These hearty Ukrainian cabbage rolls are made with cabbage leaves stuffed with a mix of seasoned ground beef, rice, and vegetables, then simmered in a creamy tomato sauce until the rice is fully cooked. What a perfect comfort food for a chilly night.
About Ukrainian Holubtsi
Cabbage rolls are one of the most popular dishes in eastern Europe. In Ukraine, we call them "Holubsti" or "Holubchyky", which translates as little pigeons. Ukrainian stuffed cabbage rolls are made with ground meat (beef or pork), rice, and cabbage.
Growing up, my family made them with ground pork. Meat and vegetables usually came from my grandparents' little farm, which made this dish even more special. Holubtsi are usually made in bulk and served during holidays or special occasions, as both rice and pork were not everyday foods.
Today, I am making my rolls with beef. You can use beef, pork, or even ground turkey. A lot of times,
And if you do not feel like rolling each cabbage leaf due to lack of time or energy, try our unstuffed cabbage rolls (lazy holubtsi). They have the same amazing flavor but are easier to prepare.
You can find the ingredients' quantities in the recipe card below.
- Cabbage: you will need a whole cabbage head. Look for firm and heavy cabbage, which tightly packed leaves that are crisp and bright green. The size of your cabbage will affect the size of the rolls.
- Ground beef: I used 15% fat ground beef. Avoid very lean meat as the rolls will be less juicy. You can also use a combination of pork and beef for more flavor.
- Rice: any short-grain or long-grain white rice. Today, I used basmati rice. Some recipes call for cooked rice, but I like to make my rolls with dry rice, as it absorbs so much flavor when cooked inside of it.
- Carrots and onions: they are used for the meat mix and the sauce.
- Tomato sauce: you can use plain tomato sauce or even tomato juice ( often used in Ukraine). It adds a tangy taste to the dish. Sometimes, I also add a Tablespoon of tomato paste for rich flavor.
- Sour cream: I add some to the sauce for creaminess and also for serving.
- Seasonings and spices: salt, garlic powder, dried parsley, bay leaves, black pepper.
- Fresh dill: use fresh dill for serving.
Prepare the cabbage
You will need to boil or freeze the whole cabbage to soften it up. The leaves need to be pliable and tender, so you can easily fold them in to a roll. There are few ways you can prepare your cabbage. All three methods work great. Today, I am using the first one.
Boiling method (pictured below): Fill the large pot with water (about half of the pot). Bring it to a gentle boil.
Meanwhile, remove the outer leaves of the cabbage as they tend to be wilted and broken. Now, find a stem end and cut out the core of the cabbage using a sharp knife, as shown in the first picture below.
Removing the core will help to separate the leaves easily without tearing them. Place the whole head of cabbage into boiling water.
Boil it for about 4-5 minutes. Flip the cabbage on the other side and cook for another 4-5 minutes. Steaming the cabbage will make the leaves pliable and tender.
Microwave method (not pictured): place the cabbage in a microwave-safe dish with a cup of water. Microwave it on high for about 4 minutes. Flip the cabbage and microwave for another 4 minutes or until the leaves are tender.
Freezing Method (not pictured): if you know you are making the cabbage rolls ahead of time, wrap a whole cabbage head into plastic wrap and place it in the freezer for at least 5 days. Once you thaw the cabbage, the leaves will be soft and pliable.
Now, separate the leaves carefully one by one using your hands not to tear them. If the leaves have a thick stem, you can carefully shave it off using a sharp knife.
Make the sauce
Dice the onion and grate the carrots. Heat olive oil over medium heat in a frying pan. Add diced onions and cook on medium heat until they soften. Now add grated carrots and continue cooking for another 5 minutes stirring often until the carrots are soft. Reserve half of the cooked carrots and onions for the meat filling and the rest in the pan without turning off the heat. Add tomato sauce and sour cream to the vegetables and bring the sauce to a simmer. Turn off the heat.
Prepare the filling
Rinse the rice under cold water a few times. In a large bowl, add raw meat, uncooked rice, half of the sauteed carrots and onion, salt, and spices. I also add about 3 tablespoons of water to the filling. It will keep it juicy. Mix the mixture well until all the ingredients are well distributed.
Make the rolls
Envelope shape (pictured below): Lay a leaf flat on a cutting board with a stem side facing down. Depending on the size of the leaf, add about 1-2 Tablespoons of the filling in the center of the leaf closer to the stem end. Fold the stem end of the leaf over the meat filling. Then, fold both sides of the leaf over the filling and roll the leaf all the way up.
Place the rolled cabbage seam-side down in the large pot. Repeat the process with the remaining leaves and filling, arranging them in layers.
