Grandma’s Unstuffed Cabbage Rolls with ground meat, rice and cabbage cooked in savory tomato sauce. This one pot meal is for those of us who love to eat them but hate rolling them equally.
Table of contents
I think you are going to love these unstuffed cabbage rolls! As much as the traditional rolls are worth the wait, sometimes we just don’t have the time or energy for old fashioned cabbage rolls.
I was born and raised in Ukraine, and I never do roll cabbage rolls. My grandma did all the time but I just can’t seem to find the time.
Instead, I like to chop cabbage into coarse square chunks and cook with rice and meat in flavorful tomato sauce in one pot. We call them ‘golubtsi’ in Ukraine. And grandma did the same on busy days. Otherwise, she rolled the rolls before going to work. Can you imagine?!
Ingredients You Will Need
In Ukraine, cabbage rolls are made with ground beef or pork, white rice and tomato sauce. There are many Eastern European variations of this dish but here is what I use now.
Ingredients are simple and use what you have on hand.
- Onion and garlic: Chopped onion and minced garlic.
- Meat: Extra-lean ground turkey but you can use ground pork or beef.
- Cabbage: Coarsely chopped. Because these are unstuffed cabbage you can get away with using a variety of different types of cabbage like green, red or even savoy cabbage.
- Rice: Uncooked brown rice. Use white rice which cooks faster or leftover cooked brown rice which reduces total cooking time to 30 minutes.
- Liquids: Oil, low sodium tomato sauce, can of diced tomatoes, low sodium stock (or water), honey, or maple syrup to balance acidic ingredients, vinegar.
- Herbs: Dried oregano, thyme, bay leaves.
- Seasonings: Salt and pepper for taste.
- Garnish: Fresh dill or parsley or green onions, yogurt/sour cream.
How to Make Unstuffed Cabbage Rolls
When making unstuffed cabbage rolls, start by chopping garlic, onion and cabbage before you begin to cook. Peel and mince the garlic, chop the onion not too finely, and peel a few outer leaves from the cabbage and chop into big chunks.
Time to saute it all. Preheat a deep non-stick pan or a 5-6 quart Dutch oven. I absolutely love my Lodge dutch oven and cook most one pot meals in it. Food doesn’t burn and cooks evenly!
Swirl oil to coat and add onion and garlic, stirring occasionally. Then add ground meat, uncooked brown rice, dried oregano and thyme, salt and pepper. Continue cooking, breaking the meat into pieces.
Sauteing rice now cuts back its cook time. If you are using white rice, the cook time will be approximately 30 minutes. For pre-cooked brown rice, use 3 cups of cooked rice, reduce the liquids to 1 cup and cut the cooking time to 30 minutes.
Now it’s time to add the broth, tomato sauce, vinegar, maple syrup, and cabbage. Stir well to combine and bring to a boil.
Once boiling, cover, reduce heat, and cook on low for about an hour. As tempting as it might be to open the lid to check on it, DON’T! Not until it’s completely done.
Tips for Best Results
- Uncooked rice at the end: If rice is not cooked by the end, add 1/4 water, cover, and cook for another 5-10 minutes.
- Too much? When I say this recipe feeds a hungry crowd, I mean it! It yields close to 14 cups of food. If you don’t need that much, cut the recipe in half and keep the same cook time.
- Use heavy duty pot: Otherwise you risk cabbage rolls burning on the bottom.
- Don’t open the lid: Cooking time will lengthen because steam releases.
How We Serve Them in Ukraine
At home, we serve unstuffed cabbage rolls as a meal on its own. It is a true one pot meal. Serve warm almost hot, with a generous dollop of yogurt or sour cream for the most authentic flavour, just like with syrniki recipe (cheese pancakes).
Add a lot of chopped fresh dill and freshly cracked ground pepper.
A slice of a rye bread or whole grain toast is a must to sop up the sauces, juices and bit of meat and rice at the bottom of the plate. So good!
You can add hot sauce on top if you feel like things spicy.
How to Store
Store: You’ll have leftovers for days! Enjoy up for 4 days later, being kept in the fridge in an airtight container. This dish actually gets better with time, like borscht.
Freeze: Once fully cooked, freeze in an airtight container for up to 3 months. If you have a ton leftover, might be wise to freeze individually and only take out what you need.
Reheat: Thaw in the refrigerator overnight and reheat in the microwave. You can also use the pot with a splash of water or broth to simmer while covered for 10 minutes.
Yes. The advantage is that it will cook faster. However, the texture will be more mush. I prefer more bite and substance to the cabbage in the rolls.
While this recipe has not been tested in a slow cooker, you can make it in the oven or the Instant Pot! Slow cooker will require different amount of liquids and might burn the tomato sauce.
Because we are not rolling cabbage, this recipe is pretty forgiving. Use green, purple or even savoy cabbage.
More Cabbage Recipes
Ukrainian Unstuffed Cabbage Rolls
- 1 large onion chopped
- 4 garlic cloves minced
- 1 tbsp oil
- 1 lb ground turkey extra lean
- 1 cup brown rice uncooked
- 3 lbs cabbage coarsely chopped
- 28 oz can tomato sauce low sodium
- 14 oz can diced tomatoes low sodium
- 2 cups water or any low sodium stock
- 1 tbsp oregano dried
- 1 tsp thyme dried
- 1 tbsp vinegar
- 1 tbsp honey or maple syrup
- 1 tsp salt
- Ground black pepper to taste
- 3 bay leaves
- Fresh dill, parsley, green onions and yogurt/sour cream for serving
- Preheat large and very deep non-stick skillet or 5-6 quart Dutch oven on medium-high heat and swirl oil to coat. Add onion and garlic; cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Add turkey, rice, oregano, thyme, salt and pepper; cook for 10 more minutes, breaking into small pieces and stirring often.
- Add broth, tomato sauce, diced tomatoes, vinegar, maple syrup, cabbage, bay leaves and stir well. Bring to a boil, cover, reduce heat to low and cook for 60-70 minutes. Do not open!
- After check if rice is cooked and if not (mine was) add 1/4 cup water, cover and cook for another 5 – 10 minutes.
- Serve warm topped with Greek yogurt and herbs.
- Store: Refrigerate in an airtight container for up to 4 days.
- Freeze: Fully cook, cool completely, and freeze in an airtight container for up to 3 months. Thaw in a refrigerator overnight. Reheat in a microwave or in the oven at 375 F for 10 minutes.
- Meat: Feel free to add 1 lb extra of ground turkey. Also ground beef and pork work great!
- Sauerkraut: You can replace some of fresh cabbage with sauerkraut but cut salt in half and then season to taste after, if necessary.
- White rice: Cooking time will be around 30 minutes.
- Cooked brown rice: Use 3 cups cooked brown rice, reduce liquids to 1 cup and cook for 30 minutes.
- Too much? This recipe makes close to 14 cups of food. If no large skillet or serving just a few people, cut recipe in half and keep same cook time more likely.