Stuffed cabbage is a classic Ashkenazi Jewish dish, and everybody seems to have their favorite way of making it. Also known as holishkes or prokes, stuffed cabbage leaves were a central part of the Eastern European Jewish diet. When we talk about these types of dishes, it nearly always comes down to one question:
“How did Bubbe make it?”
We all have a fondness in our heart for the dishes we grew up with, and the way our parents or grandparents cooked them. Often, we find ourselves wishing that our grandparents had written their family recipes down. After they’re gone, we struggle to capture that traditional flavor, the one we remember so well from our childhood.
Because I don’t have a Jewish “bubbe” (grandma), I have to create my own favorite way of making these iconic Jewish dishes. Sometimes I am influenced by my husband’s family, but I also like to see what other family traditions are out there. Whenever I want to learn a Jewish recipe, I try many, many different recipes to see what I like best in each one. That means I’ve made stuffed cabbage over a dozen different ways. I’ve tried recipes from Polish friends and Israeli friends. I’ve tried it the Sara Kasden way, the Molly Goldberg way, the Fanny Engle and Gertrude Blair way (Jewish cookbook authors from my vintage cookbook collection). I’ve tried the wonderful versions from Joan Nathan and Arthur Schwartz and 2nd Avenue Deli. I’ve made it with V-8 juice and tomato soup, cranberry sauce and apricot preserves, raisins and crushed gingersnaps. They’re all terrific, and each has something that makes it special. My challenge is to take the thing I like best in each recipe and create something new, something fresh– my own take on the classic.
One thing I’ve found is that I like a stuffed cabbage that is less sweet and more tart. Polish versions tend to be extremely sweet, often with raisins. I prefer a tart sauce with a slight sweetness, as well as a savory filling full of flavor. I add sauerkraut for that extra bit of tartness. The filling is key– a stuffed cabbage filling can easily be bland if you don’t give it lots of seasoning and care.
At any rate, this is my version of stuffed cabbage, the one my husband loves and asks me for on a regular basis. Your bubbe may have done hers differently. That’s what is so fun about Jewish food… every family has their own way, and every bubbe’s way is the best way. The sauce’s flavor can be adjusted by adding more brown sugar or lemon juice to taste, if desired.
Simchat Torah is a Jewish holiday during which we celebrate and give thanks for the Torah. Stuffed cabbage leaves are traditionally served on this holiday because they bear a visual resemblance to a rolled Torah scroll. In addition to being a holiday treat, stuffed cabbage is a wonderful dish for the autumn and winter months. It’s cozy and satisfying, and it’s also pretty healthy. It’s gluten free (when using certified GF packaged products), low in carbs, high in protein and full of fiber.
For an easier version of this dish, my Unstuffed Cabbage, click here.
Did your bubbe make stuffed cabbage? What’s your special family version of this classic dish?
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- 1 large green cabbage (3.5-4 lbs.)
- 1 lb ground beef, ground chicken, or a mixture (I use half and half)
- 1 cup cooked long grain rice, white or brown
- 1/3 cup finely minced onion
- 2 tbsp fresh minced dill
- 1 egg
- 1 1/2 cups sauerkraut, divided
- 2 cans (14 oz) tomato sauce, divided
- 1 can (14 oz) diced or crushed tomatoes
- 2 tbsp fresh lemon juice (or more to taste)
- 2 tbsp brown sugar (or more to taste)
- 2 tbsp tomato paste
- 1 tbsp paprika
- 1 clove minced garlic
- 1/4 tsp allspice
- 1/2 cup chicken stock or water
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Rinse the cabbage clean, then immerse it in a large pot of boiling water and cook it for 4-5 minutes until leaves are soft and pliable, but not overly soft.
- Drain the cabbage in a colander and let it sit until cool enough to handle.
- Alternatively, you can freeze the cabbage overnight (or up to 3 days). Defrost the cabbage for about three hours. This will make the leaves pliable in the same way that parboiling does.
- Prepare your filling. In a bowl, mix together ground meat, cooked rice, minced onion, minced dill, egg, ½ cup sauerkraut (drained of juice), 1/3 cup tomato sauce, salt and pepper to taste. I use about 1 ½ tsp salt and 1 tsp pepper—kosher meat needs less salt. To test the seasoning of the meat, you can fry up a small portion in a skillet or pop it in the microwave till it’s thoroughly cooked, then taste it. It’s easy to under-season the filling, so err on the side of adding extra pepper and salt.
- Tip: You can make this filling ahead and refrigerate a few hours to overnight; this will allow the flavors to marinate and make it firmer and easier to handle.
- Peel off the large cabbage leaves from the head of cabbage, keeping only the leaves that are whole/intact and big enough to stuff. Chop up the remaining smaller leaves along with the core of the cabbage. Reserve.
- Place your large leaves on a cutting board.
- Take a leaf and pat it dry with a paper towel.
- Shave down the tough, thick part of the stem at the base of each leaf using a paring knife, being careful not to cut through the leaf itself. Repeat process for the remaining leaves.
- Now it’s time to stuff the leaves. Place a leaf on the cutting board, stem end closest to you. The leaves tend to curl in one direction, so make sure that the curl is facing upward—in other words, it should have a bowl-like shape with edges that curl up, not down.
- Place 1/4 to 1/3 cup of filling at the base of the leaf, centered, about 1/2 inch above the edge. Do not over-stuff the leaves; you want a substantial amount of filling, but a good amount of cabbage leaf around the edges makes for easier rolling.
- Fold the base of the leaf up and over the filling till it’s completely covered.
- Fold the left edge of the leaf inward. Leave the right side of the leaf open.
- Continue rolling the leaf till it’s completely rolled up (with the right end still loose/open).
- Tuck the loose end of the leaf inward, pushing it into the filled center of the leaf.
- This will create a neat package that has a better chance of holding together in the pot.
- Continue the process for the remaining leaves. Depending on how many useable leaves your cabbage has, you may find you have some leftover filling. Simply roll that filling into meatballs; you can place them into the pot along with the stuffed leaves, so you don’t waste anything.
- In a small saucepan, combine the rest of the tomato sauce with the diced or crushed tomatoes, lemon juice, brown sugar, tomato paste, garlic and allspice. Warm up over medium heat till bubbly and fragrant. Taste the sauce; season with salt and pepper and more brown sugar or lemon, if desired.
- Put remaining 1 cup of sauerkraut and the chopped cabbage leaves/core into the bottom of a pot. Spread the mixture out to create an even layer, then pour ½ cup of chicken broth or water over the top of the leaves.
- Place half of the stuffed cabbage leaves on top of the sauerkraut mixture.
- Pour 1/3 of the warmed tomato sauce over the first layer of stuffed cabbage leaves.
- Put another layer of stuffed leaves on top...
- and top with the rest of the sauce.
- Heat the pot over medium high and bring the sauce to a gentle boil. Reduce heat to a slow simmer and cover the pot. Let the cabbage leaves cook for 2-2 ½ hours till the thickest parts of the leaves are tender. Check the pot periodically to make sure it’s not boiling too vigorously—this can make the leaves fall apart. A slow, even simmer works best.
- When finished cooking, remove the stuffed cabbage leaves from the pot carefully with tongs. Top the stuffed cabbage with some of the sauce and a very generous sprinkle of black pepper. Serve hot. Leaves can be refrigerated for 4-5 days or frozen and reheated before serving.