HOME > Chowhound > Home Cooking >


Hungarian Stuffed Cabbage - Long Lost?

Hello, this is my first post here. I have read a posts here and it seems the readers here are very informed.

My great grandmother (who passed away in 1999) came to Canada from Hungary and always cooked the most amazing goulash and stuffed cabbage. I haven't actually tried stuffed cabbage anywhere else but judging by some of the recipes on the Internet, I think she cooked it like most others do.

I fabricated a recipe from over 10 different Hungarian recipes I found on the Internet and cooked it my first time last week. It tasted very bland! I just tried again today with a bit more success but still isn't as good.

- 50/50 ground beef, ground pork
- 2 cloves of garlic
- salt, black pepper
- hungarian paprika
- some olive oil
- 1 yellow onion
- basmati rice

- 1 32oz can of peeled plum tomatoes (had seeds in it to) that I chopped to pieces
- some water (perhaps too much? I put enough to cover all the cabbage rolls
- julienned carrots
- chopped cabbage
- salt/black pepper
- hungarian paprika

I put chopped cabbage and carrots as the first layer and half the tomatoes, then filled with rolls, then another layer of cabbage and carrot, etc.. then added water to cover the whole thing.

I simmered it for 2 hours and everything was cooked.

Not sure what I'm missing, but it DOES taste better a day or two after it's been refrigerated. Not really sure if I'm missing any herbs for the filling? The filling actually tastes OK (could be better though) but the gravy is quite bland. Maybe parsley would help? My aunt says she puts pork seasoning in it too which gives it a nice flavor.

I heard some people use V-8 juice for the gravy also, not sure if that makes a difference. I know V-8 on its own is more flavorful than the juice from canned tomatoes.

I also found out that she always cooked it in the oven rather than on the stove top. I also heard that she partially cooks the rice beforehand. Maybe, she cooks it at a lower temperature in the oven for longer?

Anyone have any suggestions? Also, any ideas on whether it's good to use a pressure cooker and if it will turn out right?

I may be overcooking it, so I will use a meat thermometer next time to probe the rolls and see when they are done. Also, there is a Hungarian store in the Upper East Side in NY that imports Hungarian paprika. Maybe the kind I have isn't good quality.

Although I know a lot of different countries have their own version of stuffed cabbage, I'm really only interested in the hungarian variety for now. Thanks in advance!

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. Hi - my father was Hungarian and he always added some sourkraut to the vegetables in what you call the "gravy."

    2 Replies
    1. re: MARISKANY

      Yes I added that the first time, I don't think I rinsed it enough and I don't know if it contributed to the poor taste of the gravy. Not sure if "gravy" is the right word, but I picked it up reading some indian and italian recipes.

      Do you know if he rinsed the sauerkraut very well or leaved it right out of the can/jar?

      1. re: classacts

        I'm sure he rinsed it at least once.

    2. Sounds like you are missing sour salt. My grandmother makes Hungarian stuffed cabbage as well, and the key ingredient is sour salt.

      2 Replies
      1. re: mom22tots

        Hmm, I did list salt as an ingredient. I used freshly ground sea salt in both the filling and sauce/gravy. Haven't ever heard of "sour salt" before. I assume you mean citric acid? Do you know how much and where to use it?

        1. re: classacts

          sour salt is what our bubbies called it, but marketing has changed the name to citric acid.

      2. Your missing two ingredients in jfood's quick assessment. Sour salt as anotherposter stated as well as raisins.

        Likewise jfood struggles that our ancestors used Basmati rice in the Shteckles

        12 Replies
        1. re: jfood

          Hmm, I don't ever recall seeing or tasting raisins in my family's stuffed cabbage. I have seen recipes call for it though. Perhaps I will try the sour salt first. Just waiting on a reply as to how much and where (filling or gravy).

          Also, any thoughts on stove-top vs. dutch oven? I'm thinking about buying a lodge cast iron or LC dutch oven to make it in the oven.

          1. re: classacts

            sour salt in the sauce.

            jfood NEVER braises on the stove always theoven, likewise with stuffed cabbage.

            Mrs jfood has this on her calendar for her next cooking weekend.

            1. re: classacts

              sour salt in the sauce.

              jfood never braises on the stove always in the oven.

              1. re: jfood

                Given the presence of pork in the recipe, this clearly isn't a Jewish recipe. I agree with the need for sour salt (or lemon juice, as my mother used) and raisins, but I think the sweet and sour action is more of a Jewish thing. I don't recall seeing sauerkraut in many Jewish stuffed cabbage recipes but it sure does appear in a lot of other ones.

                1. re: rockycat

                  jfood only uses beef in his stuffed cabbage and never sauerkraut.. Some add ginger snaps but jfood just cannot get there.

