Thursday, October 13, 2011

Ukrainian Cabbage Roll Recipe - Rice Holubtsi

Saskatchewan, the province I reside in, has a large Ukrainian population, so that's where this Ukrainian Cabbage Roll Recipe (or "Rice Holubsti") comes from.  Not only does my own family have Ukrainian roots, but the eastern European countries (Ukraine, Poland, Romania) have a strong influence on the culture here in Saskatchewan, especially in the more rural areas (which is most of the province) where traditions tend to be better upheld.

Because of the natural variances in family and cultural traditions, each and every one of us probably has a different idea of what holiday food is.  Growing up, my family has always enjoyed homemade perogies and cabbage rolls (holubtsi), mashed potatoes, homemade buns, and the very non-vegan turkey and sausage. Some families eat something called "Kutia", which is delicious cooked wheat with lots of sugar, poppyseeds and pecans, great for breakfast.  Saurkraut and dilled pickles are also very common around here, as is borscht (check out my fave recipe for borsht) and all kinds of breads and pastries.

Ukrainian food (and the cuisine of neighboring countries) tends to be rich, heavy on the meat, butter and starches, and most cookbooks I flip through have a minuscule vegetable section.  This makes some sense when you consider the climate (cold, just like here in Saskatchewan), and the very short growing season.  Most veggies had to be preserved via canning or pickling, and wheat and potatoes were winter staples.

This is an old cookbook from a small Saskatchewan community - church ladies would team up and make cookbooks for fundraisers, and for passing along culinary and cultural traditions.  

My family never made buckwheat or beet leaf cabbage rolls, though I'm sure they're awesome - especially the beet leaf.  Might have to try that one.  What we typically make is a rice cabbage roll, sometimes with meat and sometimes with straight-up rice.  This year, my mom and I decided that it would be easiest to make the rice version, since we didn't have an abundance of time to make some vegan meat.

This Ukrainian cabbage roll recipe is incredibly simple, though rolling them all takes some time and patience, and is best done with some help.  Not only does it speed up the process, but it's fun to chat and have some company, especially during the holidays.  At the end of the recipe, I'll give some suggestions for easy variations if you want to go beyond just rice.

Ukrainian Cabbage Roll Recipe
Makes 1 small roaster dish, or about 40 small rolls


1 large head of green cabbage
5 cups slightly under-cooked sticky rice (about 2 cups uncooked) *see note1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper
2 tablespoons vegan margarine
1 medium onion, finely chopped (about 1/2 cup)
1 tin tomato soup
1/2 cup vegan margarine
1/2 cup water


1. Freeze the head of cabbage overnight, and then thaw in the sink in the morning.  This will soften the leaves enough for making rolls without boiling the cabbage.  Remove the tough outer leaves and set them aside.  Cut out the core from the cabbage and separate the whole leaves from the head, placing them in a large bowl.  Set the bowl aside.

2.  In a large bowl, combine the rice, salt and pepper.  The rice doesn't need to be completely cooked, since the cabbage rolls will be in the oven for a while.  That will help give them some room to expand and absorb moisture.

3.  In a small frying pan on medium-low heat, melt the 2 tablespoons of vegan margarine.  Add the onion and fry until the onion is soft and translucent.  Add the onion mixture to the bowl of rice.

4.  In a small saucepan over medium heat, add the tin of tomato soup, the 1/2 cup of vegan margarine, and the water.  Cook until the margarine is completely melted and the mixture is smooth.  This tomato sauce will be used to spread over each layer of cabbage rolls.

5.  Line the bottom of the roaster pan with a couple of the reserved outer cabbage leaves so that the cabbage rolls don't stick to the bottom.  Discard any extra outer leaves you may have.

6.  To assemble:  Set up your cabbage rolling station with the bowl of cabbage leaves, the bowl of rice with a spoon, the tomato sauce with a ladle, the roaster pan, a cutting board and a knife, and a dry towel to rid the cabbage of excess moisture, if necessary.  To roll the cabbage rolls, cut each cabbage leaf in half lengthwise (or leave it whole to make large cabbage rolls), cut off any tough stem remaining on the leaf, and place a tablespoon or two of rice on the bottom of each half.  Roll it up while pinching in the sides - if there's a side left exposed, it ain't the end of the world.  Place the cabbage rolls in the roaster pan so that they're quite snug, and after you complete a layer of cabbage rolls, ladle on some of the tomato soup mixture.  Continue until you run out of rice and/or cabbage.  Top with all of the remaining tomato soup mixture.

7.  Preheat the oven to 350 F.  Cover the roaster pan with a lid or with tin foil and bake for about 2 hours, or until the cabbage leaves are tender when they're pricked with a fork.


-Tomato rice filling: Make these cabbage rolls even more tomato-y by cooking the rice in equal parts water and tomato juice.
-Dilly rice filling: Add 1/4 cup (or more!) of chopped fresh dill to the rice.
-Mushroom rice filling: Simply add 1 to 2 cups of chopped and cooked mushrooms to the rice.
-Bacon rice filling: Add 1 cup of crispy cooked vegan bacon to the rice.


