croatian sarma cabbage rolls recipe

Sarma – Croatian Cabbage Rolls (My Grandma’s Recipe)

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Sarma (cabbage rolls) are an absolute favorite of all generations and one reason more that gather us all around the table during the winter. This is an old and very traditional recipe from my grandma.
croatian cabbage rolls sarma, served with mashed potatoes

What is Sarma Exactly?

Sarma is a dish that has always intrigued me. Here, in my country, everyone thinks they know everything about sarma and there isn’t a single person in Croatia who isn’t ready to give some advice on how to make it.

These sauerkraut cabbage rolls, which successfully combine sweet, spicy, savory, and sour flavors, are like a family hug, real comfort food in the Balkans way.

On the other hand, I simply decided to share my grandmother’s recipe for our Slavonian sarma here on the blog, and everyone knows at least one thing about grandma’s recipes – they are holy and should not be changed.

croatian sarma cabbage rolls served with white bread and mashed potatoes

Tips & Tricks For The Best Sarma Rolls

  1. For the meat filling, don’t use only pork – it can often be fattier than other types of meat, so it’s better to mix it with another type of meat, such as beef or veal. As for the ratio, I usually use ground pork and beef in a 50:50 ratio, although you can definitely adjust it to your liking.
  2. For fuller flavor, cook sarma with a piece of smoked, cured meat – A small piece of delicious bacon or dried smoked ribs will add so much umami flavor! If you don’t have or don’t want to add any dry cured meat, it’s ok. The sarma rolls will still taste good. If you add some meat, don’t add too much (no more than 250 g in the amounts in this recipe) otherwise the sarma could be too salty. Also, you can briefly boil the dry cured meat separately before putting it in the pot with sarma. Know that the meat will release some extra fat, so if you notice a lot of fat floating on the surface at the end of the cooking, remove the excess with a spoon.
  3. Rinse the sauerkraut leaves with cold water – this step is very important if the cabbage head you have is very salty/sour. You don’t need to keep the cabbage submerged in the water; just rinse it under a stream of cold water and then drain it so that it’s ready for the next step.
  4. For easier rolling, thin the cabbage root – there are several types of cabbage: some have thicker leaves and thinner roots, while others have thicker, fleshy leaves with pronounced roots. It will be easier to make a cabbage roll if that part is thinned or trimmed with a knife. If the leaves are very long and large, you can cut off the bottom part, put it aside, and use it to cover the bottom of the cooking pot.
  5. Don’t stir the sarma during the cooking – just shake the pot gently occasionally. If you try to stir it, you risk unwrapping the rolls and you definitely don’t want that.
  6. Make it the day before – a well-known rule here in Croatia for preparing and cooking sarma is that it tastes better on the second, even third day. This makes sense because the flavors have enough time to develop and deepen, so if you plan to make sarma for a larger family gathering, you can easily make it the day before. Also, in that case, I suggest making the roux the next day.

How to Make Stuffed Cabbage Rolls

Rolling the sarma may seem a bit intimidating for someone who wants to do it for the first time, but it’s actually a fun part of the recipe that acts as some kind of…. therapy and relaxation.

How To Prevent Sarma From Burning

After we layer the sarma firmly next to each other, cover it with water, and start the cooking process, stirring the cabbage rolls with a wooden spoon will become impossible. That’s why the bottom of the cooking pot needs to be protected with something, otherwise, they can easily burn and have a slightly bitter, not-so-yummy taste.

This can be done in several ways, and one of the most practical ways is to layer the excess sauerkraut leaves that won’t be used for making the rolls (torn leaves, the hard parts we removed, too-small leaves, etc.) and put it on the bottom of the greased cooking pot.

Works every time!

How to prevent Stuffed Cabbage Rolls from Unwrapping

No matter how carefully and firmly you place the sarma rolls next to each other, it can happen that during the cooking process, the rolls start to move around in the pot, especially if you cook them at a higher temperature. But, worry not because I have a solution for this problem!

This can be prevented by putting some load on the rolls, something heavier. You can use an old plate (not your grandma’s rare vintage porcelain, please) or even a smaller lid. It must be slightly smaller in diameter compared to the pot in which the sarma is cooked.

Roux for Sarma

To make the roux for sarma or not to make it, this debate is ongoing among cooking enthusiasts. Personally, I like to finish my sarma with roux. It’s a dish that we eat on special occasions, and my family likes it this way.

