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My Quest for Authentic Cabbage Rolls

By Bill Dwyer

Cabbage rolls are a favorite of mine, having grown up with a Polish mother. I guess that puts them in the category of comfort food for me. It’s a good dish to make here in Costa Rica because the ingredients are both cheap and readily available (except for caraway seeds, which are only sporadically available).

In North America, cabbage rolls are usually made with rice and a combination of ground beef and pork (or just ground beef), with a tomato-based sauce. However, realizing that this Central European dish has peasant origins going back to the early middle ages, I started wondering how they were made back then. Cabbage, of course, was easily grown and could be harvested even past the first frost of winter, and kept well in root cellars. It was also not preferred by the upper classes, so it was left for the peasantry and the pigs. Likewise, beef was reserved for the gentry. Pork was the meat available to peasants, and only the less desirable parts of the pig at that. Rice in the middle ages was an exotic imported grain not grown in Central Europe, but barley and rye were commonplace.  Tomatoes were not introduced into Europe until the discovery of the New World, after which they became very popular and widespread because they were easily grown and could be preserved by canning. I speculate that grated beets were the original ingredient for flavoring the sauce for cabbage rolls. But tomatoes came along early enough for me to consider them an “authentic” ingredient.

So, considering these historical factors, I developed the following recipe, which, if I say so myself, is even more delicious than Mom’s!

Shopping Tips:

  1. Buy the largest cabbage you can find.
  2. Pork can be ground to order at your carnicería, but their meatgrinders are almost constantly in use producing chorizo and carne molido. I just buy chorizo sin chili instead.
  3. Barley is called cebada in Spanish, and can be found in small bags in most grocery stores. You cook it the same way you would cook rice: two cups of water to one cup of barley, simmered in a covered pan until the grain has absorbed all the water.
  4. Caraway seeds are sometimes found at SuperMas or Automercado. I’ve also asked visitors from North America to bring some down. The recipe can be made without them, but not if you’ve got Slavic roots! Some people, inexplicably, don’t like them.


  • 1 large cabbage
  • 1½ lbs (750g) ground pork or chorizo sin chili
  • 1 cup cooked barley
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tsp dried thyme
  • 3 tbsp fresh parsley, chopped
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 or 2 tbsp caraway seeds (optional), and a pinch or two more for the sauce
  • 1 cup chicken or other stock
  • 1 cup chopped canned tomatoes
  • 2 tbsp brown sugar


  1. Remove the core from the cabbage, leaving the head in one piece. Cook in a large pot of boiling water until the outer leaves can be easily peeled off without tearing (about 15 minutes). Return the cabbage to the pot of (still boiling) water until more leaves can be peeled off. Repeat as needed until you have enough leaves for wrapping 16-18 cabbage rolls.
  2. Drain and cool cabbage leaves. Cut the central rib out of each leaf to make them easier to roll. Set aside leaves and coarsely chop the rest of the cabbage, and spread them in a large (9”x”13¨) Pyrex baking dish.
  3. Brown the meat and onions together in a large frying pan. (If using chorizo, remove the casings first and break up into smaller and smaller pieces with the edge of a spatula or spoon while it is browning.) Add seasonings. Mix with barley and egg in a large bowl. Put a handful of the meat mixture in the middle of a cabbage leaf. Fold the sides of the leaf over the meat mixture and roll up. Place in Baking dish seam-side down. Repeat until cabbage rolls are tightly packed together and fill the baking dish.
  4. Mix stock, tomatoes and brown sugar and pour over cabbage rolls. Sprinkle with a pinch or two of caraway seeds if desired. Bake at 300ºF for 1½ hours or until cabbage is soft.

Note: Cabbage rolls can be kept frozen indefinitely and reheated in a microwave oven. Leftover cabbage rolls, chopped up and with additional stock and perhaps a chopped roasted beet, make an excellent soup.

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