Cone shape (not pictured): get a soft steamed cabbage leaf and place it on your palm. Add a spoonful of the rice filling in the center of the leaf. Use the other hand to fold the left and then the right side towards the middle, making a diagonal crease. When the cone is formed, tuck the opening on top to cover the filling.
Stove top method (pictured): Pour sauce on top of the rolls. Sprinkles the rolls with extra salt and add a few bay leaves to the pot. Now, add enough water to just cover the top rolls. Cover the pot with a tight lid and bring it to a boil. Once boiling, turn the heat to the lowest setting and simmer the rolls for at least 60 minutes or until the rice is cooked.
Oven method (not pictured): bake the rolls in the preheated to 375°F oven for about 60-90 minutes. For baking, I recommend using a large dutch oven.
In Ukraine, homemade cabbage rolls are served with a dollop of sour cream and freshly chopped dill on top. In winter, we often enjoyed them with a spicy horseradish sauce.
Cabbage rolls are great on their own or can be served with bread, salad, and sometimes with mashed potatoes on the side.
- If the cabbage leaves are too large you can cut them in half lengthwise.
- Adding water to the meat mixture will help to cook the rice better without making the rolls dry.
- Adding sauteed vegetables to the mix makes them very flavorful.
- I make the filling with dry rice for safety purposes (it is not safe to reheat cooked rice twice) and for better taste (the rice will absorb all the flavors from the meat and vegetables).
How to store and reheat
- Refrigerate: store the prepared cabbage rolls in an airtight container for up to 3-4 days.
- Reheat: add the needed amount of cabbage rolls and 2 tablespoons of water to the skillet. Cover it with a lid and simmer over medium-low heat for about 4-5 minutes or until the rolls are heated through. If using a microwave, I recommend slicing the rolls into 3-5 parts first.
- Freeze: cabbage rolls freeze well. Cool them down completely and arrange the rolls in the freezer-safe container. They will last in the freezer for up to 3 months.
Other Ukrainian recipes featuring cabbage
Ukrainian Cabbage Rolls (Holubtsi)
- 1 Measuring Cup
- 1 mixing bowl
- 1 large pot
- 1 grater box
- 1 ea large cabbage, whole
- 1 pound ground beef, 15%
- ½ cup uncooked white rice, rinsed
- 1 Tablespoon olive oil
- 2 ea medium carrots
- ½ ea yellow onion
- 1 cup plain tomato sauce
- 3 Tablespoons sour cream, plus more for serving
- 6 cups water or as needed
- ½ teaspoon salt or more by taste
- 1 teaspoon dried parsley
- ½ teaspoon garlic powder
- ½ teaspoon black pepper
- 1 teaspoon chopped fresh dill, for serving
- Add about a gallon of water to a large pot. Bring it to boil. Meanwhile, remove the cabbage core using a sharp knife. Place a whole cabbage carefully in a pot with boiling water and let it cook for about 5 minutes. Flip the cabbage on the other side and cook for another 5 minute. Carefully remove the cabbage, let it cool down and separate it by leaves.
- Shred the carrots and dice the onion. In a large skillet, heat the olive oil. Add diced onion and cook for about 4 minutes stirring often. Add shredded carrots and saute for another 4-5 minutes or until the carrots are soft. Reserve half of the carrots and onions on the side, while keeping the rest in the skillet keeping the heat on low. Add 1 cup of tomato sauce and 3 Tablespoons of sour cream to the skillet. Stir and bring it to a gentle boil. Remove from heat.
- In a large mixing bowl, add 1 lb ground beef, ½ cup uncooked rinsed rice, reserved carrots and onions, ½ teaspoon salt, dried parsley, garlic powder, black pepper. Mix well to combine.
- Lay the cabbage leaf flat on a cutting board facing the stem down. Take a spoonful of your meat filling and place it near the bottom of the cabbage leaf, leaving a bit of space at the edges. Roll the bottom edge of the cabbage leaf up and over the filling, tucking it tightly. Now fold in the sides over the feeling. While keeping the sides folded, roll the cabbage roll all the way up. Place it in the pot with the seam facing down. Repeat with the rest of the meat filling and cabbage, arranging the rolls in layers.
- Spread the creamy tomato sauce on top of the rolls. Add few bay leaves. Pour enough water to cover the rolls. Cover the pot with a tight lid and bring it to boil. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for about 1 hour or until the rice is fully cooked. Serve with chopped dill and a dollop of sour cream.
- you can soften up the cabbage by placing a whole head in the freezer for about 1 week.
- use beef, pork or turkey to make the rolls.
- cabbage freeze well for up to 3 months.
- use uncooked rice to make the filling.
- the nutrition facts are for informational purposes only.