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They don't call stuffed cabbage (sarma) the queen of the winter for nothing. Tender meat mixed with delicate rice, enriched with few simple seasonings then lovingly wrapped in fermented cabbage leaves. Cooked on low heat for a few hours until aromas and flavors embrace is nothing short of sensational. 

Sarma: Stuffed Cabbage

  • Author: Balkan Lunch Box
  • Prep Time: 30 mins
  • Cook Time: 3 hours
  • Total Time: 3 hours 30 mins
  • Yield: 10 1x
  • Category: Main Course


  • Filling:
  • 16 ounces ground beef (or veal)
  • 34 ounces bacon or smoked beef (air-dried beef, diced small)
  • 7 ounces rice (round grain)
  • (Optional) 2 ounces milk
  • 2 onions (smaller, peeled, minced)
  • 3 garlic clove (peeled, minced)
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • (Optional) 1/2 tablespoon Vegeta (or seasoned salt)
  • Cabbage:
  • 1 larger or 2 smaller sour cabbage heads (about 24 ounces)
  • Sauce:
  • 3.5 ounces oil
  • 5.5 ounces tomato sauce
  • 1 tablespoon flour
  • Remaining cabbage
  • 34 ounces bacon or smoked beef (diced)
  • (Optional) Sour cream


  1. In a larger bowl, combine all filling ingredients and mix with your hands until integrated. Set aside.
  2. Separate cabbage leaves from the cabbage head one by one, and wash each in lukewarm water. (After the wash taste to see if they are too salty. If yes, wash again.)
  3. Place cabbage leaves on a cutting board (one by one), and cut out the thick middle vein from each leaf. (Keep veins for later.) Proceed to cut each leaf in half. (If leaves are large, you may have to cut them in quarters.)
  4. Place one cut leaf in your hand and put one tablespoon of the filling on in the middle of the upper end. Fold the longer end on left side of the filling toward the filling, and roll everything away from you, squeezing lightly as you roll. Once rolled, tuck the right side of the leaf in with your finger. (You’ll essentially end up with a tiny burrito-like roll.) Set aside.
  5. Repeat until you run out of ingredients. (You should have about 25-35 with this amount of ingredients, depending how large you make your rolls. Best are about 1.5×2.5 inches.) Take the veins, and any remaining cabbage, and cut into larger chunks.
  6. In a large pot, heat oil on medium. When hot stir in tomato paste. Follow up with flour. At the end, add one cup of hot water.
  7. Place first layer of rolls on the bottom. Follow up with handfuls of meat and remaining cabbage. Continue layering until you run out of ingredients. Cover with hot water to come above the top layer (about the thickness of a finger or so).
  8. Cook on low for 3 hours. Do not stir. Add a bit of water at a time to keep the water level even.
  9. (In all you’ll add about 5 cups total for the stew, but it may vary.)
  10. Serve hot by itself or with mashed potatoes. Optionally add sour cream.


Due to cabbage acidity, you may have to wash your hands a few times in between stuffing to prevent salt from eating away at your skin. Alternatively, wear latex gloves.
Instead of bacon or smoked beef you can use pork ribs or shank as well.
When layering in pot, some like to first place one or two cabbage leaves on the bottom after the roux before layering sarma rolls. Up to you.
Ribs or shank are ok to use too if you eat pork.
Gluten-free: skip the thickener.

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