Sarma (Croatian Stuffed Cabbage Rolls)

by Kristy on August 3, 2012 · 28 comments

Sarma is a classic Croatian meal. It can be seen at many Croatian parties, especially weddings at the Croatian club. It’s very prevalent amongst Croats who come from the inland parts of the country. In actual fact, to be fair, sarma is cooked all over the old ottoman empire, originally invented by the Turks. Of course, they wouldn’t have used pork in their version. Essentially the name ‘sarma’ comes from the Turkish word “sarmak” which means ‘to wrap’.

The pickled cabbage leaves can be found at most delis and even a lot supermarkets these days. Here’s an example of one brand that is out there.


It pretty much tastes like sauerkraut so if you love sauerkraut you will love this almost certainly. If you don’t love the tanginess of sauerkraut, you can also use the stuffing and the method to stuff capsicums (peppers), zucchini, eggplant or any other vegetable you can think of.

Croatians serve sarma with olive oil mashed potatoes and I suggest that you do too. They’re perfect for soaking up all the sauce and turning this into a real winter comfort dish.

Here’s the thing: I’m sure I’m going to get people writing to me telling me that this is not how their mama or baka/baba makes sarma and therefore I am wrong. It’s like any dish really, there are so many versions that differ from house to house. I really like the way mine turns out and I think I’ve hit on a pretty easy and unfussy way to cook it.

The other great thing about sarma is that you have to cook a really big batch of it. There will most certainly be lots left over but this is great because you can freeze and defrost these really successfully. They’re also one of those things that taste better the next day. Let’s get rolling!


For the cabbage rolls

500g pork mince

500g veal mince

200g arborio rice

1 tablespoon sweet paprika

4 clove garlic, crushed

1 1/2 – 2 tablespoons vegeta (vegetable stock powder)

pepper (or chilli flakes which are not traditional but I really love)

1/2 cup chopped continental parsley

1 big jar pickled cabbage (see picture)

For the sauce

1 L low salt chicken stock (or water)

1 can crushed tomatoes

400g smoked speck, sliced

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons plain flour

1 clove garlic, crushed

1 tablespoon sweet paprika

a little extra stock or water



To make the meat stuffing, combine the pork, veal, rice, garlic, vegeta, pepper (or chilli flakes) and parsley with your hands until well mixed.


Take one leaf of cabbage and cut it in half through the middle rib. Place a couple of tablespoons of the meat mixture on one edge of the leaf and roll into a parcel, tucking in the edges as you go. Repeat until you’ve used all the cabbage and the stuffing.




Place each roll into a large pot or baking dish, packing them in tightly together. Take slices of speck and wedge these between the cabbage rolls. Pour the stock and crushed tomatoes over the rolls. There needs to be enough liquid to completely submerge all the cabbage roll, so add more water if necessary.


Cover with a tight fitting lid or foil and bake at 160 degrees celsius for 2 hours. Check half way through the cooking time. You may need to top up with a little more water to keep it moist.

In small frying pan over medium heat, place the oil, garlic, paprika and flour. Cook for 2-3 minutes to cook out the flour and then add enough stock or water to bring it to a thick cream consistency.



Pour this mixture into the sarma liquid and stir gently. Immediately the sauce will thicken. Bake, covered,  for a further 20 minutes.

Remove the sarma from the oven and let it rest for about half an hour, then serve with mashed potato.



  • SarahKate (Mi Casa-Su Casa)

    Those rolls look lovely! I’ve tried to make cabbage rolls once or twice, but they always explode and end up a big mess. Yours are perfect!

    • thelifeshemade

      I guess the trick is not to overstuff them. You should give them another try :-)

  • john@heneedsfood

    It’s been way to long since my last sarma fix. This is one comfort dish that’s very close to my heart. I really like the idea of olive oil mash with it as mum only ever serves it up with crusty bread, or that’s what I remember anyway.

    • thelifeshemade

      It’s a really hard dish to make for two people. I think you’ve got to have a big party, invite over all your friends and make a huge batch of the stuff.

  • Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella

    Sounds like the sort of food that would be great to make as a group in a huge batch! :D

    • thelifeshemade


  • Lucy @ Lucy eats

    Mmm that looks delicious! I’m a big fan of sauerkraut but have never seen pickled cabbage at the store before.. I think I’ll be trying this when the cousins are over instead of our usual dumplings and spring rolls :)

    • thelifeshemade

      If you can’t find pickled cabbage for whatever reason, I’ve done it with blanched cabbage leaves with the addition of sauerkraut in the sauce. It seems to work to give a similar flavour.

  • D

    Mm these look good!

