Hungarian-Style Stuffed Cabbage Rolls

Hungarian-Style Stuffed Cabbage Rolls: Try this family recipe for Hungarian stuffed cabbage, a combination of ground pork, veal, tender cabbage and tomatoes - comfort food at it's best.

This is an authentic family recipe, modified by four generations of Hungarian-American cooks. It may not correspond exactly with the versions you'll find in Hungarian cookbooks because each generation has adapted it a bit to suit their individual tastes and the availability of ingredients. Regardless, the flavors remain true to those that my great-grandmother served at her table after emigrating to the U.S. from Hungary over one hundred years ago.

Hungarian-Style Stuffed Cabbage Rolls

  • Ingredients:
  • 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

Prepare the cabbage:
There are 2 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 ahead.

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.

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.

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 accomodate the quantity of meat in this recipe. Reserve the remaining cabbage for chopping.

To ensure easy rolling, it's best to pare away the thickest portion of the center vein of each cabbage leaf. 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.

Slice away the thick portion of the vein, being careful not to make holes in the leaf (see photo below). Reserve the veins for chopping.

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 continually 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. Roll up, using just enough pressure to make a firm roll without splitting the leaf.

Using a paring knife, trim away the sides of the cabbage leaf, leaving about 3/4-inch of unfilled cabbage on either side for tucking in (see photo below). Set aside the trimmings for chopping.

Using your thumb and middle finger on either side of the roll, gently tuck the ends of the cabbage into the meat mixture, forming sort of a dimple on each end. Set the finished rolls aside as you work.

Preparing Hungarian Stuffed Cabbage Rolls

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.

Serving suggestions:
To really enjoy the cabbage rolls and their chunky sauce, serve over mashed potatoes or with buttered dinner rolls for dipping. Applesauce makes a great additional side.

It's also worth noting that stuffed cabbage is one of those dishes that develops more flavor as sits. Leftovers always taste better, so if you plan to serve this to company, consider making the dish ahead of time.

Makes 30 to 40 rolls

Recipe Notes:
You'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.

Regarding cooking vessels - we 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.

Hungarian Stuffed Cabbage Rolls

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 constructive feedback about recipe variations and family traditions, but insulting, purely contradictory comments will not be published.

comments & replies

There is a little hungarian trick to this. it will help you prevent from burning yourself while making this dish. the trick is to freeze the cabbage before you start making the dish. prepare the cabbage heads as written the night before. just dont continue the steps. put the cabbage heads in the freezer and let them set over night. this way when you put the rest of it together the following day. you wont burn yourself in the process. learned this from my grandma Julie who came to the USA from Hungary during the war. she was 12 at the time.

I've tried freezing the cabbage, yes, it's much easier, but I find it is a little "leathery" in my rolls.

I like to put cabbage in a grocery store plastic bag and microwave until tender. When semi tender leave in bag and let cool. I do this the day before making the rolls and refrigerate the cooked, cooled cabbage. So much easier to roll.

How long do you microwave cabbage?

Depends on the size of the cabbage . I usually microwave for two minutes test and remove outer leaves as they are done. If I am busy just let it run ten minutes let it cool then remove the leaves.

I am Hungarian and I can tell you that this is not a Hungarian cabbage roll recipe. Hungarians do not use tomatoes or tomato paste in their cabbage rolls. They use sauerkraut and sour cream which this recipe does not include.

Eva, I know what you mean. My parents came to the US in 1956 and they never used tomatoes or tomato paste or baked it. We always cooked it on the stove and she used a 22 Quart pot and a 15 Quart pot. It took forever to make. Also never used bacon if we had we would use Hungarian kolbász, which we can't find. So she would use smoked Turkey Legs for added flavor.

You can purchase good Hungarian Kolbasz from Bende Inc. in Illinois, look it up on line. They have several Hungarian meats & products from Hungary. I've shopped there, also by catalog. I highly recommend this company. My husband came here in 1956, he taught me how to cook authentic Hungarian.

I love some of the tips for this recipe. I have learned from my Hungarian mother and grandmother how to make this wonderful dish. Over time I have changed up their version a little. I use tomato soup ,Fresh canned if I have it, any other tomato sauce if soup is not available.
I learned from a polish lady to prepare pork neck bones a day ahead (crockpot), and this has become another layer of flavor to my pot. Kielbasa, if I have it goes in too. Sometimes a green pepper stuffed within the pot adds another hidden surprise. Mom always did this because there was always a green pepper in the fridge which needed to be used. And my favorite addition has been a prepared and purchased Paprika Paste added to the sauces, WOW!
I'll have to try the freezer method, never heard of this. Not sure I would like the bacon on top, unless it is the "hard to find" paprika smoked bacon. That I might try. My wife (Polish) has taught me that a little sour cream served along side can be tasty. I agree, Applesauce is a great side. I have always cooked on the stove top, but might try the oven method next time.
Sorry to be so wordy, but this is really close to my heart making this dish. Thanks Brother for turning me on to this web site.

My mother was Hungarian and from what she told me that Hungary had many villages or towns whereas each village had their own way of preparing the food. Many cooks used what they had available it very similar.

Yet one more variation to consider. Our family recipe called for pork butt as the only meat ingredient, cut into small cubes. We also cooked on the stove top. I see no problem though, with using bacon in my next batch. Thanks for posting your recipe.

hello ,,i was just reading some comments about making sauerkraut . i want to try this recipe but want to know if its possible to use a pressure cooker instead of a crock pot as i don't have one ?

thank you for your reply lynne . i did bake them in my oven , i followed the recipe as best i could , but i am retired , an live in the philippines , and its very hard to find some of the things i need in some of the stores here in this small town , i would have to go to manila to some of the bigger stores or markets , but i cooked my rice in a rice cooker , an added some sauteed chopped onions , and as i didn't have any tomatoe paste or sauce , i used some hunt's pizza sauce , for just a little bit of zingy taste , but couldn't add any sauerkraut as i didn't have any ,,but will try to make some home made kraut . So with all that said , it really turned out very good , its just me and my daughter here ,as my philippina wife passed away in 2003 from brain tumor , and my daughter said it was really very good tasting . So thank you for replying and i will be trying many more of your recipe's , as i love to cooking different meals for me and my daughter . again ,,thank you lynne .

I didn't have tomato soup so looked around my pantry for something I could substitute. Whisky Willie's Bloody Mary Mix screamed out to goodness it was a good addition! ( I used the non-alcohol version) The spices added just the right kick to the dish. I will always use this now instead of the bland tomato soup....or at least as and addition to the soup.

Does anyone know if I can substitute brown rice for the white rice?

My Hungarian Grandmother used to place pigs feet on the bottom of the pot, stack the cabbage rolls (she only used round pork, no beef) then top them off with stewed tomatoes and cook on the stove top in a heavy dutch oven. That's all I remember and no one in my family has the recipe, very sad. But this sounds like a good one to use as a base. Thanks

My grandmother was from Hungary, and her cabbage always had tomatoes, and our family never never eats it with sour cream...though that sounds really good! My uncle came over in '56, and he likes my cabbage, so I think I'm good on authenticity!

Your recipe was a great find! And - helped me gain confidence to try variations in the one I use now. So very similar. My grandparents were from what is now Eastern Slovakia but I was always told much of the food they prepared was Hungarian!

On another note - I tried substituting the riced cauliflower for the rice and it worked perfectly.

Thanks for the great recipe!

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