How to Fix an Authentic Serbian* Sarma (Stuffed Cabbage)

Sorry to keep you all waiting so long, as there was other work to do, but here is the method for producing the most authentic sarma. As some steps may be too difficult, I will be adding tips and tricks along the way on how to do it with materials at hand – it will still be good, but you cannot call it “authentic” any more.**
Part A – Making Sauerkraut
The key to good sarma is good Sauerkraut, i.e., the sour cabbage leaves that you will do the wrapping with. And the most important piece of the puzzle for this is:
The StoneTM
Heavy, compact, dense, smooth block of rock.*** Taking one from the side of a pavement or out of a cobblestone street will do fine (but is damage to public property). But it you want the true bragging rights, then you will try, without getting caught, to steal one of the stones from a large (but slowly diminishing, for this very reason) pile of old stones, put there at least a century ago, probably longer, in a little park accross the street from the Parliament (Yugoslav, now Serbian) building in Belgrade. That stone will be perfect in every way – size, shape, density, everything, or so the legend says 😉
If you manage to pass it by customs and take it home, you are ready to begin the process of making the sour cabbage, and about a month later, the delicious sarma.
Once you have obtained a decent specimen of stone, the rest is easy. Next, buy (or have built for you) a barrel. An oak-barrel is the best. Other wood will be fine. And even plastic will do if everything else fails.
Now you have all the equipment and are ready to start.
Next: farmers market. You need to find good cabbage. The stuff in grocery stores is no good, either too pale, or purple, or frilly. You are looking for the old-style cabbage (you may have to ask your farmer friend to grow some for you, if neccessary, or grow it yourself if you have a small piece of land) – rich green, with the very tips of leaves turning slightly red or even brownish. That is the right kind. Get 20kg or so (40lbs+).
Each head of cabbage needs to be washed. If there are some leaves that are starting to rot at the tips or edges, remove them. You know how cabbage has a “core” in the middle? Use a very sharp, pointed knife to cut the core out. The cores are best eaten raw – they are delicious and taste just like kholrabi. The cabbage head will now have a square (actually, pyramid-shaped) hole in it where the core used to be. Put some salt in that hole – you may even want to rub salt into the cabbage from the inside this way.
Put the barrel in a shady place where you can keep the temperature reasonably constant – around room temperature. Thus, people usually use cellars in winter, as summer heat is bound to spoil the cabbage.
Fill the barrel with the cabbage heads. Start pouring in water, also at room temperature. While the water is pouring in, also add: about 1kg (2lbs) of salt – actually what is left after some of it was used to fill each individual head of cabbage. Also add several pieces of fresh, cleaned horseradish, and a whole cleaned and peeled red beet.
If you decided to go with a much smaller barrel for smaller quantity, or if you are using a plastic barrel, it is not a bad idea to also place a couple of large pieces of bread on top of it all. It is a matter of pride NOT to use any chemical preservatives, although the climate where you live, or the microcilmate of your cellar. may force your hand on it. You will gain experience if you do this several years in a row and will adjust all the parameters to fit yoru local conditions.
When the barrel is full of water, put the lid on. The important thing is that the lid has a diameter slightly smaller than the opening on the top of the barrel. Thus, the wooden lid actually floats on top of the water. This is why it needs to be clean.
This is also why you need The StoneTM. Wash the stone thoroughly and place it on top of the lid. The lid will, thus, push down on the cabbage and prevent any contact between cabbage and air – the most important factor in the entire process. This is also why it has to be a solid stone. Wood, plastic and rubber will not press it well enough. Brick, concrete and wood are too porous and thus full of gunk that is impossible to clean – gunk that will make your cabbage rot. Metal will react with the salt and acid or rust, and plastic may leach cancerogenic compounds – both are to be kept away from your primordial sauerkraut. The StoneTM rocks!
The process of souring lasts about a month. You have to, about once per week, replace the water in the barrel. Just open the valve on the bottom of the barrel and let it drain, then add fresh water and place the lid (and You-Know-What on top of the lid) back on. You may need to try the water and/or a little piece of cabbage to see when it is done.
Once it is done, and you keep replacing water regularly, you can just keep the cabagge in the barrel for a couple of more months, if I remember correctly, until it is all gone, or until the weather gets too hot.
Tip: if you have a small barrel and no valve on the bottom, you can probably get away with not replacing the water at all if instead you use a hose to blow bubbles in the water and thus mix the salt and the water thoroughly every week.
Part B – Fixing the Sarma
Now that you have sauerkraut in the barrel, you are ready to fix your sarma.
I. Cabbage: Take a nice, large head of cabbage, with big, healthy leaves. Take all the individual leaves off. Wash them thoroughly in hot water, several times if needed, i.e., if your sauerkraut is too salty or acidic. Drain the water and dry the leaves.
Each leaf has a thick central stem which needs to be carefully thinned (with a sharp knife) so that it can be folded and wrapped nicely. Using one leaf per wrap makes large wraps with a high meat:cabbage ratio (the way I like it). Alternatively, one can cut each leaf in half and use each half to make a small wrap. Just be consistent with your choice: all big or all small.
II. Meat filling: Use 1kg (2 pounds) of ground meat: beef, veal, pork, sausage or – the best – a mix of veal and pork.
Cut up an onion and put it in a skillet with some animal fat (oil will do, if you prefer). Cut up and add some smoked bacon or neck (or other smoked meat). Add salt, black pepper and ground red pepper. When the onion gets brown, add the ground meat, mix well, and fry it for about 10 minutes. At the end, add a cup of raw, white rice (in some places, for additional touch of authenticity, they add barley or oats instead of rice, but I don’t like this as rice remains somewhat firmer with prolonged cooking).
III. Wrapping: Take a large plate and put a single cabbage leaf on it. Put a tablespoon of the meat mix on the leaf, start folding/rolling the leaf at one end to cover the meat and start wrapping to the end. When you have a wrap that looks like a pillow, use thumb to tuck the loose end of the cabbage into the wrap. Repeat until all the meat is wrapped.
How do you know if you have wrapped it well? Wrap one, go outside to the top of a sloping downhill street. Throw the cabbage wrap down the hill. If, when it hits the bottom, it is still wrapped, you have done a good job. If it unravels while rolling downhill, you need to practice more.
IV. Cooking: Take a large pot and put some dry/smoked meat (e.g., ribs or neck) on the bottom. Start stacking the wraps in the pot. Stack them tightly against each other. Place the last remaining cabbage leaves on top. Put a little bit of water in – not too much as you do not want it to boil over and out of the pot.
Get it to boil on the stove. Then cover and place in the oven. Let it cook in the oven, set on Medium, around an hour at least.
Alternative, totally unauthentic method, which works miraculously if you do not have the space or time to make your own sauerkraut at home:
Make wrapped cabbage as above using fresh, sweet, raw cabbage instead of sauerkraut. Before wrapping, place the leaves in boiling water for just a minute until they are just soft enough to wrap, then drain and dry them and let cool off before wrapping.
Buy a bag of string or chopped sauerkraut at the store. Put it everywhere: inside, in-between, under and over the wraps. Cook a little longer than usual. The sweet cabbage becomes acidic in the process. One may also reduce the amount of dry/smoked meat by adding a little bit of vinegar and some tomato sauce instead.
V. Eating: Serve hot. Take the wraps out carefully so they remain intact. Sarma is probably already salty enough, but adding some fresh ground black pepper is usually nice. Serve with fresh, white peasant bread, mashed potatoes and the sauerkraut salad.
Sauerkraut salad? You already have sauerkraut in the barrel. Cut up some leaves, wash them throughly in cold water, add a little oil and ground red pepper/paprika. Add a little ‘raso’ (rah-sol), i.e., the slightly pink-ish, slightly acidic, salty water from the barrel.
A shot of slivovitz is the best thing to have just before the meal, while during the meal, a strong, home-brewed beer is probably the best match with sarma. If you prefer wine, then it should be red, earthy, non-sweet kind.
VI. The next day: Raso (the water from the barrel) is said to be good against hangover in the morning, in case you had a little bit too much slivovitz. Just drink a glass of it. Since it is a salty, somewhat acidic water, it can be used for fixing other dishes, e.g., soups.
The sarma itself gets noticeably better and tastier with each day’s re-heating (the effect I can attest to from just last week’s experience of having sarma for four nights in a row). If you expect important guests, fix sarma the day before, then re-heat it before your guests arrive.
*Sarma is a frequent dish all over the Balkans, with each region having its own variations of the recipe, each delicious in its own way. The recipe described here is largely based on my Mom’s way of doing things.
**There is, as far as I know, no scientific evidence for any of the empirical claims made in this post. Obviously, this field is wide open for future research.
***No stone was left unturned in preparation and writing of this post.