  • Rose Babic

    I love this recipe. My husband is Croatian and I have only this year (after 19 years together) started making Sarma. I am glad to see that my adaptation of the Sarma recipe is very close to this one. I have never ever used Jar leaves though just the pickled heads of cabbage in the bag (in brine). I also use the “fant” packet flavouring instead of vegeta. Its prob the same thing… I found your blog 12 mths ago but lost the bookmark. Have now liked your page so I don’t miss a trick. I also made tyour kiflice and am seriously looking worth my Croatian last name now….ROFL.

    • thelifeshemade

      Hey Rose, thank you for your kind words.

      You know, I never grew up knowing how to make sarma as my mum didn’t really cook it all that much. It’s only as an adult that I have felt the urge to really teach myself how to cook a few classic Croatian dishes so that the next generation has some sense of their heritage. I think it’s awesome that you’re giving it a go too. I bet your mother-in-law is impressed.

      Sometimes I use ‘fant’ to if I can find it. I don’t live in an area that stocks that sort of stuff. If I see a sachet in my travels I pick one up. It tastes pretty authentic.

      When I was on holiday in Croatia I was really surprised to find that the supermarket shelves are absolutely filled with little cheat short cuts for classic Croatian dishes. If it’s good enough for them it’s good enough for us.

  • Kathy B

    Looks good! After 16 years of wedded bliss (yes, both of us with a Croatian background), I still haven’t attempted to make Sarma! I have been been scouring the web tonight for a recipe in preparation for a dinner with some foodie Italian friends. My mum doesn’t have too many written/printed recipes whereas I like to have the recipe in front of me!! Just a quick question, do you cook the rice before adding it to the meat mixture? Wish me luck for the weekend!

    • thelifeshemade

      No, the rice is raw, it plumps up and cooks in the sauce. Good luck and tell me how it goes!

  • Laura

    I don’t have a working oven, and I don’t want to run the gas grill for two hours. Could this be cooked on the stove, or perhaps a slow cooker? I found a lovely little Mediterranean market I never knew about in my hunt for whole pickled cabbage leaves:)

    • thelifeshemade

      Yes! Absolutely! It’s actually traditionally cooked on a stove. I kind of cheat and put it in the oven because I like to take any chance of burning out of the equation, but as long as you keep the heat low and the lid on it will be just fine.

      • Laura

        I wound up doing them in the crockpot. It worked well except that I could use a slightly bigger crock than the one I have. It would be perfect for a half-recipe though. I need to find the cabbage leaves you have here – the ones I bought were kind of falling apart, but the end result was still tasty tasty tasty!

        • thelifeshemade

          I’m glad it worked out for you. These leaves I used were pretty high quality, I guess you’ve just got to try a few brands until you hit on the ones you like.

  • Nat

    Hi there,

    I love your recipes!

    Do you have a recipe for Pita (cheese filled philo pastry)? If so please post it on your wonderful blog.

    Thanks :)

    • thelifeshemade

      My mum does a mean pita. Next time she does it, I will have to ask her if I can photograph it for the blog. I’ve thought about blogging it for a long time actually. I’ll keep you posted.

  • Nat

    Thanks Kristy, I really love your recipes, I have tried both the yummy cheese filled pita and yummy potato & meat filled pita, that would be wonderful to get your mum’s recipes for both those fillings if possible – yumo – thanks again. Nat :)

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  • Nat

    Hey Kristy, if you get a chance to get your mum’s yummy pita filling and use pre made phillo pastry if it’s easier to get a pita recipe, I am happy to use phillo as phillo from scratch is hard to roll out. I am keeping my eyes peeled for your pita recipe. Thanks again :)

    • thelifeshemade


      Thanks for reminding me. I’d like to photograph the whole process because I think it would be more helpful that way. The fillings for pita can be anything you like. Typically a cheese version uses “farmhouse” cheese which you can get from continental delis or you could substitute ricotta or cottage cheese. I think the most interesting part is the pastry. I’ll get in touch with my mum and make sure she lets me know the next time she’s making it. She lives an hour away from me, so it’s a bit of a day trip for me plus she works fulltime. It will happen, stay tuned.

  • Nat

    Thanks for getting back to me Kristy, I can’t wait to see your pita recipe soon! Yumo!!! :)

    • The Life She Made

      I just thought I’d let you know that one of my favourite Croatian/Australian bloggers just posted a really good recipe for burek which might be of interest to you.

  • Petra

    This recipe looks like the one my mother-in-law makes as they lived in Dalmacija. My mum doesn’t use crushed tomatoes but I quite like the taste. Growing up we ate sarma with bread and I was introduced to sarma/mashed potato by the in laws and I think it works perfectly. As a child I didn’t like eating the cabbage but I am happy to say that my two young children eat it and now I love the flavour. My mum also pickles her own cabbages so we use those.

    • Kristy

      I was the same as a child, I’d always remove the cabbage, now I know it’s the best part!

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