My Granny recommends using white sticky rice for cabbage rolls, since it holds together so well.  I'm going to bet that short grain brown rice would also work, since short grain rice naturally has a stickier texture.

The cabbage leaves take on a cooked texture when they've been frozen and thawed.  This is the cabbage after being cored, with all of the leaves separated into a bowl to make for convenient rolling action.

Have a cabbage-rolling station set up to make life easier, and bring a friend (and coffee!).  The church ladies made it a social event by getting together in a big group and making a truckload of cabbage rolls for the holidays.

Lining the bottom of the roaster pan with the tough outer leaves is a good way to use up the entire head of cabbage without much waste.

Slice each cabbage leaf in half, and cut off any of the tough stem that would make rolling complicated.

My mom is the hand model in these shots, demonstrating the rolling process.  Plop a tablespoon or two of rice on the bottom of the cabbage leaf, tuck in the sides, and roll.

These make short and stout little rolls, which is how we enjoy them, but you can use an entire leaf of cabbage and make big rolls instead if you like.

Here my mom is cutting off any excess cabbage, which helps make them look prettier but isn't absolutely essential.

Once you've got a tightly-packed layer of cabbage rolls, it's time to ladle some of that awesome, buttery tomato sauce over them.

Repeat as many times as necessary until you run out of cabbage and/or rice.  In the end, we got about 40 small rolls from one head of cabbage, but the yield will definitely vary depending on the cabbage size.

Post-baking, the cabbage rolls get deliciously fragrant and golden.  Sometimes it's best not to mess with tradition.

Ahh, heaven.  Without these Ukrainian cabbage rolls at the dinner table, it just wouldn't feel like the holidays.

Do you guys traditionally eat cabbage rolls during Thanksgiving or Christmas?  What holiday food do you need each year in order to make the meal complete?


  1. Oh, I would kill for homemade pierogi right now...but those cabbage rolls also look incredible!

  2. Down South, we often eat black-eyed pea & rice stuffed cabbage rolls for New Year's Day! I bet that butter-tomato sauce would be excellent on them! For Thanksgiving, I get a Tofurky. And for Xmas, my family does Xmas Breakfast ... so I have scrambled tofu, hash browns, and a biscuits & gravy.

  3. I haven't had cabbage rolls since I stopped eating meat nearly six years ago (my Baba's cabbage rolls contain ground pork and bacon) -- I'd never thought to make them with just rice (and mushrooms!). I think I might make some cabbage rolls (and pierogi) for Christmas dinner this year. Now I'm hungry just thinking about it.

  4. I've never had Cabbage Rolls for the holidays. But I might give it a try this year! Since we don't do turkey anymore, and we don't really dig tofurkey, we're searching around for just the right fit to make into a new, vegan holiday tradition. (Other than sponsoring a Farm Sanctuary Turkey. I love doing that every year!)

  5. Black eyed pea and rice cabbage rolls sound awesome! Black eyed peas aren't super common around here, but I really like them. Christmas breakfast sounds delightful - but I'll be in Cancun at Christmas so I won't be doing that this year!

    Kimberly and Kristen, do it up! Since they're kind of time consuming to roll, we only make them during the holidays, but that's what makes them special! And my family sometimes makes meaty cabbage rolls too, but if I help make them, I can be sure to get some vegan ones too. :)

    I want to sponsor a turkey!!

  6. I am Ukranian, and I love my grandma's cabbage rolls. I have never attempted making them myself though ... but I definitely want to.

  7. I think half the population of Saskatchewan is Ukrainian (or Polish)! And it's only been in the last couple of years that I've helped make them, so I'm no pro like my Granny, but it's still fun!

  8. I am totally making these cabbage rolls at some point, they look amazing!

  9. Wow, I love this - just all of this - the inside look into the food cultures of Saskatchewan and church lady cookbooks and any sort of recipe that calls for a tin of tomato soup and 1/2 cup of butter and a holiday food that gets everybody in the kitchen. And I'm totally digging your blog too.

  10. Thank you so much for the lovely picture tutorial! It is very well done and I know I'm going to use it in the future.

  11. I can't thank you and your mother enough! I recently lost my mother she was 78 years old (less than a month ago). My siser and I were trying to figure out how we were going to continue the Ukrainian Christmas traditions. She felt she could not handle the holuptsi portion of the here I am. You have saved our family holidays with your wonderful presentation...I couldn't ask for anything more.

    A few month's before mother's passing...we had been discussing her childhood and how her mother's cabbage rolls did not have meat in them...that was something she added years later for my father.

    Although I had an idea where I was going... the pictures, tutorial, and recipe will take all the guess work out of it and give me more confidence to follow faithfully in my Baba's and Mother's Ukrainian tradition.

    Thank you again!

    1. Thank you so much for this thoughtful reply, it means a lot to me! I wish you happy cabbage roll making, and I'm very sorry to hear about your loss.

