Croatian Sarma Recipe (Stuffed Cabbage Rolls)

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Post author SJ

Written by our local expert SJ

Sarah-Jane has lived in Croatia for 10+ years. SJ, as she is known, has been traveling the Balkans & beyond since 2000. She now shares her passion for traveling with her husband & kids.

What is the recipe for stuffed cabbage rolls? That’s the question that so many of my friends and family ask. These tasty Croatian cabbage rolls are known as Sarma and are a must-try food all over the Balkans.

Back in Sydney, the king of Croatian Sarma in our family is Tetak Zeljko (uncle), and he is absolutely famous for his Sarma recipe. Tetak Zeljko always brings a massive pot of sarma to each big family gathering, and the house immediately smells of sauerkraut (kiseli kapus). To some people, the smell is offensive, but I love it.

This Aussie girl also makes sarma and has done so for over 15 years. My Croatian sarma has never been as good as Tetak’s, although he has been kind enough to give me some tips.

However, he has never given me HIS actual recipe. I guess he doesn’t want to give up the throne just yet. Frankly, I do not blame him because this way, he gets all of the praise for having the best-stuffed cabbage roll recipe in Sydney.

How to make Sarma Recipie - Chasing the DOnkey
Stuffed cabbage rolls (Sarma), ready to devour

Now that I am no longer in Australia, I find that people here are not only much more willing to share their tips, but they love to impart their knowledge on recipes that have been in their families for generations. When it comes to making Croatian food, I am blessed that I have so many teachers.

A few weeks ago, I spent some time asking different members of our family for their stuffed cabbage roll recipes. From that, I have a few new tips that will get me closer to having the perfect stuffed cabbage roll recipe. I’ve pinched the best bits from them to enhance my own recipe. After all, all good cooks would agree that it’s nice to find out how someone else cooks a recipe so you can improve your own.

I’ve taken my old faithful, blended it with the Croatian family recipe, and a few tips that I have been given along the way. So, now, it’s my turn to share with you how to make sarma. I hope you like it.

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How To Make Croatian Sarma – AKA Stuffed Cabbage Rolls

Making sarma

Sarma are easy to make but does take a bit of time to prepare and cook. So, I’ve come up with the easy stuffed cabbage roll/sarma recipe to reduce the time it will take you.

You’ll need to start this at least 3 hours before the time you want to eat them. Once cooked, they taste better the longer they are left so that you can make them the day before. Anything listed as optional is to taste, so do add more or less of the flavors you like. Mr. Chasing the Donkey and I prefer a lot of paprika and smoked meat in our dishes, so you can cut back on any of these and still have a delicious-tasting dish.

How to make Sarma

Croatian Sarma Recipe (Stuffed Cabbage Rolls)

My Croatian sarma recipe was years in the making. With hints and tips from Croatia and Australia, I've perfected my sarma recipe to now share it with you.



  • Entire pickled/sour cabbage head (do not use a regular cabbage)
  • 1 kg of mincemeat (2.2 lbs). I prefer 50% pork neck and 50% veal, but you can use whatever you like best
  • 200 g of finely diced špeck or smoked bacon (8 oz)
  • 4 peeled & crushed garlic cloves
  • 1/2 bunch finely chopped parsley leaves
  • 3 Tbls. of soda water or a big pinch of bicarbonate soda
  • 1 cup of uncooked rice
  • 1 1/2 Tbls. Vegeta
  • 1 Tbls. hot ground paprika (optional)
  • 1 Tbls. sweet paprika (optional)
  • 2 Tbls. breadcrumbs (optional)
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 egg
  • 1 Tbls. olive oil

Sarma Sauce

  • 2 onions, chopped fine
  • 3 Tbls. extra virgin olive oil
  • 100 g diced smoked špeck/pancetta or smoked bones (4 oz)
  • 1/2 bunch chopped parsley
  • 2 carrots diced small
  • 400 g (small tin) passata (2 cups)
  • 1/2 kg shredded sauerkraut (3 cups). Make sure you give it a very good rinse in fresh water before using
  • Salt and pepper


Sarma Preparation

  1. Take an entire pickled cabbage head. You'll find these on Amazon or in European delicatessens in the chilled section. Wash each leaf thoroughly. Remove the thick part of the stem without tearing the leaves. It's best to allow the leaves to drain on some paper towel or pat each one dry
  2. Take a large mixing bowl, and combine mincemeat, speck, garlic, parsley leaves, soda water or bicarbonate soda, rice, Vegeta, hot paprika (optional), sweet paprika (optional), breadcrumbs (optional), Salt and pepper, egg & olive oil
  3. Mix all of the ingredients until well combined

Let's Roll The Sarma

  1. You want each of the leaves to be about the same size so that each cabbage roll cooks at the same time. So go ahead and cut any large leaves in half, and also join two smaller leaves together as you go
  2. Take approx 3 tablespoons of the minced meat, and gently combine in the palm of your hand. Do not roll or compress as this will make them too dense when you eat them
  3. Place the meat on the edge of the cabbage leaf and roll away from you. Then tuck in the sides of the leaf gently into the meat. There should be no exposed meat. If there is, remove some of the filling
  4. Set the sarma aside, and prepare the sauce

Sarma Sauce

  1. In a shallow saucepan, or even better, a Le Creuset cast-Iron dish, splash in some extra virgin olive oil, add the 2 diced onions and cook until transparent on low heat. Then add the 2 diced carrots, diced speck, and parsley. Continue to fry on low heat until carrots start to soften
  2. Add the shredded sauerkraut and create a layer on the bottom of the saucepan. Now, pack the Croatian sarma into the saucepan. They should be packed close together.
  3. Pour in boiling water so that it just covers the sarma. Add the passata and a pinch of salt and pepper. Every 30 minutes, give the saucepan a shake (do not stir them or they will break) and let them simmer for 2 hours on a low-medium heat


Never mix with a spoon as you will break the sarma. Always shake the pot or use a spoon to gently move them around.

