Romanian Cabbage Rolls (Sarmale)

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Romanian cabbage rolls – a  traditional recipe so tasty that it should be on your must try in a lifetime meal list. Seriously. 👌

image of Romanian cabbage rolls sarmale
Romanian cabbage rolls (sarmale)

And once you’ve tasted them, you’ll become addicted.

This is a staple recipe in Romanian cuisine along side:

Just to name a few that I already cooked and presented on this site. More will follow, and maybe you will appreciate and discover the richness and tastiness of our cuisine.

👉 Here’s a list of 12 Romanian dishes you should be cooking

We still have traditional small, old villages where people are living the old life style, planting & growing their own food.

The food is particularly tasty and free from GMO. Especially tomatoes.

If you’ll ever visit Romania, don’t forget to taste tomatoes. You’ll understand what I mean.

traditional sarmale dish
traditional Romanian sarmale


What Are Romanian “Sarmale”?

Romanian sarmale are sour cabbage leaves filled with a mixture of ground pork, rice, onions and thyme. All cooked in tomato sauce and flavored with bacon or smoked meat.

They are cooked and served at every Christmas & Easter celebrations, birthday meals, weddings or important family gatherings.

Nobody would ever consider refusing such a meal. Anytime and in all times, these cabbage rolls are welcomed.

And who would not want to indulge in such deliciousness?

Does the “sarmale” picture above speaks to you? How about the one below?… 🙂

Can you perceive the goodness within? I tell you, the smell & taste of these cabbage rolls are hard to beat. Don’t you believe me? Cook them and see for yourself.

I must tell you that it takes some time to complete this recipe.

But, don’t let that stop you. Cook them over the week-end and make a large batch as I do.

You can even freeze some of them before cooking, to have them ready for another time.

Let’s see the ingredients list:


🥬 Ingredients For Romanian Cabbage Rolls

ingredients for Romanian cabbage rolls

  • Sour cabbage head – one big piece
  • Ground pork – with fat is better
  • Rice – risotto rice is what I use
  • Onions – golden onions
  • Thyme – dry thyme for flavor
  • Bacon – or pancetta (smoked is better)
  • Tomato paste – good quality tomato paste
  • Bay leaves
  • Salt and pepper
  • Cooking oil


🍲 How To Make Sarmale

Let’s begin making our cabbage rolls. I always make them like my grandma used to, since most of my cooking is learned from her.

We start by removing the sour cabbage from the brine and immerse it into cold water until we prepare the filling, to release some of the excess salt.

Now, let’s move to the filling mixture.

1. Prepare the filling

  • Rinse the rice under running cold water and let it dry. Julienne one small onion and keep it aside
  • Finely chop the rest of the onions. Put a large pan on medium flame and pour 6 tablespoons of cooking oil. Let it heat.

ho to make romanian cabbage rolls (sarmale)

  • Add the chopped onion and saute until soft and begins to get that beautiful golden color.
  • Stir often. Add the rice and cook together for about 5 minutes, stirring continuously.
  • Add 2 teaspoons of dry thyme and cook 3 minutes more. Keep stirring continuously, do not let it attach to the pan. Now turn off the flame and let it cool.

While the rice is cooling, take out the cabbage head from the water, drain well and start preparing the cabbage leaves.

2. Prepare cabbage leaves

  • Depending of the head size, cut every leaf in 2 or 3 parts.
  • Remove the thickest part from the bottom of the leaf. Place the portioned leaf parts one over the other on a plate, to have them at hand.
  • Chop the core of the sour cabbage, the unusable leaves and what you can save from the thickest parts of the leaves. We are going to use this chopped cabbage later on as layers in constructing our cabbage levels into the pot. Cut the bacon in small pieces.

By now, the rice has cooled.

3. Prepare the filling

  • Put the ground pork into a large bawl. Add salt, pepper (to taste) and the rice & onion mixture. Mix everything together with your hands.
  • Prepare a large pot in which we are going to cook the cabbage rolls.
  • Pour 2-3 tbsp of cooking oil and add the julienned onion from earlier. Sprinkle a handful of chopped sour cabbage also.

4. Make the cabbage rolls

We are going to start making our sarmale.

  • Take a piece of cabbage leaf and place some filling mixture over it (about one tbsp, there’s no exact measure here – depending of the size of the cabbage leaf).
  • Keep in mind that we should pack it strongly, and the rice will double its volume in cooking. So, do not overfill them.
  • Place the mixture more to the bottom of the leaf. Bring the sides together and roll tight upwards. Try to maintain the sides in, all the time
  • After rolling, press the top and the bottom of the roll with your fingers, to secure the closure and to encase any bits of the leaf remaining outside. Refer to the picture below to see how I do it.

how to make romanian cabbage rolls

  • Continue to roll until you finish all the cabbage leaves.
  • If there will be some pork mixture remaining, you can freeze it for further usage, as you can do with some of these cabbage rolls.
  • If you are making too many and want to save for other occasions, after completing the rolling process – put some of them in a plastic container and freeze them up to 3 months. Let them thaw in the fridge over night and continue with the following steps to cook them.

Now, we are going to layer them into the prepared pan above. The order is as follows.

