Gołąbki (golabki) are Polish stuffed cabbage rolls, filled with a mix of seasoned meat and rice and served with either a tomato sauce (as here) or mushroom sauce. You'll find this traditional dish served for a festive meal but it's also a deliciously comforting dish for any time.
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Many vegetables lend themselves to being stuffed, whether it's Mediterranean grape leaves (like Turkish dolma or Persian dolmeh), Italian rice stuffed tomatoes or Greek gemista (stuffed peppers and tomatoes).
In many cases, it's a way of using up a glut of vegetables and/or making a small amount of meat go further. In Central, Eastern and Northern Europe, cabbage is the wrapper of choice. Being relatively large leaves, they make bigger rolls that are typically a main dish, as is the case here.
What does gołąbki mean?
The name "gołąbki" (pronounced "go-wump-kee") means "little pigeons" (it's the plural diminutive form of "gołąb" meaning dove or pigeon). You'll see it written in English as golabki or golumpki, as well as simply just described as Polish stuffed cabbage or cabbage rolls.
Just as with the dish itself, there is some debate about where the name comes from. One thought is that it's because they look a little like pigeon breasts, while others belief is that the name has derived from other languages and then it's more of a folk entymology to get to the pigeon name, which sounded similar.
Where did golabki originate?
The exact origins of gołąbki, and the various dishes that are similar to it, are a little unclear. Some believe the Jewish dish holishkes is one of the original, which can be traced some 2000 years. Others say they have Turkish origins (possibly adapted from dolma).
Stuffed cabbage rolls have been enjoyed in Poland for many years, with variations over time. Apparently early versions did not include any meat, as it was a luxury, but were instead made mainly with grains.
These days, the filling is generally as much if not more meat along with rice or other grains, particularly buckwheat.
Other similar dishes
You'll find similar dishes in other places around the region, which can vary in a few ways but tend to have these characteristics:
- Ukrainian holubtsi - similar to Polish golabki, though they vary around the country. They can be made with either fresh or pickled cabbage. The filling was originally vegetarian, though these days a meat-based mixture is common. The grain can be rice, corn grits or buckwheat, depending on the area. The rolls are typically cooked in a tomato sauce and served with sour cream.
- Jewish holishkes - similar to Ukrainian and Polish cabbage rolls but served with a sweet and sour sauce.
- Balkan sarma - enjoyed in Croatia, Serbia and surrounding counties, are typically made with pickled cabbage and the filling includes beef, pork and rice, and can include smoked pork. Balkan sarma are traditionally cooked in a paprika-based sauce.
- Romanian sarmale - these also start with ground meat with pork being common, but also include bacon or smoked sausage or ribs. They are often made with pickled cabbage and seasoned with dill. You'll typically serve them with polenta.
You'll also find versions of stuffed cabbage leaves in Italy, Germany, Sweden and beyond, each with slight variations.
These days, you'll still find a few variations in the Polish dish, though the version here is one of the more common combinations. You start with a base of ground meat, typically pork though you may also use part ground beef. To this, you add cooked rice and then a few seasonings and aromatics. These are typically softened onion, salt, pepper and marjoram, sometimes with some other additions.
While white or light green cabbage is the most typical, you can also make these with savoy or red cabbage, if you prefer. You can find versions with a mushroom sauce, but the tomato-based sauce here seems generally more popular. And to me the colors are more festive if serving in the winter.
You can make the tomato sauce in a couple ways, but starting with a simple roux (butter and flour) and adding tomato passata (puree) is one of the more common. If you like, you can add some herbs such as dill or parsley. But you can also just leave as it is.
Preparing the cabbage leaves
Since cabbage leaves are a little less naturally flexible than some other 'wrappers', they need a little advance preparation before you stuff them. There's a handy trick to keeping the leaves whole - cook the whole cabbage first!
Basically, you cut out the core of the cabbage (see picture above), as you don't need this and it is very dense, too. Then, boil the whole cabbage just enough to soften it.
Then you can separate out the leaves relatively easily, cutting them away from any remaining core if needed. Don't worry if some leaves are small or break - you can use these in the bottom of the pot. Just keep the best leaves for stuffing.
To make the leaves easier to roll, remove the outer rib that runs up the leaf (see above). This should make the leaf fairly flat and more flexible.
Can you freeze golabki or prepare them ahead?
While you can freeze golabki, they may not hold together quite as well if you do. You could maybe make the filling and freeze that, but the texture of the rice can deteriorate. Personally, I would try to avoid freezing if possible.
However, stuffed cabbage rolls are great for making a day or two ahead of time and storing in the fridge. In fact, some argue that they taste better on the second or third day. Just cook the rolls as normal, store when they have cooled and re-heat gently when ready to eat.