Croatian Sarme Recipe

So, are you going to give this sarma recipe a try? How different are these sarma from your stuffed cabbage roll recipe?

More Tasty Croatian & Balkans Recipes

Comments (126)

  1. Next time you see Tetak, snoop around for his recipe if he won’t give it to you willingly – great traditional recipes must live on!

    1. I fear there is no written copy… it’s in his HEAD. I’ll have to tie him down and try some forms of torture on him…

      1. Shame. Use all your Aussie charm, and use Baby Donkey as bait! (I mean, explain you want your son to enjoy these delights as you have, you want to hand down this family legacy!)

  2. This looks really good. I need to find pickled cabbage, I wouldn’t have even know that existed!

    1. Oh yes, it’s yummy! Or you could try making your own – that’s easy too. Here is how we did it

  3. Our stuffed cabbage in Hungary looks really similar to this one and I read the recipe, it is also quite similar!! One of my favorite dishes, thanks for sharing!

  4. They look seriously good. I really need to stop being so cowardly just because it’s outside of my cooking skills comfort zone and give it a try! Thanks for linking up with #recipeoftheweek. I’ve pinned and tweeted this post, and there’s a fresh linky live now for this week. I would love you to pop over and join in :) x

  5. This is very similar to my recipe. I cut my leaves in half so the each sarma is small and delicate traditional but refined ,bet you didn’t think that sarma could be refined !! Have you tried baking it in the oven .the heat is even ,I doesn’t stick to the bottom you don’t need to shake it and its so un croatian !!!! I cook my punjene paprike the same way!

    1. Refine? Sarma hahaha, that is a laugh. A good idea for feeding lots of people though I have to say. My Mother in law bakes her paprike, but I had never thought of the sarma like that. Do you do it all the same? HOw long do they take to bake?

  6. Sarma is not original Croatian recipe (food). It came from Turkey and it is one of the most popular food in Serbia. Bye.

    1. Yup, and my Polish and Hungarian friends also have similar recipes. We are all in one big melting pot of the world.

    2. It is not Serbian, all the Balkans were under Ottoman Empire for 500 years so we adopted a lot from them, typical Serbs like usual use their lies and twist a truth, like they have lied (Propaganda) about Croatians to this day. My son loves Sarma and a Macedonian workmate made it for him but without meat and he did not like it , so there are many variations all over Balkans. I have Hercegovian background and mum makes Sarma and she makes fermented Cabbage as long I can remember every year in Barrel, she makes Sarma to take home because my son loves it, she makes it with Roux (oil and flour until golden then paprika until mixed then water until it bubbles then pour over and gently mix with Sarma pot) last 20 minute of cooking and no tomatoes, put smoke bones, Smoked bacon or Rind for taste in bottom and she puts broken scraps of Sauerkraut in too, and she will make some rolled in Spinach too

      1. Sorry for being a few years late with this comment but since no one responded to this nonsense, allow me to remind you, Serbia and Crnagora were there before the Ottomon Empire took control and they’re still there today. Where is the Ottomon empire? I love Sarma.

  7. Although your Sarma do sound good, they’re not like my Grandmother who was born and raised in Croatia use to make.. The mince meat combination was beef, pork, smoked butt, and bacon, with eggs, rice, onion, garlic, sweet paprika, salt and pepper..Once the Sarma were rolled, the broken or unused cabbage leaves, sauerkraut, smoked sausages, and onions were layered in between the rolls in the pot, with enough water to cover..Then a zafrig sauce, made of bacon drippings, browned flour, sweet paprika, and water or broth to thin to a gravy consistency, was poured over the top.. They were covered and left to simmer on low for 2 1/2 hours..They are out of this World, and even though it takes a lot of time to prepare them i do it often..I will give your version a try because I’m sure they are good as well..There are many different versions across Croatia I’m sure, depending on the area where you grew up.. My Grandmother was raised on a farm in Zagreb and I’m glad to see that people are still interested in carrying on the Traditional Old World recipes..Thanks for posting the one you are the most familiar with, I’ll add it to my collection..Have a Beautiful Day.. :)

    1. Thanks Rosemary, I’d love to know more details about your recipe and try it too. I am always trying to look at ways to better my own cooking. My ones are much more plain than I have eaten in restaurants and often wonder what I can do do make them better.

    2. Hi. Thanks so much for your sarma recipe. This is almost the exact recipe my mother and her mother made. However, like Rosemary, my mom makes a zafrig sauce to pour over the sarma. Interestingly, my family is not Croatian, we are Slovaks from Vojvodina in Serbia. I notice that Slovaks from Slovakia make a variation of this dish using fresh cabbage leaves and tomato paste, but the Slovaks living in Vojvodina make it this way. Thanks again!

      1. Ohhhh I’d love to get a recipe and try the zafrig sauce – care to share? I have eaten it like that, but never knew how it was done.

        1. You need zafrig, which is just oil, flour, and paprika stirred in a separate pan than poured over. It is the thickener, and enhances the flavour overall. My father comes from Nova Gradiska (slavonian part of Croatia), he taught me how to make Sarma which is beautiful, and something I can now pass down even though I’m only half Croatian in heritage :)

  8. The interesting thing is that in Romania we have this traditional dish. It’s filled with a mix of rice and pork meat. And surprise…in Romanian it’s called “sarma” (plural “sarmale”) too.

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