Ask Chef Phyllis
I haven’t made stuffed cabbage in a long time, even though my family has been asking for it lately. It takes more than 2½ hours in the oven, plus maybe another hour preparing the cabbage leaves. Besides that, I only remember making it with canned tomato soup, which gave it an almost sweet taste that I’m not sure I liked. I wish to upgrade this dish by making it healthier, for a start. Can you help?
—Marsha B. from Prairie Village, Kansas
I haven’t given any thought to making stuffed cabbage in a long time either. But I should, since this is one of the most adaptable recipes you can find for the slow cooker. Since it calls for simple ingredients, and there aren’t any extra steps (such as browning meat), it’s an uncomplicated dish that’s easy to make. It also freezes well, and, in my opinion, the leftovers taste even better.
The recipe for stuffed cabbage with Campbell’s Tomato Soup was all the rage for a time. And most of the recipes I found from the 1950s (1955 to be exact) also called for a ⅓ cup of brown sugar. I find this strange since I couldn’t find one friend who said they used the brown sugar—not then and not now. The condensed soup must have made this dish quite sweet enough.
I also discovered this little-known fact: you can enter a variety of contests where you prepare old or new products in new and original ways. I believe that stuffed cabbage with tomato soup was one such winner, though I couldn’t confirm this. And I’d bet my professional reputation that green bean casserole made with Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup and French’s Fried Onions was another. It’s become an American tradition, and many of us still make this “love to hate” dish every Thanksgiving. I’m amazed at its popularity.
So, Marsha, I’ve also cooked stuffed cabbage in the oven, using a 13×9-inch glass casserole dish. It seemed to take forever to cook. Everyone I know, including my mother, first tried the recipe with undiluted tomato soup. I did as well, but it wasn’t a hit at our house.
Back in the day, my Italian grandfather lived with us. Since he didn’t like the sweet taste of the canned soup, my mother improvised and used her leftover Sunday gravy in its place. Her sauce had bits of sausage and meatball left in it, but not much. The result may not have been an authentic Polish, Finnish, or Balkan dish, but we liked it better. We ate whatever was left over from Sunday dinners on Wednesday or Thursday. I don’t think I ever heard a complaint.
And even though we were a multigenerational family with members aged from two to eighty, we all sat down together to eat and talk about our day every evening. But that’s another story.
Slow Cooker Stuffed Cabbage
Chef’s note: I’d forgotten how much I love this satisfying, hearty comfort food. And knowing how super suitable it is for the slow cooker, I may be preparing it more often. This dish clearly benefits from the addition of the smallest amount of allspice. I don’t use it often enough, but it adds a slightly sweet, subtle flavor to the meat.
Chef’s tip: Placing a bay leaf, turmeric, or lemon juice into the liquid in the slow cooker helps eliminate the sulfuric odor of the cabbage. If you use a bay leaf, discard before serving.
This recipe serves 6.
1 medium to large head organic green cabbage (about 2½ lbs.), prepped in advance per instructions below
1 lb. ground 85/15 organic, grass-fed beef
½ lb. ground pork and/or veal (or sausage if you like spicy)
⅓ uncooked rice (I use brown rice)
⅓ cup whole milk
1 medium onion, chopped
1½ teaspoons sea salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
¼ teaspoon allspice
¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
3 tablespoons butter
¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese (optional)
4 or more cups homemade marinara sauce or high-quality store-bought (I recommend Newman’s Own Organic Marinara Pasta Sauce
½–1 cup water, white wine, or beef stock (only as needed)
Optional: 1 bay leaf, 1 tablespoon lemon juice, or 1 teaspoon turmeric to minimize cabbage odor.
- First, prepare cabbage: core the cabbage, then place core in a large bowl and pour boiling water over it. Let stand for 10 minutes, then drain and set aside. Meanwhile, separate 12–14 outer leaves from the head of the cabbage. Cut out any hard veins down the middle of these outer leaves. The tender, sweet middle leaves are fine as is.
- In a medium bowl, mix together ground meat, rice, milk, onion, egg, salt, black pepper, allspice, and nutmeg.
- Spread half a cup tomato sauce in the bottom of the slow cooker. Layer some of the tender inner cabbage leaves (without meat) over the tomato sauce.
- Next, prepare the cabbage rolls. Place a leaf on the counter. Spoon about 3 tablespoons (¼ cup) of the meat mixture near the stem side. Roll leaf around meat, tucking in the sides as you go. Place cabbage roll seam side down in the bottom of the slow cooker. Repeat until the meat mixture and the leaves are finished.
- Pour or spoon the rest of the tomato sauce over the rolled cabbages, making sure to cover them completely. If you don’t have enough sauce to completely cover, add water, white wine, or beef stock (this is important). Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese, if you desire, and dot with butter.
- Cook on low setting for 5–6 hours or on the high setting for 3–4 hours, or until the cabbage is fork tender. Serve hot or warm with crusty rustic bread and a spicy green salad like arugula.
Image from iStock/P. Razenberg.