Hungarian Stuffed Cabbage Rolls
Our family recipe for Hungarian Stuffed Cabbage Rolls uses a filling of ground meat and rice and a thick tomato sauce flavored with sauerkraut and bacon.
Our recipe for Hungarian Stuffed Cabbage Rolls is an authentic family version, modified by four generations of Hungarian-American cooks.
More about this recipe
We use a simple combination of ingredients that includes a filling made from a blend of ground pork, ground beef and rice, and a thick tomato sauce flavored with chopped cabbage, sauerkraut and a few strips of bacon.
The rolls are then layered with the tomato sauce in a Dutch oven and baked for several hours to allow the rich flavors to develop.
Each generation of our family has adapted this recipe a bit to suit their individual tastes and the availability of ingredients.
While our version of Hungarian stuffed cabbage may not correspond exactly with those of other families or ones you’ll find in Hungarian cookbooks, the flavors remain true to those that my great-grandmother served at her table after emigrating to the U.S. from Hungary more than one hundred years ago.
Four steps to perfectly made cabbage rolls
Forming the cabbage rolls is the only part of this recipe that requires a little practice, but armed with a few easy tips, you’ll get the hang of it quickly.
Once you’ve prepared your cabbage (either by the freezer or steam method outlined in the printable recipe below), separated the leaves, and made your meat mixture, you’re ready to make your rolls.
- To ensure easy rolling, you want to slice off the thickest portion of the center vein of each cabbage leaf (top left photo). To do this, turn each leaf outer side up and insert the point of a paring knife just under the thinnest part of the center vein and slice toward the bottom of the leaf, being careful not to cut all the way through. Reserve the veins to be chopped and added to the cooking pot.
- To add the filling (top right photo), place the trimmed leaf inner side up on a towel. Place 1-1/2 to 2 tablespoons of the meat mixture at the bottom, center of the leaf.
- Roll the cabbage leaf around the filling, using just enough pressure to make a firm roll without splitting the leaf (bottom left photo). Using a paring knife, trim away the extra cabbage on the sides, leaving about 3/4-inch of unfilled cabbage on either side for tucking in. Set aside the trimmings to be chopped and added to the cooking pot.
- Using your thumb and middle finger on either side of the roll, gently tuck the ends of the cabbage into the meat mixture, forming a dimple on each end (bottom right photo). Set the finished rolls aside as you work.
To really enjoy the cabbage rolls and their chunky sauce, serve over mashed potatoes or with buttered dinner rolls for dipping.
Also, although not traditionally Hungarian, we find applesauce is a delicious accompaniment to serve on the side.
Stuffed cabbage leftovers
Stuffed cabbage is one of those dishes that develops more flavor as it sits. Leftovers always taste better, so if you plan to serve this to company, consider making the dish a day or so in advance.
Stuffed cabbage freezes well too. Be sure to defrost it completely before reheating and if you find the sauce is a little watery, uncover the casserole for part of the reheating time so it can evaporate.
More Hungarian recipes
While you’re here, you may want to check out some more of our favorite family recipes:
- Easy Chicken Paprikas (Paprikash)
- Hungarian Noodle Dumplings (Nokedli)
- Instant Pot Chicken Paprikas with Egg Noodles
- Hungarian Cabbage Noodles
- Hungarian Summer Squash With Dill
- Hungarian Crêpes: Palacsinta
Hungarian Stuffed Cabbage Rolls
- 2 to 3 medium heads cabbage
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 medium onion, finely chopped (about 1 cup)
- 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 1/2 cup uncooked long grain white rice
- 1 lb ground pork
- 1 lb ground beef
- 1-1/2 to 2 teaspoons salt, see recipe notes
- 3/4 teaspoon black pepper
- 2 lbs sauerkraut, rinsed, drained and squeezed dry
- 1 can, 26 to 28 ounce diced tomatoes, undrained
- 1 can, 6-ounce tomato paste
- 3 to 4 cups tomato juice, divided
- 4 strips hardwood smoked bacon
- There are two different methods for preparing the cabbage leaves for rolling.
- One is to core the cabbage and steam the whole heads until tender. The other is to freeze the raw heads of cabbage in advance.
- The leaves will soften as they defrost, eliminating the need for steaming. The freezer method is much easier, but you do need to plan two days ahead.
Prepare The Cabbage Using The Freezer Method:
- Rinse the heads of cabbage and peel away the 2 outermost leaves and discard them.
- Pat each head dry and wrap them tightly with plastic wrap.
- Place the wrapped heads in a freezer bag and freeze until solid, 12 to 18 hours (depending on your freezer).
- Allow at least 24 hours for the cabbages to defrost in the refrigerator. Be sure to place a shallow pan under them as they release a lot of water as they thaw.
