the remaining cabbage into strips. Scatter them in the baking dish.
- Assemble the cabbage rolls by adding the beef mixture to the center of a cabbage leaf.
- Fold the sides inwards to create the sealed cabbage roll.
- Place them in the baking dish.
- Pour the tomato sauce into the bowl that held the beef. Add water to one of the empty tomato cans, then pour it into the bowl. Stir in the tomatoes, spices, and herbs.
- Pour the sauce over the rolls.
- Cover the pan with foil. Bake cabbage rolls at 350 degrees F for about 1 1/2 hours. Remove the baking dish from the oven. Spoon the hot liquid over the top of each cabbage roll. Recover the dish and allow it to rest for 30 minutes. Discard the bay leaves. DIG IN!
Tips for the Best Cabbage Rolls
- Use a Small/Medium (NOT LARGE) Head of Cabbage. Larger cabbage leaves are tougher, making them more challenging to cook through properly; they are also harder to roll.
- Cook the Rice Just to Al Dente. The rice will continue to cook in the oven, so don’t overdo it when you boil the rice or your filling will be mushy.
- Resist the Urge to Overstuff. If you put too much filling in each leaf, the rolls will be difficult to roll up and they may fall apart when you cook them. If you have extra filling, you can roll it into meatballs and bake it along with the rest of the dish.
- To Store. Cover and refrigerate leftovers, or place them in an airtight container for up to 4 days.
- To Reheat. Rewarm cabbage rolls in a baking dish in the oven at 350 degrees F or in the microwave.
- To Freeze a Small Portion. Store leftovers in an airtight freezer-safe storage container for up to 3 months. Let thaw overnight in the refrigerator before reheating.
- To Freeze a Full Dish. Cover the dish with foil, then wrap it in plastic wrap a few times (or place the individual cabbage rolls in a large freezer bag). Thaw in the refrigerator overnight (this can take 1 1/2 -2 days). Reheat covered in a 350 degrees F oven for about 25-30 minutes (make sure you remove any plastic!).
Meal Prep Tip
Up to 1 day in advance, chop the onion and garlic and core the cabbage. You can also par-cook the rice as directed in Step 1. Refrigerate each ingredient until you’re ready to finish the recipe.
Recommended Tools to Make this Recipe
- Extra-Large Cutting Board. Never run out of space on your cutting board again.
- Baking Dish. Ideal for baking this recipe.
- Saucepan. Use this to prepare the meat mixture and sauce.
Join in the global love of cabbage rolls with this spin on traditional cabbage rolls!
Frequently Asked Questions
If you prefer not to use ground beef, you can swap it for ground pork. I don’t recommend using a less flavorful ground meat, such as ground turkey or chicken for this recipe.
Yes, cabbage rolls are a healthy meal overall. A good amount of fiber, protein, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants are why cabbage rolls are good for you.
If your cooked cabbage is tough, it’s likely because the cabbage is not cooked through yet. Continue to cook the rolls until they’re tender. It’s also important to make sure you let the rolls rest after they’re finished baking.
Green cabbage is what I used for this recipe, as it’s generally the easiest to find and most affordable. You can use savoy cabbage instead if you can find it. Napa cabbage is also fine to use, but you’ll want to make sure the head you select is big enough for rolling.
- 1/2 cup uncooked long-grain brown rice rinsed and drained*
- 2 cups water
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil or canola oil
- 1 medium yellow onion finely chopped (about 1 1/2 cups)
- 6 cloves garlic minced (about 2 tablespoons)
- 1 medium head green cabbage 1 1/2 to 2 pounds—DO NOT use a larger head or the leaves will be difficult to cook through, difficult to roll, and it will be harder to stem
- 1 pound lean ground beef I used 90% lean
- 1 large egg
- 1 1/2 teaspoons dried oregano divided
- 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg divided
- 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper divided
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt divided
- 1/4 cup chopped parsley divided
- 1 1/2 tsp garlic powder
- 1 (28-ounce) can tomato sauce
- 1 (14-ounce) can crushed tomatoes
- 2 dried bay leaves
- 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
- 2 tablespoon honey
- Place one of the oven racks in the lower third of the oven and preheat the oven to 350°F. Lightly grease a 9×13-inch casserole dish with nonstick spray. Set aside.
- Combine the rice and water in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil over high. Reduce the heat and simmer uncovered on low, stirring occasionally, for 25 minutes, until the rice is partially cooked (it will keep baking in the oven). Strain the rice through a fine mesh strainer and rinse with cold water to remove any excess liquid and starch. Place in a large bowl and set aside. Keep the pot handy (no need to clean it).
