Making Cabbage Rolls is easier than you think with this simple but genius trick. No more boiling cabbage leaves and stinking up the kitchen. And, this recipe has a few steps that can be done in advance so when the mood strikes you, you can easily whip up a batch.
So what’s this big secret? Freezing the cabbage. No, really. Seriously. Toss the entire cabbage in the freezer and make sure it’s frozen solid. Wrap it tightly in 2 plastic bags. I recommend at least a week, just to make sure it’s had time to get nice and frosty. Over night isn’t enough. Then, when you’re ready to make the Cabbage Rolls, just pull it out and let it thaw in the sink for about 8 hours. Or overnight in the fridge. Cut the centre core out and the leaves literally fall off. No boiling needed. They’re soft and pliable and perfect for rolling.Jump to Recipe
And if that isn’t exciting enough to learn, here’s another tip for you. Cook the rice in advance and freeze that too. Not just for speeding up the process but rice dries out when it’s frozen so it absorbs some of the liquid from the meat while the Cabbage Rolls are cooking. You end up with a really good texture inside the cabbage leaves. Using raw rice doesn’t work well so this way is ideal.
This is a pretty simple recipe with no special ingredients. Cabbage Rolls aren’t exactly sexy.
But they’re a popular comfort food kinda meal. It’s fun to get a few friends together and make a huge batch, then everyone can take a pan home.
I worked with a woman a million years ago and she was an expert cabbage roll maker. In fact, she made them for a large Ukrainian Hall so I’m pretty sure she knew what she was doing. The recipe she shared with me was hand written and included ground “back ham.” I asked my local butcher if he knew what that was. He didn’t but suggested it’s probably just ground pork because the meat comes from the back end. So I use beef and pork. Somewhere around half and half beef to pork is what you want. Give or take. And a simple seasoning of salt, pepper, paprika and garlic powder is all you need. Don’t pre cook the meat.
Sometimes the meat and rice mixture needs a bit of liquid to help it stick together. Since you don’t need the whole can of tomato juice, pour a little into the mixture to help it along. Not too much, about 1/4 cup should do the trick. I like to use my hands to combine mixtures such as this but I also have kitchen gloves so if that thought of working the meat with your bare hands bothers you, try a thin kitchen glove.
How to make Cabbage Rolls
Peel a few outer leaves from the cabbage once you’ve cut the centre core out (from the bottom, or at least cut closely around it in a circle) and lay them in the bottom of a large baking dish. Pour plain tomato juice in the bottom of the pan, on top of the leaves. Not too much, just to cover them.
This recipe makes about 18-20 cabbage rolls so you need either one big cabbage or 2 smaller ones. If the cabbage is still frosty inside which is often the case, run hot tap water over top as you work your way to the inside leaves. They’ll peel right off. Also, the inside core of each leaf can be tough so you might want to cut part of it off. Especially as you work your way into the inside leaves.
Now start rolling.
Lay a few leaves on a clean surface and add about 1/3 cup of the meat mixture in the bottom of each cabbage leaf. Roll over, then fold in the sides and continue to roll until you have a nice little bundle.
Continue until all the meat filling is used up. Lay them in a single layer in the baking dish. Here’s how to cut the leaves if centre vein gets too tough. You can cut that out and cross the open part of the cabbage leave over like this.
You can also use part leaves and get creative. It all ends up tasting the same on the way down. But choosing a larger cabbage or 2 smaller ones avoids that. Just toss the leftover cabbage since it’s been frozen, unless you wanted to make cabbage soup.
Once they’re all rolled, spread canned tomato soup over top of the rolls. Don’t dilute the soup, use it right from the can. The sweetness of the soup works well with the sour tomato juice. It balances the flavours.
Then pour more tomato juice over top. You won’t need the entire can but use enough that it mostly covers the rolls.
You can either lay all the rolls in one very large pan in one layer or divide them into 2 pans. I usually make one pan with the first leaves which are larger, using about 1/3 cup of meat, then a smaller pan with smaller rolls and a little less meat. These freeze well too! But bake them first and freeze after they’ve cooked 2 hours and cooled. Then bake them about an hour (or more if they’re still frozen) before serving.
If you’re going to eat your Cabbage Rolls right away, bake them for about 3 hours in total, covered tightly with foil. Start at 325 for 2 hours, then increase to 350 for the last hour. The long slow cooking time ensures the cabbage is very soft so you don’t end up with stringy pieces of cabbage.
A popular way to serve Cabbage Rolls is with mashed potatoes. Or even better, roasted garlic mashed potatoes. Cut the very top off an entire head of garlic to expose the cloves, drizzle with olive oil, wrap in foil then toss in the oven for about 45 minutes or so while the Cabbage Rolls are cooking. Squeeze all the garlic into cooked potatoes, add some milk (or CREAM!) and butter and whip or mash. Yum.
Since you’ve got leftover tomato juice and an open carton of chicken broth, why not make extra meat and rice mixture and use the leftovers to make Tijuana Meatball Soup! I always do.
Here’s the recipe:
- 1 lb lean ground beef
- 1 lb lean ground pork
- 2 cups cooked rice previously frozen is best or slightly undercooked rice
- 1 tsp white pepper white pepper is finer ground than regular black pepper
- 2 tsp salt
- 1 tsp garlic powder
- ½ tsp paprika
- 1-2 heads green cabbage 1 very large or 2 smaller
- 1 can tomato soup
- 1 can plain tomato juice large can, 1.36 litre
- Wrap cabbage tightly in plastic and freeze solid, preferable at least a week.
- Cook rice according to manufacture instructions and freeze.
- Remove rice and cabbage from freezer at least 4 hours prior to assembly and thaw at room temperature or over night in refrigerator.
- Combine beef, pork, rice, salt, pepper, paprika and garlic powder. Add a little tomato juice if the mixture seems a bit dry. Maybe ¼ cup. This is optional but sometimes a little liquid helps.
- Cut centre core from cabbage bottom. Pull a few leaves off and lay in the bottom of a large baking dish. Run hot tap water over cabbage if necessary as you assemble the rolls if it's still partially frozen.
- Pour tomato juice over leaves in pan, just enough to cover the bottom.
- To assemble rolls, spoon about ⅓ cup of meat mixture onto bottom part of cabbage leaf. Roll tightly, folding in sides to make a small bundle. Lay rolls in one layer in baking dish. Repeat until all meat is used up. Discard leftover cabbage. Use one very large baking dish or roasting pan. Or, make in 2 smaller pans. You can also pile the rolls on top of each other. If you do, spoon tomato soup over first layer before adding second.
- Spread undiluted tomato soup over top of cabbage rolls. Pour tomato juice over top to mostly cover rolls. You will not need all the juice.
- Cover pans tightly with foil or lid and bake at 325° for 2 hours, then increase heat to 350° for one more hour. If you're freezing the Cabbage Rolls, cook for the first 2 hours, cool, then freeze. Reheat at 350° for one hour, or longer if they're still frozen.
- Serve with mashed potatoes if desired.