Classic Bosnian Stuffed Cabbage Rolls - Sarma

12 rolls
2 hr

These stuffed cabbage rolls, sarma in Bosnian, have a piquant flavor to delight you! The combination of smoked meat and tangy pickled cabbage leaves filled with ground beef, rice, caramelized onions, and spices is irresistible!

In Bosnia and Serbia, and Croatia, stuffed cabbage rolls take a special place on the celebratory table.

We celebrate everything with sarma: graduation, birthdays, engagements, weddings, army enlistment parties, Namesake Days, Easter, Christmas, and New Year!

What is sarma?

Sarma is traditional in the cuisines of the former Ottoman Empire from the Middle East to Southeastern Europe. It's a popular dish in almost all Balkan countries with slight variations.

The word sarma derives from the Turkish phrase sarmak, which means to wrap, from a family of dolma dishes (dolmak - to fill).

What is unique about our cabbage rolls is that we use cured or pickled cabbage leaves. The fermenting process is the same as for sauerkraut.

The only difference is that we leave some cabbage heads whole, and some are shredded, which is great for baked sauerkraut! In my opinion, this is the best way to make stuffed cabbage rolls with ground beef and rice.

*If your local specialty or international stores don't offer pickled whole heads, look for pickled leaves in a jar or make your own with one of these three quick pickling methods:

Three quick ways to homemade pickled cabbage

1. How to pickle an entire cabbage head in 5 days:

  • Discard the large, damaged outer leaves from the head and cut out the cabbage's core with a sharp knife.
  • Place it in a deep pot, core side up. Fill the core hole with ¼ cup salt (it's OK if it spills over) and add a slice of bread. Add enough boiling water to cover the whole head.
  • Cover and leave at room temperature (65F-71F) until the cabbage is fermented for a maximum of five days.

2. How to pickle a cabbage head in 1-2 days:

  • Discard the large, damaged outer leaves from the head; cut out the core of the cabbage with a sharp knife.
  • Pour ¼ cup distilled vinegar into the hole, add a tablespoon of salt, and shake the head to distribute the ingredients evenly.
  • Put the prepared vegetable in a large freezer bag (a couple of grocery bags will work too, tightly closed) and freeze for 24-48 hours. Defrost at room temperature.

3. How to pickle a whole cabbage head in less than 1 hour:

  • Fill half of a large stockpot with water; add 2 cups vinegar, ½ cup of salt, and bring to a boil.
  • Discard the large, damaged outer leaves from the head. Cut out the core of the cabbage with a sharp knife.
  • Carefully immerse the fresh cabbage head into the boiling water and let it cook for about 20 minutes or until the leaves are pliable.
  • Alternatively, gently peel off softened leaves with a pair of tongs and transfer them to a large clean bowl after three minutes. Cover the pot and continue cooking the vegetable for another three minutes. Then, remove the softened leaves and transfer them to a bowl. Repeat until you have 12-15 leaves.
  • Note: You will also need one (32 oz.) jar of sauerkraut, rinsed and drained. See the recipe box for steps.

Visit the original post for step-by-step photos on how to roll up cabbage leaves and more tips!

Classic Bosnian Stuffed Cabbage Rolls - Sarma
Recipe details
  • 12  rolls
  • Prep time: 30 Minutes Cook time: 90 Minutes Total time: 2 hr
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  • ▢ 1 medium head of pickled cabbage*
  • ▢ 1 onion minced
  • ▢ 4 tablespoons oil divided
  • ▢ 1 pound lean ground beef
  • ▢ 1/2 cup uncooked white rice
  • ▢ 2 garlic cloves minced
  • ▢ 1 teaspoon sweet or smoked paprika
  • ▢ 1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
  • ▢ 1 teaspoon nutmeg
  • ▢ 1 teaspoon black pepper
  • ▢ 1 teaspoon Vegeta or salt
  • ▢ Water
  • ▢ 2 bay leaves
  • ▢ 1/2 pound bacon smoked rib meat or any other smoked meat
For the roux (optional):
  • ▢ 2 tablespoons oil
  • ▢ 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • ▢ 1 tablespoon tomato paste or 1/4 cup tomato sauce
For the cabbage leaves:
Separate each leaf from the pickled cabbage head gently, being careful not to tear, rinse and place in a large bowl
With a knife, remove the thickest part of the rib (stem); set leaves aside. Slice or chop small and damaged leaves.
Spread half of the chopped leaves (or half of the jarred sauerkraut if using homemade pickled cabbage #3) on the bottom of a large pot or Dutch oven.
For the filling:
In a small skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of oil over medium heat. Add chopped onion and sauté until translucent. Transfer onions with oil into a large bowl. Add a pound of ground beef, ½ cup rice, 2 minced garlic cloves, 1 teaspoon sweet paprika, 1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley, 1 teaspoon nutmeg, 1 teaspoon black pepper, and 1 teaspoon Vegeta or salt. Mix gently with clean hands until incorporated; set filling aside.
Place one leaf, rib side down, on the palm of your hand. Place about 2 tablespoons of meat mixture on the edge of each leaf, fold sides to the center and roll away from you (see the step-by-step photos and GIF in the post). Repeat until meat filling is gone.
Layer cabbage rolls seam-side down and tight together. Cut the smoked meat into pieces and place it on top of the rolls. Spread leftover chopped cabbage leaves (or sauerkraut) on the top. Add in bay leaves; fill with enough water to just cover the rolls. Cover the pot and bring it to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for about 1 to 1-½ hours, adding more water if necessary.
For the light roux (optional):
Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a small skillet. Stir in 1 tablespoon flour. With a wooden spoon or a whisk, continue to stir flour over low heat until flour is golden in color. Do not burn it! Add 1 tablespoon tomato paste and mix well. Pour the roux over cabbage rolls and gently press down to dissolve in the juices. Do not stir rolls, as they will disintegrate. Cover the pot and continue to simmer for another 15-20 minutes.
Let cool slightly before serving.
  • For homemade pickling, it is imperative which cabbage to choose. Cabbage should not be with large hard veins and leathery leaves.
  • Try a piece of cured cabbage (or sauerkraut if using) - sometimes they are too salty or too sauer. Rinse in cold water first before assembling! It's always easier to add salt than to remove it!
  • Only separate those leaves that are large enough to be wrapped in rolls.
  • There should be no exposed meat peaking through the leaf when making rolls. If there is, remove some of the fillings or wrap another smaller leaf around it.
  • Substitute rice with barley. I almost always do, as it makes the filling firmer. If you overcook the rice, the mixture will be mushy.
  • Add ¼ cup finely diced bacon or smoked meat to the meat mixture. You won't regret it!
  • If your cabbage leaves are too big (or if you want bite-sized rolls), cut them in half along each side of the rib, removing the rib completely.
  • Finishing the rolls with a light roux is not mandatory, but it adds silkiness to the sauce. You can also just add 1 cup of tomato sauce to the last 30 minutes of cooking instead.
  • Storage:
  • Store leftovers in an airtight container for up to 5 days - cabbage rolls taste best the next day, so plan to make them ahead!
  • You can also freeze them for up to 6 months.
All that's Jas
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