    2. My grandmother remembered making them without meat in Ukraine, too! I always had them with bacon and hamburger. I'm sorry for your loss. Making the foods we associate with family can be so important at times like these.

  12. I am originally from Bosnia and we have a similar dish, but my granny makes it with pickled cabbage leaves and we add more sauce to the dish so you eat it with a spoon like a stew! :). I made some today stuffed with white rice, zucchini, onions and garlic and lots of paprika. I'll have to try it with mushroom filling too. Yours looks very tasty!

  13. I am not Ukranian but my gawd I love the food! I have become a perogy and nalisnyky making connoisseur! I googled cabbage rolls last night and found this recipe so I put the cabbage in the freezer overnight and left on the counter today...wish me luck on my first cabbage roll making experience!
    They look so yummy :)
    Brenda Miller

  14. me too never made rolls befor, my mother never made them ether so here I go, getting every thing ready. thanks all of you. My husband will love them.

  15. I was looking for a new way not to cook the cabbage to soften the leaves, and then I found your webpage! I will try the frozen cabbage head. Also I have to tell you that I was born to German/Ukraine parents in Regina, Saskatchewan! My Mother always made cabbage rolls for Christmas eve but she added ground beef to the rice.Thank you and have a blessed Christmas!
    Karin Robinson
    Chester, VA

  16. I just discovered kasha in a bag and I bet it would be great in some cabbage rolls. Can't wait to try your adapted recipe. :)

    1. i use buckwheat, rice and barley in did babushka and maya mama.

    2. i use buckwheat, rice and barley in did babushka and maya mama.

  17. My mother made them with ground beef and tomato sauce,and we are scandinavian canadians...

  18. I love reading about different ethnic cultures in Canada. I live in Ontario and grew up looking forward to Saturday mornings to buy cabbage rolls from local Ukrainian hall. I made some tonite with slight variations.....sautéed onion carrot, garlic and shiitake mushroom....with a meat mixture of ground bacon and turkey. I boiled rice in chicken stock and V8 before adding to mixture. My cabbage rolling skills are shite, but I'm sure it will be tasty. Before baking I added a little olive oil and some extra chicken stock for moisture. Ill top with puréed Roma tomato for last 20 mins. (A few crushed garlic also)

  19. My grandparents were Germans from Black Russia and we had perogies and cabbage rolls whenever they came from Manitoba to visit us in California. I can still taste those cheese filled perogies swimming in butter although I have never made them. I do however make cabbage rolls and can't wait to try freezing the cabbage rather than boiling! Thanks for the memories and tips!

  20. My family has always made the kasha and rice non sour cabbage rolls with meat- like the recipe in the scanned cookbook. There is a way of making lazy holubtche- no rolling necessary. You fry up the onion(in bacon fat), then add cut chunks fresh green cabbage, and when starting to soften, then mix with ground beef(or beef and pork half and half), cook until all cooked, add in some tomato paste+ bit of tomato juice, mix well. meanwhile you have cooked in 2 separate pots your rice and your kasha, well seasoned(we add a bit of stock and fat), mix all 3 mixtures together, put in and oven safe glass baking dish with a lid, such as corning ware (if it looks dry add a tbsp- 1/4 cup water or tomato juice or stock- taste before stock -or may be too salty). Bake for 20-40 minutes until the flavours mingle. Eat mixed with sour cream or cottage cheese.

  21. I use this exact recipe, but my mom always put a tablespoon of sugar into the tomato sauce and a large carrot cut into coins and sprinkled throughout for a bit of color before cooking the cabbage rolls. Must try the version with mushrooms and dill too. I love these so much I sometimes eat them cold right out of the fridge!

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  23. Can you email me the Beet Leaf Holupski? I really like this tutorial, thank you.

  24. Crumble Field Roast Italian Sausages instead of animal meat. Vegan and yummy!!!

  25. Ridiculously good! These are incredibly tasty and so easy to make!


  26. After researching on-line numerous cabbage roll recipes, I found yours when I googled holuptsi...finally rice cabbage rolls similar to my mother's! I have had problems with the cabbage when I made them several years ago and I think the problem is with the kind of cabbage we buy in the markets/ winter vs. summer. I had already blanched, trimmed, and froze the leaves...yes, that works too to make them flexible. I added a pound of fried ground turkey and half a pound of snipped fried bacon to the rice but the mixture was mostly rice. I used the tomato soup but added a large can of diced tomatoes, seasoned with paprika and garlic powder as well as the fried onion, a quarter of which I added to the rice mixture. I added additional tomato juice over all. These weren't in the end anything like my Mom's but her simple ones, similar to yours, were equally tasty! She served hers on Christmas eve when we went meatless. I think she had a secret is called love!

  27. I remember my Grandmother would mix Hamburger meat in with the Rice when she made Holubtche. It was very good, she also used Tomato Sauce.

  28. Thank you for sharing. This is kind of weird, but it is very tasty. When I was in Ukraine ob tour by this guys, we have ukrainian cuisine in our menu. So I've eat holubtsi.