11 responses to “How to Fix an Authentic Serbian* Sarma (Stuffed Cabbage)

  1. Awesome!
    Hvala lepo!!

  2. To be authentically Balkan, shouldn’t the first step for the meat filling be “steal a pig from your landlord”? At least that’s how most of the recipes of my Highland Scottish ancestors start (ie: poached poached salmon).

  3. But you need both the pig and the cow! Too much to steal. But you can certainly raise them on your own farm, next to the cabbage patch and a rice patty 😉

  4. Wow, that brings back memories of my great-uncle Erich’s cabbage rolls (my great grandma, Erich’s mom, was from Upper Silesia). Erich used to add a bottle of Rainier beer before baking – his secret ingredient. I can only hope that one day mine might be as tasty. I like the idea of adding smoked meat. I might try it with some sausages. Thanks!

  5. Hvala, Bora, for your beautiful and detailed recipe.
    Question 1: Zlatne Uste Brass Band is throwing their big annual Balkan music party (Golden Festival) in NYC Jan 18-19. Do you think you can whip up about 1500 sarma, and bring them up for the festivities? 🙂
    No? OK, you can just bring yourself. I don’t know if pickled cabbage products are currently permitted to be handcarried on planes, anyway.
    Question 2: Is it more effective to drink the raso *before* or *after* the turska kafa in the morning?
    Srecna nova godina!

  6. Oh, I wish I could come, but I am hosting a Conference here at that exact time.
    Raso first, then coffee (of course Turkish!)

  7. Not a bad recipe, BUT the water (rasol) should not be drained off and replaced with fresh water, but simply re-circulated (pretociti). Otherwise the salt becomes too diluted and the cabbage would spoil. Best to drain from the bottom, and then pour back in to the top of the barrel. These days most people in Serbia use plastic barrels or casks. In the US I have used 5 gallon food grade plastic buckets, such as the ones feta or mayonnaise (commercial siza) come in. For these I put a large plate on top of the cabbage and then a glass jar filled with water, and then putting the lid tightly on to the bucket.

  8. Hmmm, I worded it wrong, you are right. I’ll see if I should edit that sentence about water-change to make it clear.

  9. “Throw the cabbage wrap down the hill. If, when it hits the bottom, it is still wrapped, you have done a good job. If it unravels while rolling downhill, you need to practice more.”
    HAHAHA – My grammy used to say that! My relatives (but I’m adopted and don’t know them) all put ketchup on their cabbage – ewwwww. I’ve never pressed my own cabbage – that’s some serious souring operation you got going on there.