Prepare The Cabbage Using The Steam Method:
- Remove the cores and 2 outermost leaves from each head of cabbage.
- Add 2 to 3 inches of water to a large pot fitted with a steaming rack.
- Bring the water to a boil and place a head (or two if the pot is large enough) of cabbage in the pot.
- Cover and steam for 12 to 15 minutes, or until the leaves are tender and pliable enough to separate and roll. It may be helpful to remove the cabbage midway through the cooking time, remove a few of the most tender outer leaves and return the head to the pot to finish cooking.
Trim the cabbage leaves:
- Continue preparing the cabbage leaves for rolling by removing them from the heads, layer by layer. Set the leaves aside, blotting any excess moisture with a kitchen towel as you work.
- Depending on the diameter of your cabbages, you will need between 30 and 40 leaves to accommodate the quantity of meat in this recipe. Reserve the remaining cabbage for chopping.
- To ensure easy rolling, you want to slice off the thickest portion of the center vein of each cabbage leaf (see photo above).
- To do this, turn each leaf outer side up and insert the point of a paring knife just under the thinnest part of the center vein and slice toward the bottom of the leaf, being careful not to cut all the way through. Reserve the veins to be chopped and added to the cooking pot.
Prepare the filling:
- Heat the olive oil in a large pan over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté until soft and translucent, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the uncooked rice and stir until nicely coated with oil. Continue cooking, stirring continually, for about 2 minutes, then add the garlic.
- Continue to sauté until the rice is lightly toasted and golden in color, 3 to 4 minutes more. Be sure to stir continuously to prevent the garlic from browning. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool for about 10 minutes.
- Place the pork and beef in a large bowl. Add the salt, pepper, and the cooled onion-rice mixture. Using your hands, combine thoroughly, making sure that the seasonings and rice are evenly distributed throughout the meat.
Make the cabbage rolls:
- To roll the cabbage, place a leaf, inner side up on a towel. Place 1-1/2 to 2 tablespoons of the meat mixture at the bottom, center of the leaf (see photo above).
- Roll the cabbage leaf around the filling, using just enough pressure to make a firm roll without splitting the leaf (see photo above). Using a paring knife, trim away the extra cabbage on the sides, leaving about 3/4-inch of unfilled cabbage on either side for tucking in. Set aside the trimmings to be chopped and added to the cooking pot.
- Using your thumb and middle finger on either side of the roll, gently tuck the ends of the cabbage into the meat mixture, forming a dimple on each end (see photo above). Set the finished rolls aside as you work.
Prepare the sauce:
- Once you’ve used up all of the meat, take what’s left of the cabbages along with the trimmed veins and ends, chop them roughly and place them in a very large bowl.
- Add the sauerkraut and, using your hands, mix well.
- Add the diced tomatoes, tomato paste and 1 cup of the tomato juice. Combine thoroughly.
Bake the cabbage rolls:
- Preheat the oven to 350°F. Coat a large pot or Dutch oven (7 to 8 quart – see notes) with nonstick spray. Place a 3/4-inch thick layer of the chopped cabbage-sauerkraut-tomato mixture in the bottom. Layer some cabbage rolls on top, keeping them 1/2-inch or so from the sides of the pot. It’s fine for them to be close together.
- Add another, thinner layer of chopped cabbage, then more cabbage rolls, repeating as needed, finishing with a layer of chopped cabbage.
- Pour 2 more cups of tomato juice evenly over the rolls and around the edges of the pot, making sure all the rolls are moistened. It is not necessary for the rolls or chopped cabbage to be submerged in liquid.
- Lay the bacon strips over the top and cover tightly. Bake for 2 hours, checking midway through the cooking time to see if more tomato juice is needed to keep the rolls moist.
- After 2 hours, test for doneness by cutting one of the cabbage rolls in half and tasting to see if the rice is tender. If not, return the pot to the oven for an additional 30 minutes to 1 hour.
Tips for Making This Recipe
About the SeasoningYou’ll note that the only seasoning listed in our instructions is added to the meat-rice mixture. The diced tomatoes and tomato juice contain quite a bit of salt as does the bacon that’s layered on top, so resist the urge to add more than we call for. A few extra grinds of black pepper can’t hurt though.
What to Use for Cooking Stuffed Cabbage RollsWe cook our stuffed cabbage in a 7-1/2 quart Dutch oven, but any large pot or casserole will do. The important thing is to cover it tightly, so if you don’t have a tight-fitting lid, use heavy-duty aluminum foil and be certain to check for excessive evaporation.
Special Note: Recipes such as this vary from family to family and region to region, and they continue to evolve as they are passed down through the generations, often depending on changes in personal tastes, access to ingredients and sometimes even dietary restrictions. We welcome comments about recipe variations and family traditions, but please be polite and respectful.