Croatian Cooking: Sarma Recipe (Stuffed Cabbage Rolls)

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Croatian Cooking: Sarma Recipe (Stuffed Cabbage Rolls)

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 huge 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.

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

This Aussie girl also makes sarma, and has done so for over ten 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.

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 are sure to 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.

Things to do in Croatia_Stuffed Cabbage Rolls|Croatia Travel Blog

How To Make Croatian Sarma – AKA Stuffed Cabbage Rolls

Sarma are easy to make but do 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 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.

My Sarma Recipe

Sarma Preparation

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.

Take a large mixing bowl, and combine:

  • 1 kilogram of mincemeat. We prefer to use 50% pork neck and 50% veal.
  • 200 grams of finely diced speck.
  • 4 peeled & crushed garlic cloves
  • 1/2 bunch roughly chopped parsley leaves
  • 3 tablespoons of soda water or a pinch of bicarbonate soda
  • 1 cup of uncooked rice
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons Vegeta
  • 1 tablespoons of hot paprika. (optional)
  • 1 tablespoons of sweet paprika. (optional)
  • 2 tablespoons of breadcrumbs (optional)
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil

Mix all of the ingredients until well combined

How to make #Croatian Sarma #Recipe - Chasing the Donkey

Let’s Roll The Sarma

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.

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.

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.

Set the sarma aside, and prepare the sauce.

Sarma Sauce: What Ingredients You Need

  • 2 onions
  • 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 100 grams diced smoked speck (pancetta) or smoked bones
  • 1/2 bunch chopped parsley
  • 2 carrots diced small
  • 400 g passata
  • 1/2 kilo shredded sauerkraut. Make sure you give it a rinse in fresh water before use.
  • Salt and pepper

In a shallow saucepan, or even better, a Le Creuset cast-Iron dish, splash in some extra virgin olive oil (EVOO), add the 2 diced onions and cook until transparent on a low-med heat. Then add the 2 diced carrots, diced speck and parsley. Continue to fry on low-med heat until carrots start to soften.

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. Now, pour in boiling water so that it just covers the sarma. Add the passata and a pinch of salt and pepper. Every 15 minutes, give the saucepan a shake.

Tip: Never mix with a spoon as you will break the sarma.

The sarma should simmer now for 2-2 1/2 hours. The way to test if it’s ready is to take one out and try it. The cabbage should have softened.

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

More Cooking Tips

More Tasty Croatian & Balkans Recipes


Comments (90)

  1. Both parents from Bribir. I am going back 60 years and can smell the wonderful odors coming from the big roasting pan full of sarma. There was always room for one or two more. May just try to do it myself.

  2. I have a slow cooker full of Sarma cooking now…I found this recipe when looking to make sure I hadn’t forgotten anything…and now I learned younuse sauerkraut! My grandmother came from west of Zagreb and I don’t remember her ever usingmsauerkraut! Is that always a requirement.l.maybe I just didn’t remember, or maybe the sauerkraut was added in certain areas of Croatia. Please let me know if I should add sauerkraut.
    I visited Croatia last wasmfantastic,but wemstayed alongmthe Adriatic in the Dalmatian region . I never saw Sarma in a restaurant and finally a Split restaurant owner told me that Sarma is normally a northern Croatian dish. Since I didn’t get the opportunity of having it there please let me know. Thank you….Locha noche

  3. Thank you for sharing your recipe for Sarma. My mother came from Lika, Croatia and her Sarma was famous in Portland. However, her recipe was very simple. She used a fermented head of cabbage leaves, ground beef and ground pork, rice, salt and pepper. Then she would make the cabbage rolls. In the meantime she had a big pot in which she layered some canned sauerkraut on the bottom and then put in the rolls. In addition she would put in a half of a ham with a bone in it and add it to the pot with more sauerkraut. She would add water to cover and then boil until cooked. Wow, did that ham add flavor to the Sarma. She would also boil potatoes in their skins and peel the potatoes when ready to serve. Your dish would have the sarma, sauerkraut, potatoes and ham. What a dish to set before your family and friends.

    1. My mother and Grandmother never used tomatoes of any sort in SARMA JUST SAUERKRAUT AND SOME KINF OF SMOKED HAMthis sounds like my mothers.

    2. My mom came from hills just out side of Dubrovnik and this is close but no tomatoes!! Tomatoes are not native to Europe or anywhere except North America. Mom made it a one dish meal by starting with a layer of 1/4ed potatoes in the bottom of a roasting pan (traditionally rutabaga or other root veggie as potatoes are not native either) layer cabbage rolls and some kind of smoked cover all with sour kraut do not rinse all the goodness out .Bake for 2 hours or longer dependIng on how big a roaster you filled!!

  4. Would love to try this and hope it’s very similar to my.late mom’s recipe and family friend’s but I don’t know what is meant by passata. Please clarify.

  5. Okay! I love Croatia and Croatian food but Sarma or Sarmali or Dolma or Ebrak is a Turkish food that influenced many cultures, such as Romania, Greece, Serbia and Lebanon and many more.

      1. Most likely it was the Turks that brought that dish back to the Empire from abroad than vice versa. Cabbage is essentially a continental European crop and stuffed cabbage (regardless of what you call it specifically) exists in most European cultures.

        1. I’m a Turkish citizen and my wife is Romanian.I explained this story to all my Romanian friends too who understood the origin of sarma and they use the same Turkish word for this meal in their country.If it was a European meal it should not been written or pronunciated Turkish.Europeans had these ingredients but if you look the word sarma which is a Turkish word means that roll something, it explains that it’s a Turkish meal and all Balkan regions use this meal after Turks when exactly Ottoman Empire appeared in Balkans.Because, we don’t see sarma meal in Balkanic Recipe Books before Turks arrived there.Same story for dolma.

    1. Eaten it my whole life. Cooked by my grandmother, my mother, all our relatives, all our family friends. Many foods are not original to the certain areas. But, that’s okay because we the people aren’t original to those areas either. Over the millennia, we brought our food and traditions with us as we migrated across the world.

  6. there’s a summer variation – “filana paprika” or “ćufte”.. can’t cook sarma at winter… key ingredient is missing 😉

  7. Bést recipe for Croatian summer SJ: #1 get a glas with half a liter of cóld beer. #2 move it up, polako !!!, put it down again and wait for two minutes. #3 do exactly the same again until empty. #4 put empty glas aside and do the same steps again, again and again. #5 if having more guests, just multiply these simple steps.#6 go to sleep and redo same procedure next day.

  8. Mmmm ……. SJ maybe not my first choice at 33 degrees in the shade. 3️⃣3️⃣‼️

  9. Wthank you so much for this delicious recipes!
    I find it hard to find them in Canadian measuring scales.Love your site! Keep giving us more!

    1. You are welcome, though I have no clue how these compare to Canadian measurements – hope they work out for you.

  10. I made polished cabbage rolls for years when I seen your recipe I had to make it it was a five star for sure my husband is croatian he always wanted me to make sarma

  11. 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.

  12. 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 🙂

  13. 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.

  14. 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?

  15. 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

  16. 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!

  17. 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!)

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