Romanian Stuffed Cabbage, Sarmale

This recipe has been a long time coming.  I have been working on it since a little over a year ago, and I think I have finally gotten it worked out.  It all started last October when I met a delightful young dietitian from Romania, Nicola Cucuiet, at FNCE last year in Houston. FNCE, which I try to attend every year, is the annual meeting of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics which brings together food and nutrition professionals from around the world.

                                Barbara and Nicola at FNCE in Houston                                 Barbara and Nicola at FNCE in Houston

Last year, back in November, Nicola sent me the traditional recipe for Sarmale, made with ground pork, 4 cups of sauerkraut and white bread crumbs.  She told me it is a holiday dish, often served in December just before Christmas. Always looking for a way to reduce the fat and sodium content in the foods I cook, I tried making it with less sauerkraut and different combinations of filling such as ½ pork and ½ ground turkey, all ground turkey instead of pork, and ground turkey with more rice in the mix.  One after another, my family rejected these trials – too heavy, not tasty, too heavy and not tasty, etc. etc. etc.  I tried making the Romanian Stuffed Cabbages every few months throughout the year. Then it got hot as late winter turned to spring and eventually summer, so I had to stop the trials as my taste-testers lost interest in helping me create the new version of this hearty dish.  Now that it’s cold again, I tried again this fall, and came up with this recipe which combines shredded carrots with ground turkey for the filling, uses half the amount of sauerkraut called for in the original recipe and does not include any white bread crumbs.

So, at long last, here it is, Nicola’s recipe for Romanian Stuffed Cabbage, modified by yours truly.  It makes a hearty and savory cold weather treat, low in calories although high in sodium due to the sauerkraut used in the recipe.  Please write to let me know if you try making this dish, and what other family holiday food traditions you enjoy.

Romanian Stuffed Cabbage, Sarmale

  • Spray canola oil
  • 1 cabbage
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely minced
  • 4 Tbsp. brown rice
  • 1 lb. ground turkey breast
  • 10 oz. shredded carrots
  • 2 Tbsp. dill
  • 1 tsp. thyme
  • 1 tsp. black pepper
  • ½ tsp. chili powder
  • 3 ½ cups water
  • 2 cups sauerkraut*
  • 6 strips low sodium bacon
  • 1 tsp. peppercorns
  • 4 bay leaves
  • 3 cups “no salt added” diced tomatoes

*Sauerkraut should be drained (juice reserved – you should have about a cup of juice), rinsed in a strainer and squeezed dry


1.       Remove core of cabbage and place in a large pot of boiling water.  Allow it to cook for 3-5 minutes until leaves are soft and can be pulled off the head easily.  If leaves are especially large you will need about 10 -12 leaves; if they are smaller, plan on using 20-22 leaves.

2.      Remove cabbage leaves and lay out on a baking tray to cool. When cool enough to handle, remove thick center stem from each leaf and cut in half down the middle if leaves are large. If smaller, whole leaves can be used. Set aside.

3.       Chop extra cabbage and set aside.

4.       Spray a large skillet with canola oil and saute chopped onion, garlic and brown rice for 3-5 minutes until onion is soft.  Add ½ cup hot water, bring to a boil, cover and allow to simmer until water is absorbed. Set aside and allow to cool.

5.       Place ground turkey breast, shredded carrots, dill, thyme, black pepper, chili powder in large bowl.  Add the onion, garlic, brown rice mixture and mix gently.

6.       In a separate bowl, combine 3 cups of water with the reserved sauerkraut juice, peppercorns and bay leaves. Set aside.

7.       Place approximately 1/3 cup of meat mixture on each cabbage leaf. Start to roll the edge of the leaf away from you and flip in the two sides to enclose the meat mixture. Continue rolling away from you until meat is completely enclosed in the leaf and ends are tucked in.  (The cabbage rolls I made last winter were more pouch-like as shown below — this year I’m making them more roll-shaped.  This is a matter of personal preference and technique; either shape works fine for the dish.)  In any case, whatever shape you prefer, repeat until all of the meat mixture has been used up.

8.       Spray a large casserole with canola oil and place approximately ½ of the sauerkraut and chopped cabbage in the bottom.

9.       Place 3 strips of bacon across the sauerkraut/cabbage mixture and cover with a layer of the stuffed cabbage rolls.  Add another layer of sauerkraut and cabbage, bacon strips and stuffed cabbage rolls.  The top layer should be the sauerkraut/cabbage mix with bacon.  Pour sauerkraut juice/water mixture over the entire casserole.

10.       Cover casserole with foil and bake at 375 degrees F for  1 ½ to 2 hours.

11.       Remove foil and add layer of diced tomatoes across the top of the casserole, re-cover with foil and return to oven for another 45 minutes.  Remove foil and finish cooking in oven uncovered for 15-20 minutes.

12. Remove bay leaves before serving. Serve with polenta or simple boiled potatoes and a green vegetable.

Approximate nutrition information per serving (two stuffed cabbage rolls): 130 calories;  2.5 grams fat;  0.5 grams saturated fat;  0 grams transfat;  20 mg cholesterol;   390 mg sodium;   16 grams carbohydrate;  5 grams dietary fiber;   12  grams protein.


Hi, I am

Barbara Spalding MS, RDN, Culinary Dietitian

As a dietitian and world traveler, I love bold flavors — in food and in life. 14 years ago, I fell down the rabbit hole into Breast Cancer Wonderland. Since then, I’ve learned to cook differently while savoring the pleasures of food and companionship. I’ve built a resilient new life and a bold new kitchen. Let me show you the flavors of the world.
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Romanian Stuffed Cabbage, Sarmale
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Course Main Dishes
Cuisine Romanian
Course Main Dishes
Cuisine Romanian
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