This is how I make it: I fry the flour on some melted lard or sunflower oil until it starts to turn golden. Then, I take it off the heat, add some sweet and hot paprika powder (I make sure it doesn’t burn), stir everything, and add to the sarma that has been cooking on the stove.

After adding the roux to the sarma, cook it on low heat for an additional 10-15 minutes.

If you don’t want to, you don’t have to make roux when making these Croatian cabbage rolls; instead, thicken it with some cornstarch or finish it with passata.

close up of sarma cabbage rolls served with mashed potatoes

What to Serve with Sarma

  • Freshly baked homemade bread or focaccia will absorb all that yummy liquid in your plate perfectly. This is the simplest, perhaps even mandatory part of serving and eating sarma.
  • Creamy, mashed potatoes for a bit fancier serving.

Can you freeze Sarma Cabbage Rolls?

Yes, you definitely can!

This is a dish that freezes very well. This is how I do it: those cabbage rolls that I’ll freeze, while the sarma is still lukewarm, I separate into plastic containers (that way the liquid in which the sarma was cooked will remain cohesive) and leave them open until the sarma cools completely. Then I tightly close the lid and simply put them in the freezer.

Sarama cabbage rolls, frozen like this, try to use within 2 months. When you decide to thaw it, just put the container into the fridge the night before and heat it up the next day in a pot on low heat.

Are you looking for inspiration for more Croatian recipes? Here are my suggestions:

croatian sarma cabbage rolls recipe

Sarma – Croatian Cabbage Rolls (Grandma’s Recipe)

Mateja Zvirotic Andrijanic
Sarma (cabbage rolls) are an absolute favorite of all generations and one reason more that gather us all around the table during the winter. This is an old and very traditional recipe from my grandma.
5 from 12 votes
Prep Time 1 hour
Cook Time 2 hours 45 minutes
Total Time 3 hours 45 minutes
Course Main Course
Cuisine Croatian
Servings 20 cabbage rolls

Ingredients
 
 

For cabbage rolls

  • 1 whole sour cabbage head (cca 1,8 kg)
  • 850 g ground meat (beef + pork)
  • 1 yellow onion
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 1 egg
  • 60 g white rice
  • 35 g bread crumbs
  • 12 g salt
  • teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 2 teaspoon sweet paprika powder
  • ½ teaspoon hot paprika powder
  • lard
  • smaller piece of smoked meat (smoked dry pork ribs, smoked bacon etc.)

For the roux

  • 1,5 tablespoon lard
  • 1,5-2 tablespoon all-purpose flour
  • ½ teaspoon sweet paprika powder
  • ½ teaspoon hot paprika powder (you can put less or more, depending on how spicy it is)
  • salt (quantity of salt depends on how salty are the cabbage and dried meat)

Video

Instructions
 

  • Carefully separate the fermented cabbage leaves. Depending on how small or big cabbage rolls you want to make, you will need about 15-20 cabbage leaves + some extra shredded leaves to cover the bottom of the cooking pot. If the cabbage is very sour and/or salty, wash the leaves briefly under cold water. After that, if you notice that cabbage leaves have pronounced hardy veins, remove them with a sharp knife. Repeat this step with all the leaves.
  • Prepare a bigger cooking pot by coating the bottom with a thin layer of lard. Chop roughly the leftover and torn cabbage leaves that won't be used for making the rolls and spread them on the bottom of the cooking pot. This step will prevent the sarma from burning during the cooking.
  • Mince the onion and garlic and add to a bowl with ground meat, rice, eggs, bread crumbs, salt, black pepper, and sweet and hot paprika powder. Mix everything well using your hand. Take a piece of the meat stuffing, place it on the bottom part of the cabbage leaf, and wrap it tightly in a roll. Repeat this with the rest of the stuffing and cabbage leaves.
  • When you finish rolling up all of your sarma rolls, layer them tightly next to each other seam-side down in the cooking pot. Add a piece of dried meat (if using) take 2-3 additional cabbage leaves and cover the rolls. Put some load on it, like a smaller lid or an old ceramic plate, which will prevent the sarma rolls from unrolling during the cooking. Pour over the water so that the sarma is completely covered with it and bring it to a boil.
  • Reduce the heat and let it cook for at least 2-2.5 hours, adding more water if necessary.
  • When sarma is cooked, make your roux. In a small saucepan add lard and let it melt. Stir the flour with a whisk or wooden spoon for a few minutes over low heat. When the roux gets a light golden color, turn off the heat and stir in sweet and hot paprika powder. If necessary, you can add some salt too. Add the roux to the sarma and let it simmer for about 10 minutes. Serve with homemade bread or mashed potatoes.
Tried this recipe?Let us know how it was!