                2. re: jfood

                  How much sour salt say per pound of meat in the filling?

                    1. re: jfood

                      I meant as ratio marker - say 2 lb meat:x amount of sauce:y amount of sour salt. Teaspoon? Tablespoon? Thanks.

                      1. re: buttertart

                        As bubbie used to say, start with a smidgen (in those days it was a small little cube) probably around a teaspoon and adjust from there.

                        1. re: jfood

                          Thanks very much, will try this next time.

                3. re: classacts

                  oven, definitely. Something about the low, slow heat does it. I'd add a good teaspoon of soursalt, and I'd add a good pinch of clove and ginger to your filling to give it some depth. That's the way my bubbie did it, and hers were to die for. The V-8 is a good idea, and you may want to add another T. sugar to the "gravy" you mentioned, as well as cutting down just a bit on the water and keeping a close eye on it. One good way to avoid sticking/burning is to put down a layer of outside cabbage leaves before your bed of carrots, etc.: it lends water and steam to the cooking process. also, you can thicken your final gravy with crushed gingersnaps; it's a fantastic way to add flavor and texture to the finished product. Finally, if you can find some good smoked Hungarian paprika, it's got a much richer flavor than the plain variety. And I do like the idea of mincing in some kraut (not too-well rinsed, because I love the flavor of vinegar.) basmati rice, though? I'm thinkin' that's not super-authentic. Oh, and don't forget a good shake of dillweed in the filling, which you might want to revise to have a bigger ratio of beef to pork, maybe 75-25. And yes, parcook your rice. This is one of those dishes that will always taste better the second day, after the flavors have married and matured.

                  1. re: mamachef

                    To me, having ginger, cloves, or smoked paprika in there are far less "authentic" than using basmati rice. Lately, I've actually been making my stuffed cabbage with Brown rice (which my grandma would probably have scoffed at in her most colorful "Magyar nyelv") but I have definitely come to prefer it with the Brown rice. Also, I think the texture of the filling is far better if the rice (no matter what kind is used) is _not_ cooked or even parcooked prior to stuffing. Whenever I've been served stuffed cabbage where the rice had been precooked, it always gave the filling a very unappealing mushy texture.

                    But, of course, to each his own...really the bottom line is that however one likes it best is the "authentic" way. As I stated earlier in the thread, there's as many "authentic" recipes for this dish as there are Hungarians.

              2. The "gravy" should have garlic and onions, too - not just the filling.

                1. Having grown up eating Hungarian style cabbage rolls, my guess would be you need to add some smoked pork to your meat mixture. 1/3 smoked pork, 1/3 ground pork and 1/3 ground beef.

                  Sometimes I use 1/2 ground beef and 1/2 smoked pork. Ideally the pork would be ground smoked pork hock but (in the interests of lower fat eating) the last few years I've been using ground smoked pork loin chops.

                  I'll bet this will give you the flavour you're looking for!!

                  1. Also the canned plum tomatoes are too thin for a good sauce, I use half canned chopped tomatoes and half tomato sauce.

                    If I have time I cook down tomatoes to sauce consistency but sometimes just use canned tomato sauce.

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: middydd

                      Interesting. I cook regularly with smoked ham hocks (for split pea soup) but I find there's absolutely NO meat in them..not that I care much about the fat. I lived in Japan and learned that you can eat pure fat as long as it's in moderation. Being in NYC, I'm not really sure where to event get ground ham hocks, and grinding it myself isn't really an option either.

                      Can you confirm the use of smoked ham hocks in Hungarian stuffed cabbage? I will also ask my relatives and see if they remember her using that in her recipes.

                      You think tomato paste would work as well? I have a lot of it and canned whole plum tomatoes as well.

                      1. re: classacts

                        With modern pork you'd probably have to take the meat off 20 pounds or so of pork hocks.

                        I've come across some recipes for Hungarian cabbage rolls (stuffed cabbage) that add a pork hock to the sauce as it simmers, you could try that. But definitely, some kind of smoked pork in the filling. My father used bacon, I found it too fatty.

                        Tomato paste would probably work in your sauce. It would thicken the tomato juices.

                        And, more garlic in the filling, two cloves aren't quite enough.

                    2. Lots of good suggestions here. First, skip the water in your "gravy", that is a major culprit along with the lack of sour salt. I use a combo of whole canned tomatoes, drained and chopped, and pureed tomato (like tomato juice but thicker). I have to agree with jfood, highly unlikely that your great grandmother used basmati rice, I think that flavor would be very jarring to me much as I love basmati in its place. I don't think parsley is right either. For me, sauerkraut is essential and I think smoked pork with also take you to a new level. Good luck!

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: GretchenS

                        OK, when you mean sauerkraut, do you mean rinsed extremely well to get rid of its pickled taste? If so, isn't that just the same as adding more shredded cabbage to the gravy/sauce?