You can either warm the rolls in the sauce or warm them separately. If you warm separately, I'd suggest using the microwave to ensure they warm through but don't dry out. Of, if you keep the cooking liquid you can simmer in that. Just don't move too much as you re-heat or they may open up.
If you warm in the cooking liquid or directly in the sauce, heat over a medium-low heat on the stove. Whether you warm the sauce separately or with the rolls in it, be prepared to add a little extra liquid, if needed, so the sauce is not too thick.
You can also prepare the part-made components (the sauce and the prepared cabbage rolls) up to a day ahead of time and store in the fridge. Then you can cook the cabbage rolls and warm up the sauce when needed.
How to serve golabki
As mentioned, these are large and substantial enough to be a main dish. You traditionally serve them with mashed potatoes which are great for mopping up the sauce, and really add to the comfort factor.
Golabki may be a humble dish, made with relatively simple, everyday ingredients, but the flavors are so tasty, especially with the aromatic marjoram in the mixture. These stuffed cabbage rolls have all that classic hearty comfort food feel, and are perfect for colder weather. Delicious whenever you enjoy.
Try these other comforting dishes from around the world:
- Köttbullar, traditional Swedish meatballs
- Hünkar beğendi, Turkish lamb stew with eggplant
- Maiale al latte (Italian milk braised pork)
- Plus get more Eastern European recipes and main dishes in the archives.
Golabki (Polish stuffed cabbage rolls)
For cabbage rolls -
- 2 lb cabbage approx - can be a little larger; traditionally white or green but can use savoy/red
- ½ large onion or 1 small
- 2 cloves garlic chopped
- 1 tablespoon oil eg canola/vegetable
- 1 lb ground pork
- ⅓ cup cooked rice eg basmati or other medium/long grain
- ½ tablespoon dried marjoram
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon pepper
- 2 cups vegetable stock or chicken stock
For sauce -
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 1 tablespoon flour
- ½ cup liquid from cooking cabbage rolls
- 1 cup tomato passata puree
- Trim the end from the cabbage and peel off the outer leaves if they are damaged. Carefully remove the core from the cabbage, but leave the cabbage whole, by making a kind of cone shape into the base (see photo above).
- Place the cabbage in a pot large enough to hold it covered, base down, and cover with water. Bring to a boil then simmer for around 3 - 5 minutes until the leaves are tender enough to peel off and seem relatively flexible. If they don't feel tender enough, cook slightly longer. When ready, drain and allow to cool slightly then carefully peel the leaves off and let them cool.
- Pick out the eight best leaves for filling then set aside the others - you will use most to help line the pot you cook the cabbage rolls in. Carefully use a paring knife to trim back the thick part of the stem on the outside of each of the eight leaves for stuffing so that the remaining stem is about as thick as the rest of the leaf.
- Meanwhile, finely dice the onion and garlic. Warm the oil in a skillet over a medium heat then soften the onion. After a couple minutes, add the garlic and soften that as well then remove from heat once all are softened and allow to cool.
- Place the ground pork in a bowl. Once cooled, add the onion and garlic mixture to the pork, along with the cooked rice, marjoram, salt and pepper. Mix everything well so that everything is well mixed and distributed.
- Take approximately ¼ cup of the mixture and place it on top of one of the cabbage leaves, fold in both sides then roll it from the base to form a thick log. Don't make it too tight, just snug, to try to avoid it bursting during cooking. Repeat with the rest of the leaves and filling mixture.
- Line a pot large enough to hold all of the cabbage rolls (ideally in a single layer) with some of the leftover/torn leaves - this is to help prevent the rolls burning as they cook. Lay the rolls on top, placing them relatively snug together. If you need to make a second layer, that's fine, but ideally one is best. If you like, add any additional leaves on top to help keep steam in as they cook.
- Pour over the stock - it should just about cover the rolls - then cover and place on the stove on a medium heat. Bring to a simmer, reduce the heat slightly, and simmer for around 35 - 40 minutes until the rolls feel slightly firm since the filling is cooked. Set aside a few minutes as you make the sauce. Don't discard the cooking liquid.
- Warm the butter in a skillet or wide pot and once gently foaming, add the flour. Stir to mix into a smooth paste for a minute. Drain off some liquid from cooking the cabbage rolls and add around ½ a cup, a little at a time, to the flour-butter paste to form a smooth sauce. Cook a minute then add the tomato passata, mix and allow to cook a couple minutes.
- Drain the cabbage rolls from the cooking liquid and serve topped with the sauce. Traditionally served with mashed potato.
I use my Le Creuset Cast-Iron Oval French Oven to make this dish which works well (affiliate link).
See some of my favorite cooking tools and ingredients in the Caroline's Cooking Amazon store.
I first shared the recipe for Golabki on Curious Cuisiniere where I am a contributor.