Nutritional information provided is an estimate based on ingredients data and should be used for informational purposes only. Actual nutritional content may vary based on factors such as portion size, preparation methods and ingredients used.

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Comments

40 responses to “Sarma – Croatian Cabbage Rolls (My Grandma’s Recipe)”

  1. Dushanka Avatar
    Dushanka

    Hi I live in Australia and I come from Montenegro. People I make sarma for just love it truly! I do think the rice I make is just over cooked. So for me, that would be the downside. Will try your recipe today as a have a bunch of family coming tonight. So you possibly have any tips for rice not to get too soft and overcooked? Or I might be doing something wrong really

    1. Mateja Zvirotic Andrijanic Avatar
      Mateja Zvirotic Andrijanic

      Hi Dušanka! Try using some other grain, like barley or maybe brown rice. Or don’t put rice at all. I hope you and your family will have a great time and enjoy some good sarma!

  2. Carol Avatar
    Carol

    When my grandmother made sarma, I remember her having sausage cooking with it. I do not know what kind of sausage she used. Could it be a kielbasa? Thoughts?

    1. Mateja Zvirotic Andrijanic Avatar
      Mateja Zvirotic Andrijanic

      Well, you can add some sausage in the pot while cooking the cabbage rolls, yes. In my family we would use smoked pork sausage.

  3. Anna Avatar
    Anna

    How do we reheat the sarmas for next day family gathering?

    1. Mateja Avatar
      Mateja

      Good question, Anna! In my family, we most often do it on the stovetop. Decide how many cabbage rolls you want to reheat (it’s really not necessary to reheat all sarma rolls you made). Put them in the pot with some liquid in which cabbage rolls were cooked in. Add a splash of water if needed, put the lid on and turn on the heat on low. Cook until they’re hot and you’re ready for serving!

  4. Rebecca Avatar
    Rebecca

    I made this for my boyfriend in attempt to emulate his grandmother’s recipe. I boiled a plain cabbage instead of using a sour because he thought his grandmother did it that way. Turned out great and he thought it was very close to the recipe he remembered her making.

    1. Mateja Avatar
      Mateja

      Actually, there is something my grandma calls “slatka sarma” and she makes it sometimes during the summer when there aren’t any fermented cabbage leaves. It’s made with plain cabbage just as you did it. So, both ways are acceptable, it’s just the matter of your own personal preference. 🙂

  5. Brenda Avatar
    Brenda

    5 stars
    First time I’ve ever made cabbage rolls. This recipe was fantastic…the taste was great. I made a couple of changes to it though… I didn’t have any breadcrumbs so used dried stuffing mix instead., and I boiled the cabbage leaves for 5 minutes so they were easier to roll., and I hadn’t got sweet paprika, and used a little smoked paprika . Also, when I put the plate on top, I also placed a mug on it to add extra weight. None of the rolls burst open, they were all perfect. It was indeed a lovely meal 👍

    1. Mateja Avatar
      Mateja

      Thank you so much Brenda!

  6. Ell Avatar
    Ell

    Wondering if you have tasted or know of SARMA with beef pork and lamb mince together?

    1. Mateja Avatar
      Mateja

      Hi, I haven’t but I think it’s worth trying. 🙂

  7. Kaz Avatar
    Kaz

    5 stars
    Delicious recipe! I made this with fresh cabbage leaves, they were a little more difficult to “roll” but the flavour was oh so delicious and we definitely felt like we were eating a meal from grandmas kitchen x

    1. Mateja Avatar
      Mateja

      So glad to hear that!

  8. Lenka Ivanovski Avatar
    Lenka Ivanovski

    Hi can I make the roux and let the sarma cook with it or do I have to add it at the end

    1. Mateja Avatar
      Mateja

      Hi Lenka, it’s better to add it at the end of the cooking.

  9. Cat Avatar
    Cat

    5 stars
    Made this recipe yesterday and I was very pleased with it. It reminded me a lot to the one my grand used to make. Will be making again, thank you.

    1. Mateja Avatar
      Mateja

      Thank you Cat!

  10. Kat Lemić Avatar
    Kat Lemić

    This is the best recipe for sarma written in English that I’ve ever seen. Thank you for sharing our traditions.

    1. Mateja Avatar
      Mateja

      It’s so good to hear comments like these. Thank you!