                        Wouldn't the lack of water not cook the rice inside the filling properly? I will try using canned whole tomatoes (which has juice) and adding a can of tomato paste next time I cook to see how that works out.

                        Sour salt = citric acid ~= lemon juice? Can I just add that?

                        Wonder what kind of rice is most popular in Hungary or was most popular 80 years ago.

                        I will scratch the parsley.

                        How do you propose to introduce smoked pork? Smoked ham hocks in the sauce?


                        1. re: classacts

                          So for me, I use a mild sauerkraut and don't rinse it, and sometimes that means I don't need any more than a sprinkle of sour salt. But I am a huge sauerkraut fan so that may not work for you.

                          I actually use very coarse bulgar instead of rice, and I parcook it first (about half its normal cooking time). I would probably do the same with rice. I seem to remember someone here (Maybe Niki Rothman?) saying she mixed a little water into the filling to help the rice cook better. All I know is I once added some water to the "garvy" and I have a huge note written now saying "NEVER add water!!" For me, tomato paste would be far too sweet but obviously tastes differ and you know your own.

                          You can certainly sub lemon juice for sour salt / citric acid. It's my understanding that sour salt was used back in the day as a sub for lemon which were exotica and not readily available (but that could also be urban myth).

                          My guess on rice is plain old garden variety long grain white, which is my area is most readily available in bulk bins. As I say, I use bulgar and love it but I am not trying to recreate an ancestor's signature dish.

                          I would dice up either smoked pork chops or kielbasa and mix into the ground meats, rather than adding it to the sauce.

                          After all this, I know for sure what I am making next weekend!!! Keep reporting back, I have learned so much about stuffed cabbage from this board over the years and I never stop learning. I know that you will add to the stuffed cabbage lore!

                      2. I love threads like this one...I haven't completely read it but am looking forward to it. There are as many ways to make this dish as there are Hungarians. LOL. I make my stuffed cabbage (and occasionally red bell peppers) more or less the way my grandmother did and probably won't change that, but if a good idea presents itself here, I am certainly willing to give it a spin. Never heard of raisins in there, but that sounds appealing. The beauty of the dish is that it can be pre-prepped and frozen uncooked, and the quality and texture does not suffer al all.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: The Professor

                          And above all, it just tastes better and better the longer it's in the fridge. I also freeze it cooked in meal-size portions and it tastes great as well!

                        2. I, accidentally, made Hungarian stuffed cabbage. I didn't know it was that style until a guest told me he loved it and that he remembered it from his youth, in Hungary. The 1st time was a great success. I made up the recipe by remembering what my mother-in-law's version tasted like and what I would like and what I found in books. I like it savory rather than sweet with raisins. The 2nd time I made it, it was bland. I tried everything... adding garlic, salt, etc. Then my husband dredged up a memory from his childhood, of his mother adding lemon juice. I was skeptical, but kept adding till the taste was again delicious. So, I hope this experience will help you. Add lemon juice till it tastes good!

                          1. Hi there - this is late but just ran across your post. My husband is Czech and so sourkraut, pork, and paprika are a big, big part of their cooking also. The sour taste imparted by kraut is something my husband prizes, but more interesting is the fact that a few years ago we ran across a spice called 'smoked paprika'.

                            It is paprika, but it has been smoked and has a very unique flavour and aroma., We started using this spice half/half with regular paprika in many of his traditional dishes. it is a stronger flavour and I wouldn't recommend using it alone, but it seems to add a little kick to every dish we add it to.

                            Also - even as an old country Czech male - he has really come to enjoy the tiny bit of interest that a little cayenne can add to even his favorite and traditional just-like-mama-made-in-the-old-country dishes.

                            Also - I use smoked pork hock a lot - esp. in soups/stews - adds amazing richness and actually quite a bit of meat as it boils away and falls of the bone. Hope this helps in some way.

                            1. I grew up with my mother's Russian-influence cabbage rolls. Never knew until I was an adult what her "secret sauce" was. You ready? Canned tomato soup and re wine vinegar. Gasp. She cooked a whole big pot of the rolls on top of the stove. Absolutely delicious, and even more delicious the next day.

                              My Hungarian friend uses kraut between each layer of cabbage rolls when she makes hers.

                              4 Replies
                              1. re: PattiCakes

                                My recipe is Hungarian and is layered with kraut also. Take sour cream thinned with a little of the cooking liquid and use for a topping.

                                1. re: Plano Rose

                                  You posted it a few years ago as I recall and it is SCRUMMY! Love it. Thank you.

                              2. I've sprinkled brown sugar over the top and a little white vinegar. I don't know why but I must have read to do that somewhere or someone once told me to.