Old-Fashioned Cabbage Rolls

Just like grandma used to make.

Cabbage Rolls

Greg DuPree; Food Stylist: Ali Ramee; Prop Stylist: Hannah Greenwood

Active Time:
45 mins
Total Time:
2 hrs 25 mins
4 to 5

If you miss your mother or grandmother when you hear the words "cabbage rolls," you're not alone. This humble dish has roots in many traditions and cultures, and it's been tweaked around the edges by home cooks for decades, centuries even, to make this recipe special to many families and communities.

Our version of the traditional cabbage rolls borrows most heavily from the Polish style, which is tender cabbage leaves enveloping a savory mixture of meat, pork, and rice. But to make it Southern (because that's what we do), we've spiced up the tomato sauce with a bit of Creole seasoning. We've also added body and flavor to the tomato sauce with the holy trinity, a mixture of bell pepper, onion, and celery.

Ingredients You'll Need to Make Cabbage Rolls

If you've made cabbage rolls before, you'll recognize most everything on this ingredient list. We've only added a few things to make it a bit more flavorful and special.

  • Cabbage: You'll need a whole head of cabbage. We like green cabbage because it turns tender and pliable after a quick boil.
  • Meat mixture: This recipe uses a combination of lean ground beef, pork sausage, and long-grain white rice (that is cooked before it goes into the mixture). Some recipes call for all of one meat or the other, but we like the two together.
  • Spices: The primary spice is Creole seasoning, which adds a bit of heat to the final dish. You can leave it out if you wish. No harm done.
  • Tomato sauce: Some traditional cabbage rolls recipes use tomato soup or even bottled tomato juice. We're adding body and flavor to ours with onion, bell pepper, celery, tomato paste, and crushed tomatoes. Beef stock adds volume so your cabbage rolls will have plenty of sauce for sopping with bread.

One ingredient you won't see in these cabbage rolls? Sugar. This is a welcome change from many cabbage roll recipes, which call for brown sugar. Leaving out the sugar makes these solidly savory.

How To Make Cabbage Rolls

The most complicated step in making homemade cabbage rolls is getting the leaves tender and prepped for rolling, and even that isn't hard. We've got tips from our Test Kitchen below so that's as easy as can be.

Step 1. Make tomato sauce

The tomato sauce is the home of this dish's flavor. Certainly the pork, beef, and rice provide some meaty savoriness, but the real flavor is in the sauce. As such, you're going to build up lots of flavor here by sautéing onion, bell pepper, and celery in a Dutch oven until tender.

holy trinity in dutch oven

Greg DuPree; Food Stylist: Ali Ramee; Prop Stylist: Hannah Greenwood

Then add garlic, stock, tomato paste, tomatoes, and some of the Creole seasoning. Bring this mixture just to a boil. Reduce the heat, and cook until thickened.

Step 2. Boil cabbage

Once you have the core out of the cabbage (you need the water to be able to get deep into the head of cabbage leaves), you'll want to gently drop it into a stockpot filled with water. Then, bring the water to a boil. Simmer the cabbage leaves for about 5 minutes until the other leaves are softened.

head of cabbage in pot of water

Greg DuPree; Food Stylist: Ali Ramee; Prop Stylist: Hannah Greenwood

Bring the head of cabbage out of the water, and gently pull off 10 large leaves. (You might want to get a few more just in case of rips or tears.) Use a knife to cut out the ribs, or the hard inner stalk. If the leaves are getting crunchier as you work your way down, pop the head back into the boiling water for a bit longer.

removing rib from cabbage leaf

Greg DuPree; Food Stylist: Ali Ramee; Prop Stylist: Hannah Greenwood

Step 3. Make cabbage rolls filling

It may be easy to mix this step up a bit, so here's a way to remember it: The meat is uncooked; the rice is cooked. In a bowl, combine the sausage, beef, and egg with the cooked rice, then add 1/2 cup of the tomato sauce. We also call for more Creole seasoning here. Again, you don't have to if the heat is too much.

cabbage roll filling

Greg DuPree; Food Stylist: Ali Ramee; Prop Stylist: Hannah Greenwood

Step 4. Fold and roll

Here's a great opportunity to get someone to help you prep dinner, even the kids. Portion about 1/4 cup of the meat mixture into the center of each of the cabbage leaves. Shape each portion of filling into a log, or a thick cigar. Then roll and fold the cabbage leaf around the filling like you would a burrito. Repeat nine more times for a total of 10 cabbage rolls.

rolled cabbage rolls

Greg DuPree; Food Stylist: Ali Ramee; Prop Stylist: Hannah Greenwood

Step 5. Bake

Once all 10 cabbage rolls are rolled and ready, move them to a 13- x 9-inch baking dish, and pour on the remaining tomato sauce. Cover the dish with aluminum foil, and bake in oven preheated to 375°F for about 1 hour and 30 minutes. The cabbage and filling will be so tender you can cut it with a spoon. Let the dish cool slightly before serving.

cabbage rolls ready for oven

Greg DuPree; Food Stylist: Ali Ramee; Prop Stylist: Hannah Greenwood

Test Kitchen Tips for Making the Best Cabbage Rolls

Rolling cabbage rolls can be a little tricky, but once you do one or two, you’ll have the hang of it. A few tips from the Test Kitchen:

  • Cutting the V in the core side of the leaf is important, as it gives you a much easier, flat surface to work with.
  • Use your fingers to shape the filling into little logs, and position it in the center of the leaf, just above the tip of the V cut. Fold the cut (open) parts of the V up and over the filling, then tuck the two sides in, over the filling.
  • Next, use your fingers to gently push the filling from the top to secure it inside the roll, and roll the whole thing over and under, creating a sealed roll, with the seam on the underside.
cabbage rolls in baking dish

Greg DuPree; Food Stylist: Ali Ramee; Prop Stylist: Hannah Greenwood

How do you make cabbage soft for cabbage rolls?