  11. Leah Avatar
    Leah

    Thank youuuuuu! I’ve been looking everywhere for an authentic recipes as well written as yours. Quick question… can you layer the rolls while cooking? Like one on top of each other when you are making a big batch?

    1. Mateja Avatar
      Mateja

      Yes, you can!

  12. Deborah Avatar
    Deborah

    5 stars
    I made them for the first time ever. I am Australian living now in Croatia. My partner is Croatian so I am adjusting to life in a beautiful country. He was so surprised I nailed it by this recipe. Thankyou so much, I really appreciate the sharing of this recipe and god bless your Grandmother. My partners parents died many before I came into his life, so I cannot follow his mothers recipes. Thank you again god bless you. Oh I am making my second batch today.

    1. Mateja Avatar
      Mateja

      Dear Deborah, I’m so happy to hear that both of you enjoyed this recipe! There will definitely be more traditional Croatian recipes on the blog in the future, so I hope you will try some of them, too.

  13. c Avatar
    c

    Can these be made in a crockpot?

    1. Mateja Avatar
      Mateja

      Hi, I haven’t tried making it in a crockpot so I cannot give you an exact answer, but you could definitely try to make it that way.

      1. Donna Avatar
        Donna

        5 stars
        Excellent recipe- I used very lean double smoked slab of bacon instead of smoked ribs.
        I am Slovenian and my family loves this with the sauerkraut – the grandkids prefer regular cabbage rolls with diluted tomato soup.
        I tried making the sauerkraut in crock pot on a hot day – worked great!

        1. Mateja Avatar
          Mateja

          Diluted tomato soup sounds great as a replacement! Also, great to hear that sarma can be made in a crock pot, thank you for your input and for your lovely comment.

  14. Medelene Avatar
    Medelene

    Do you have any suggestions on how to use the dried pork ribs after you’re done with this recipe? I purchased too much!

    1. Mateja Avatar
      Mateja

      Definitely yes! I suggest you make some good, hearty bean stew with dried ribs, we make this meal very often in Croatia. Just a quick tip: usually, I will cook dried pork ribs separately in a different pot before adding them to the bean stew. (if the ribs are really salty). Half an hour will be enough. Or you can cook the ribs on their own, without any additions, and serve them with mashed potatoes, fried sauerkraut, and onions.

  15. Sam Avatar
    Sam

    Great recipe🙂 I am familiar with cabbage rolls “polish style” made of fresh cabbage, but would like to try the sarma sour ones. However there are no whole fermented cabbage heads sold in my place..is it possible to make one at home?

    1. Mateja Avatar
      Mateja

      My grandma also sometimes makes cabbage rolls with fresh leaves, mostly during summer when fermented cabbage heads aren’t available. It’s good, but I prefer sarma with the sourness of fermented cabbage. 🙂 It’s definitely possible, you can check this recipe for more info about the procedure: https://www.cravethegood.com/how-to-sour-cabbage/

    2. Anesa Avatar
      Anesa

      I’m not sure if you live in a place where there is a high Bosnian population. I’m in Utica, NY and we have Bosnian stores that carry fermented cabbage leaves in jars, our Walmart carrys it as well.

    3. Charlotte Hines Avatar
      Charlotte Hines

      When my Croatian grandma quit making her sour heads, she just put rinsed sauerkraut over the sarma. It had close to the same flavor. My mother used that same solution for years even though she was Polish.

    4. Nina M. Avatar
      Nina M.

      5 stars
      Yes, it’s super easy. Get a plastic drum about 60L. Get fresh cabbage heads, remove outer leaves. Core the cabbage and fill the cored space with salt and a handful of fresh corn. Place all heads in drum and fill water to cover the cabbage. Place plain white cotton napkin on top and something heavy to keep all the heads submerged. It will be ready in 4 weeks. Voila!

    5. Dragica Avatar
      Dragica

      You can order pickled cabbage head online from Parthenonfoods.com

  16. Debra Gresh Avatar
    Debra Gresh

    5 stars
    I made this for my cousins and my dad. Everyone loved it. They said it was just like my grandma used to make. Rave reviews!

    1. Mateja Avatar
      Mateja

      I’m so happy to hear that and I’m glad you guys enjoyed this meal so much. Thank you for your review!

    2. Steve Avatar
      Steve

      5 stars
      I have eaten Sarma before, but I had never made them. I followed this recepie and my Sarma tasted exactley how I remembered! Thank you for this great recepie!

      1. Mateja Avatar
        Mateja

        You welcome!

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