Sunday, October 28, 2012

Croatian Sauerkraut Cabbage Rolls (Sarma) {Recipe}

Do you like cabbage rolls? How about sauerkraut? If you answered yes to both of these, you MUST MUST MUST try this recipe! I insist. :) Literally everyone I've served it to has exuburently sung its praises. It results in a totally different taste (which I prefer hands-down) than your standard tomato sauce-based cabbage rolls and you boil the rolls vs. baking them. It's quite easy to prepare, it freezes well so you can make a huge amount at once, and best of all, it's uber-gentle on the wallet - less than $2 per serving!

Creds go to my besty's mom for perfecting this recipe and originally teaching it to me. Nothing like hands-on learning from a spirited Croatian mama, lemme tell ya! I've omitted the step of tossing the first roll against the wall to make sure it's been wrapped properly - but feel free to add this in if you're feeling zesty. :)

Croatian Cabbage Rolls (Sarma)

Prep Time: 2 hours
Cook Time: 3 hours
Yield: 25-30 rolls


Cabbage Rolls:
  • 2 pre-soured cabbage heads (Approx. 7 pounds total, or 3.5 pounds per head)
  • 1 lb ground beef
  • 1 lb ground pork
  • 6-7 slices of bacon, chopped into small pieces (Note: I use a dry, cured "hanging" bacon sold at a local butcher shop, but you can use packaged bacon as well.)
  • 2/3 cup brown rice (uncooked)
  • 2/3 large onion, diced
  • 4-6 cloves garlic, diced
  • 2-3 squirts ketchup
  • 1 egg
  • 2 tsp paprika
  • 1 tsp salt
  • Handful of parsley, diced 
Paprika Roux:
  • 1 cup canola oil
  • 3 tbsp flour
  • 2 tsps paprika
  • 1/3 large onion, diced


Note: If you are purchasing cabbage heads pre-soured, look for a consistent orangey colour - this indicates strong and even fermentation (better flavour!)


Set two big bowls beside the sink. Pull leaves off each cabbage head and rinse under running water.

Place 2-3 of the largest outer leaves and the smallest leaves / inner core in the first bowl. For each remaining leaf, cut a layer off the raised part of the stem (down the middle of the outer side) with a paring knife to make it even with the rest of the leaf. Place in the second bowl. (Note - you can omit this step if you're pressed for time or feeling lazy. I often do. ;) Chop all the leaves in the first bowl into very thin strips and place back in the bowl.


 Chop bacon into small (approx. 1 inch) pieces.

Combine the ground beef, ground pork, brown rice, 2/3 diced onion, garlic, ketchup, egg, 2 tsp paprika, salt and parsley in a big bowl.


Set a 15 litre stock pot, the second cabbage bowl (with the medium-sized leaves) and the filling mixture all within reach. Sprinkle 1/3 of the chopped cabbage strips into the bottom of the stock pot.


Open a cabbage leaf and place a palm-sized amount of the filling mixture inside the leaf at the bottom of the stem (this amount will vary depending on the size of the leaf.)


Loosely roll up to the opposite edge of the leaf. Push each side of the roll inward until it is tucked in. (Note: if the roll is properly soured the ends should push in easily.)



Place roll inside the stock pot with the outer edge facing upward. Repeat until the bottom layer of stock pot is filled.

Next, spread another 1/3 of the chopped cabbage strips over the rolls, and sprinkle half of the chopped bacon on top. Create and place the rest of the cabbage rolls on a second layer using the same method as the first layer. Spread the remainder of the stripped cabbage and chopped bacon on top. If there are any additional leaves which were not used up, you can chop these into thin strips and place on top as well. Fill the pot with water so that all rolls and cabbage strips are fully covered.

Bring to a boil at medium-high heat, and then reduce and let simmer.    

Once water is simmering, heat canola oil in a small saucepan on medium-high heat. Slowly whisk in flour, and then add remainder of diced onion. Stir constantly for about 5-6 minutes until onion begins to brown.

Remove from heat, stir in paprika and immediately pour evenly over top layer of rolls. Continue to let rolls simmer for about 3 hours.

To serve, ladle 2 rolls into each bowl along with some cabbage strips, bacon and broth. Serve with a simple starch (e.g. mashed potatoes or dinner roll) and a side salad. Enjoy!!


  1. Wow, thanks for the recipe! My mom & hubby both like cabbage rolls, and it looks like they'd love this one too.


  2. Yum! This looks really good. It's going on my list of items to make for sure! Thanks for sharing.

  3. Ive heard of Sarma, but didn't really know what it was. Looks so tasty and perfect for a cold, blustery day like today:) I'll have to ask my SIL about this dish, she is Croatian.

  4. I love the pictures!! So much easier for me to follow a recipe when their are photos with it. Thanks!! - Lee

  5. Love that there is bacon in it! We make cabbage rolls often, will have to try it with bacon!

  6. Oh delicious!! I love cabbage rolls, but have never had Croatian Cabbage rolls before. Yum! Thanks for sharing :)

  7. Yum! With my pregnant belly this looks awesome. I make them too but being Ukrainian, I do it Ukrainian style ;)
    I will have to try this!

    1. Curious what the difference is making them Ukrainian style? Is this tomato sauce-based?

  8. The rolls are simmering right now ... Mhm, can't wait to sample them! Just wondering, the lid should be off the lid so some water can evaporate, I assume?
    Thanks for a great recipe!

    1. Hi Marianne, I hope you love them as much as we do!! I leave the lid on and just turn the temperature really low, and then periodically (every 20-30 minutes) remove the lid to stir, release some steam, etc. But you can probably leave the lid a bit off if you want to allow more water to evaporate and create a denser "broth".

  9. As a child I loved going to Grandma's house on cabbage roll day. She was Croatian and called it (forgive the spelling) Filanzalia. I attempted to get the recipe out of her but it was in her head. So the best I got was "a little of this and a little of that". After her death I worked until I found the right combinations to get "that taste" that I remembered as a child. Mine is very similar to yours but uses steamed cabbage leaves and a jar of sauerkraut, sausage and beef and white rice. A wonderful thing.