- Meanwhile, core the cabbage: Peel off any dirty leaves from the cabbage head. Sit the cabbage on your cutting board so the stem side is facing directly upwards. Using a paring knife, make 4 cuts that are each 1/2-inch away from the core so that the cuts form a square. Make each cut at an angle so that your knife is pointing down towards the core as you slice. Shimmy the knife through each corner of the square shape to help loosen the core. Then, pull on the cabbage stem area to remove the core. You may need to wiggle your paring knife around the square again to help loosen it. Discard the core.
- Simmer the cabbage: Fill a large pot with 2 inches of water. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a medium-low heat such that the water simmers. Carefully lower the cabbage (with its core side facing the bottom of the pot and the top of the head facing up) into the pot and cover it. Let simmer for 15 minutes. With a slotted spoon or handheld medium sieve, carefully lift the cabbage out of the water. Let cool until you can handle it safely, 10-15 minutes.
- To the now-empty pot you used to cook the rice, add 2 tablespoons of oil and the onion. Sauté over medium-low heat for 10 minutes until softened. Add the garlic and saute until fragrant, about 1 minute.
- Add the onion-garlic mixture to the bowl of rice.
- Add the ground beef, egg, 1 teaspoon oregano, 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg, 1/4 teaspoon pepper, 1 teaspoon salt, and 2 tablespoons chopped parsley. With a fork or your hands, mix to combine, making sure not to overwork the meat. Only mix until just combined. Set aside.
- Place the semi-cooled, cooked cabbage on a cutting board. Peel 12 larger in-tact leaves off of the cabbage (peel from the core side for easy removal). Trim any tough, thick ribs from the stem side of the cabbage leaf by using a paring knife to cut a V shape around the rib to remove it. (Don’t cut off too much or it will be hard to roll.) Set aside.
- Quarter and chop any remaining cabbage into thin 1/4-inch strips. Scatter evenly over the bottom of the baking dish.
- Assemble the rolls: Add 2 heaping tablespoons of the beef mixture to the center of a cabbage leaf (it's OK if the leaf is still a little damp).
- Fold the sides of the leaf inwards to cover the meat, then begin rolling from the stem side, until you have a cabbage roll.
- Place seam side down, in the prepared baking dish. Repeat with remaining cabbage until you have 12 rolls. If there is any leftover beef mixture, roll it into small (about 1-to 1 1/2-inch) meatballs and arrange them in the pan in between the rolls.
- To the now-empty bowl that held the beef mixture, add the tomato sauce. Add 1/2 cup water to one of the empty tomato sauce cans, swish around, and add the water to the bowl. Mix in the crushed tomatoes, garlic powder, bay leaf, vinegar, honey, and remaining 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano, 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg, 1/4 teaspoon pepper, 1 teaspoon salt, 2 tablespoons chopped parsley. Stir gently to combine.
- Carefully pour the sauce over the cabbage rolls. Lift the cabbage rolls a bit to ensure the sauce gets distributed beneath them.
- Spray a piece of foil large enough to cover the pan with nonstick spray. Cover the pan tightly with the foil, placing it spray-side down. Place onto a rimmed baking sheet to catch any drips. Bake until the cabbage is nearly fork tender and easily cuts with a paring knife, about 1 1/2 hours.
- Remove from the oven and carefully uncover the pan. Use a spoon to ladle the hot sauce from the bottom of the pan over each cabbage roll. Recover the pan securely with foil and allow to rest at room temperature for 30 minutes.
- Remove and discard the bay leaves. Serve right away or store in the fridge for up to 4 days.
- *If you prefer white rice, you can swap the same amount of long-grain white basmati rice. White rice cooks more quickly than brown, so you’ll only need to simmer for about 12 minutes to par-cook it; strain, rinse, and use in the recipe just like the brown rice.
- TO STORE: Cover and refrigerate leftovers, or place them in an airtight storage container for up to 4 days.
- TO REHEAT: Rewarm cabbage rolls in a baking dish in the oven at 350°F or in the microwave.
- TO FREEZE A SMALL PORTION: Freeze leftovers in an airtight freezer-safe storage container for up to 3 months. Let thaw overnight in the refrigerator before reheating.
- TO FREEZE A FULL DISH: Cover the pan with foil, then wrap in plastic wrap a few times (or place the individual cabbage rolls in a large freezer bag). Defrost in the fridge overnight (if you are defrosting an entire pan, this can take 1 1/2 -2 days). Reheat covered in a 350°F oven for about 25-30 minutes (make sure you remove any plastic!).
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