5. Layer & cook

  • Pour 2-3 tbsp of cooking oil in a large cooking pan. Add a small onion (julienne) and a handful of chopped cabbage.
  • Arrange the cabbage rolls in circles, close to one another.
  • Scatter some bay leaves and a pinch of peppercorns, a handful of smoked bacon and 5-6 teaspoons of tomato paste over the first layer of rolls.

picture of how to assemble and cook Romanian cabbage rolls

  • Cover with another handful of chopped cabbage and continue with a second layer of cabbage rolls. Repeat adding the bey leaves, the peppercorns, the bacon and tomato paste.
  • That will be the last layer of rolls. Cover again with a final layer of chopped cabbage and sprinkle 2 teaspoons of dry thyme over it.
  • Fill the pot with water until all the rolls are well covered and place it on the stove-top, on medium high flame until boiling point. Then lower the flame to minimum.
  • Cover the pot partially and let them slowly cook for about 2 or 2 1/2 hours or more until fork tender.

Watch them from time to time, add some more water because the liquid will reduce. Also, shake the pot occasionally every 20 minutes, so the rolls do not stick to the bottom of the pan.

Useful tips:

  • If you want more color, add more tomato paste on top and shake the pot. It will distribute all over and bring more color to the cabbage rolls.
  • You can also cook them in the oven, at 375F for 2 hours covered, then uncover and let them for another half hour.

I personally like them made on the stove, as they dry out a little more in the oven.

Feel free to cook them both ways and decide how you like them more.

Romanian cabbage rolls recipe
Romanian cabbage rolls recipe


🍽️ Serving Romanian Sarmale

Serve these cabbage rolls while still warm, with polenta or your favorite bread.

Also, we often serve them with a dollop of sour cream and hot chili aside, if you eat spicy.

image of Romanian sarmale served with sour cream on top
serve these cabbage rolls with sour cream (optional)

I really hope it will become one of your favorite recipes, it certainly deserves it.

Storing Leftovers

  • Once they are cooled, cover the pan and store any leftovers in the refrigerator up to 5 days. To serve again, take out from the pan exactly how many you need per serving into another smaller pan and reheat in the oven or on stove top. Add a little water to ease the process.
  • You can also freeze them in air tight containers up to 3 months.
traditional sarmale dish
traditional sarmale dish

Don’t lose the recipe.

If you’re in a hurry, pin it NOW and save for later!

Update 2023: as there’s no Christmas without sarmale and cozonac in every Romanian household, this year I cooked 70 cabbage rolls.

They didn’t even last 3 days, I tell you that. They are soo good!!! 🙂

If no chili peppers at hand, just drizzle some sweet chili sauce. Bliss!

More delicious recipes:


romanian cabbage rolls recipe sarmale

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5 from 7 votes

Romanian Cabbage Rolls (Sarmale)

Romanian cabbage rolls (sarmale) - a traditional recipe that will most likely become a family favorite quickly. A must try dish.
Print Pin Rate
Course: Main Course
Cuisine: East-European, Romanian
Keyword: cabbage, ground meat, sarmale, tomato sauce
Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cook Time: 2 hours 30 minutes
Total Time: 3 hours
Servings: 24 rolls


  • 1 (big) sour cabbage head
  • 2.2 lbs (1kg) ground pork
  • 2/3 cup (130g) risotto rice
  • 6 medium size onions
  • 1 cup (200g) bacon (smoked)
  • 10-12 tsp (90g) tomato paste (good quality)
  • 10 bay leaves
  • 4 tsp dry thyme
  • 1 tbsp black peppercorns
  • salt, pepper (to taste)
  • 9 tbsp sunflower oil


  • Place the cabbage head into a pot filled with cold water to release the excess salt. Rinse and dry the rice. Julienne one onion and keep it aside. Finely chop the rest of the onions.
    In a large pan pour 6 tbsp cooking oil and let it heat on medium flame. Add the onion and saute until soft and golden. Add the rice, cook for 5 minutes together stirring continuously. Add 2 tsp of dry thyme and cook another 3 minutes. Set aside to cool.
    Drain the cabbage and cut the leaves into 2 or 3 depending of the head size. Remove the thicker part of the bottom. Chop the core of the cabbage and some unusable leaves and cut the bacon in small pieces.
    In a large bowl add the ground pork, salt, pepper and the rice / onion mixture and mix everything with your hands.
  • Start the rolling process: place a piece of cabbage leaf on the cutting board and 1 tbsp of filling mixture on it, near the bottom. Fold over the sides and start rolling upwards until the whole leaf is folded.
    Make sure every bit of leaf end is well encased and the filling is safely sealed. Place the rolls onto a platter at hand. Continue until you finish all the cabbage leaves.
  • Layer the rolls: pour 2-3 tbsp of cooking vegetable sunflower oil on the bottom of a big cooking pot. Add the julienned onion and a handful of chopped cabbage. Arrange the cabbage rolls in circles, one close to another.
    Scatter some bay leaves, peppercorns, a handful of bacon and 5-6 teaspoons of tomato paste over them. Cover with chopped cabbage and repeat with another cabbage rolls layer.
    Repeat the bay leaves, peppercorns, bacon and tomato paste addition. Finely cover with a layer of chopped cabbage. Pour cold water to cover everything in the pot and bring to a simmer over medium heat.
    Then, lower the flame to minimum and let them cook partially covered for about 2 1/2 hours, until fork tender. Shake the pot every 20 minutes to avoid sticking anything to the bottom. Add some hot water from time to time, to ensure the level of the liquid remains the same.
  • Serve these Romanian cabbage rolls with a dollop of sour cream (optional) and if you eat spicy - some chili / jalapeno peppers aside.
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  1. 5 stars
    I tried it! Amazing! I’ve had and made different cabbage roll recipes from different countries, like Lebanon, Egypt, Turkey, Poland and Greece, however the Romanian version is be far the tastiest I’ve ever had. I think the secret is the bacon… So good! Poftă bună!

    1. Thank you for your comment. They are very tasty, indeed. I grew up eating them, eat them regularly and still never ever seem to have enough. 🙂

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