You'll boil a cored head of cabbage for about 5 minutes until the outer leaves are tender. You'll have several leftover leaves, so you could use them in something like this Cabbage Casserole, where slightly tender leaves won't mess up the final dish.

How do you cut cabbage leaves?

The rigid core of each leaf will make rolling the cabbage difficult once the filling is in place, even when the rest of the cabbage leaf is tender. Use a paring knife to cut a V along the middle of the core to remove it.

Where did cabbage rolls originate?

There are several variations of cabbage rolls, with two primary sources being Poland and Ukraine. Each is a little different, and ours favors the Polish version because the flavors are more tomato-forward and savory. Ukrainian cabbage rolls often have a sweet-sour flavor. However, as with many comfort food favorites, that can change region to region or family to family.

Can you freeze cabbage rolls? Can you cook frozen cabbage rolls?

Absolutely! Once the rolls are in a dish and topped with tomato sauce, slide the whole pan, covered with plastic wrap and aluminum, into the freezer. It's good up to 2 months. When you're ready to bake them, pull the dish from the freezer, remove the plastic wrap, do not thaw, and bake at 375°F. It may take longer to get the meat filling cooked and tender, but it'll warm up nicely from frozen.

Why might the filling be hard and dry?

A few things could be going on here. First, you may have put raw rice in the filling, not cooked. The rice will not soften during the baking process. Always used cooked grains in cabbage rolls.

Additionally, overcooking the cabbage rolls could make the meat filling dry. Cooking the rolls just until done is the ideal way to get the best textures.

Finally, if you put cooked meat into the filling, you'll have a dry, hard mass at the center of each cabbage rolls because the meat will continue to cook in the oven and dry out. Our recipe calls for cooked rice but raw meats.

More Favorite Cabbage Recipes

We've got plenty of more cabbage recipes. Here are just a few:


  • 2 Tbsp. canola oil

  • 1 small (about 6 oz.) yellow onion, chopped (1 1/4 cups)

  • 1 small (about 6 oz.) red bell pepper, finely chopped (1 cup)

  • 1 large (about 2 oz.) celery stalk, finely chopped (1/2 cup)

  • 1 Tbsp. minced garlic

  • 2 cups beef stock

  • 1 Tbsp. tomato paste

  • 1 (15-oz.) can crushed tomatoes

  • 3 tsp. Creole seasoning, divided

  • 1 (2-lb.) head cabbage, cored

  • 8 oz. ground pork sausage

  • 8 oz. 90/10 lean ground beef

  • 1 large egg, beaten

  • 1 cup cooked long-grain white rice

  • Finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley


  1. Preheat oven to 375°F. Heat oil in a Dutch oven over medium-high. Add onion, bell pepper, and celery; cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are tender, about 5 minutes. Add garlic; cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in stock, tomato paste, tomatoes, and 2 teaspoons of the Creole seasoning; bring to a boil over medium-high. Reduce to a simmer over medium-low, and cook, uncovered and stirring occasionally, until sauce is thickened slightly and flavors have melded, 12 to 15 minutes. Remove sauce from heat, and set aside.

  2. Place cabbage in another large pot, cored side up, and fill with water to cover cabbage by 2 to 3 inches; bring to a boil over high. Reduce heat to medium to maintain a simmer, and cook until cabbage leaves are softened, about 5 minutes. Using tongs, transfer cabbage to a cutting board. Remove the 10 largest leaves; place on paper towels, and pat dry, reserving remaining leaves for another use. Cut out and discard ribs of leaves, leaving a “V” shape slit. Set cabbage leaves aside.

  3. Place sausage, beef, egg, rice, 1/2 cup of the tomato sauce, and remaining 1 teaspoon Creole seasoning in a medium bowl; mix gently with clean hands or a fork until incorporated.

  4. Evenly portion out filling into centers of cabbage leaves (about a heaping 1/4 cup per leaf). Shape each filling into a log (about 3 inches long and 1 inch wide). Starting at the base of each leaf where you cut the “V”, fold end of leaf over filling, then fold in sides. Roll each leaf like a burrito into a tight cylinder.

    making cabbage rolls

    Greg DuPree; Food Stylist: Ali Ramee; Prop Stylist: Hannah Greenwood

  5. Place cabbage rolls in 2 side-by-side rows (5 rolls in each row) in a 13- x 9-inch baking dish.

    Top cabbage rolls evenly with remaining 3 1/2 cups tomato sauce. Cover tightly with aluminum foil. Bake in preheated oven until cabbage can be cut with a spoon, about 1 hour, 30 minutes. Let cool 15 minutes. Garnish with parsley before serving.

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