Russian Cabbage Rolls, a.k.a. Golubtzi

October 1, 2010 § 20 Comments


Although Russian cabbage rolls, or golubtzi, also known as kelem dolmasi in my native Azerbaijan, tend to be fairly labor-intensive, time consuming, and better suited for people who keep servants, slaves, or little children, every once in a while I like to spend half a day making them whip them up, specifically when cabbage is ripe in the garden and must be gathered in because of an impending frost.


On a different note, here’s a beautiful hot pad my daughter made for me with the help of my mother-in-law.


Isn’t it stunning? And I am not just saying this because my precious little angel made it.


And because it’s so beautiful, I don’t use it in the hot-pad capacity, reserving it as prop for my photoshoots.


Like this.


Anyway, when making golubtzi, I like to start with rice. You can use either cooked or uncooked rice, but if you go with the uncooked, your rice will be a tad firmer when the dish is done.


To cook the rice, I add 1 part of white rice (medium or long grain, doesn’t matter) to 2 parts of cold water and cook it over low heat, uncovered, until done. In this case, I used 1/2 C of rice to 1 C of water, which gave me about 1 C of the finished product.


The rice is done when the liquid has been fully absorbed and the rice is fluffy. Watch that you don’t let it burn though, which will happen if you miss this point.


Next, grab a pound of ground beef…


A large onion…


We’ll only be using half of it though.

Note that while this was pretty darn delicious, I decided that next time I am going to saute the onions first for even greater flavor.

Oh, and by the way? I am now using my chef’s knife for tasks like this. I didn’t used to, but I began to like the weight and the bulk of it since I realized that it is capable of some pretty fine chopping and slicing. Until recently, I only used mine for mincing, as well as other, less traditional purposes, which, I admit, took a heavy toll on the knife:



Yes, my chef’s knife hasn’t seen much love, but I am making up for it now by using it every day. And I promise that I will never, ever use it to kill chickens again.


Speaking of knives, behold the world’s best knife sharpener


The wheels take guesswork out of the angle, and the results are razor-sharp. You do need to replace it every five years or so, as the abrasives tend to wear out, but, at thirty bucks, it’s not a big deal. People replace multi-thousand-dollar cars more often than that.


Anyway, chop the onion and add it to the beef.


Chop 2-3 garlic cloves and throw them in as well. You can also mince them. Or press them. Whichever.


Cilantro – a must have for ground-beef patties and stuffings of all sorts. Although I find the taste of fresh cilantro a little too sharp, I know that it mellows out considerably during cooking, at which point it no longer tastes or smells like bugs.


There it goes… you don’t even have to mince it – just chop it.


Dump the prepared rice on top…


Then add some of this. I can’t cook without it.


It’s just so pretty… it reminds me of the Caspian sand.


Black pepper… not freshly-ground… from a can. But freshly-ground will pass in a pinch.


And cinnamon! It’s true – try it, you won’t regret it! Beef and cinnamon complement each other beautifully, giving your meat dishes a subtly-oriental flavor.


Blend everything thoroughly with your hands, kneading the mixture for some time until it is smooth and uniform like this. Cover and refrigerate the filling until ready to use.


Now let’s move on to our cabbage. These are cabbage rolls, after all.


I used one medium head from my garden. Can you feel the sanctimony flow?



Next, we’re gonna turn it over and cut a chunk off the bottom for easier leaf removal.


So that the leaves are no longer attached, you see.


Now put the cabbage head into a pot of water with the cut side facing up. It will float, but that’s OK.


I let the cabbage boil for about seven minutes, after which the leaves softened and became real easy to pull off with a pair of tongs.


However, after I removed a few leaves, I found that I didn’t cut enough of the bottom off, so I pulled the cabbage out and scored it around the core like so.


I then returned the cabbage to the pot, and proceeded as before.


The leaves closest to the center will be too small for wrapping, so when I got to this point, I stopped and tossed the rest of the head (pictured).


By now, the outside leaves were adequately soft, but the inner ones weren’t.


See how crisp and crunchy they look? This is not good. Not good at all.


I decided to return these to the pot and cook them a little longer – namely for the additional 20 minutes. Yes, that’s right.


That may have been just a tad too long, making the leaves a little more fragile to handle than I would have liked, but the resulting golubtzi were wonderfully tender.


Next, we are going to remove the tough vein forming the backbone of each leaf. This is much, much easier (and safer) to do after the leaves have been softened through boiling.


Like so.


Deveined leaves, ready to be stuffed.


Place about this much filling into each leaf.


Starting at the base, begin wrapping the little package.




Place them on a plate, seam-side down, while they await their sizzling fate. You’ll see in a moment what I mean by that.





Melt some butter over medium heat…


Using tongs, transfer the rolls carefully into the pan.


Brown them lightly on both sides and remove to a plate.


Next, we’re gonna make the simmering sauce using crushed tomatoes, tomato paste, beef stock, and sour cream, which will make our golubtzi rich, smooth, and delicious.


When I need just a little bit of broth for a sauce, I like to reach for this particular product. It is kept in the fridge, and uses a mere teaspoon per cup of liquid. Now this still tastes a little fake and can be pretty salty, but it’s much better than other bouillons I’ve tried.


This is what it looks like.


See? Doesn’t look so bad, does it?

Pour the broth into the pan you used to saute the rolls and bring it to a simmer over medium heat, scraping the bottom with a flat wooden spatula. I ended up using 3 quarts.


Because they are in season, I’m gonna be using our garden tomatoes, but any kind of crushed tomatoes will work, and so will tomato sauce.

Now pay attention, because this is also how I prepare my tomatoes for canning, if you are into that sort of thing.


I like to crush them a little with a potato masher to release some of the liquid before bring them to a boil over low heat and cooking them for a bit until they start to break down.


I then use my immersion blender to simply process everything together – liquid, flesh, skins, everything. This watery sauce also makes a perfect base for Bolognese, which is why I can it this way.

Once you’ve deglazed the pan with broth, add the crushed tomatoes and a heaping tablespoon of tomato paste (not shown). In retrospect, I would also add a splash of white wine and use more tomatoes.


Now stir 1/2 C sour cream into the resulting sauce. It will look a bit curdly, but that’s a OK.


Return the rolls to the pan (the liquid should just about cover them), bring everything to a simmer, and cook, covered, for about 1 1/2 hours.


By then, the liquid will have reduced considerably.


Serve them hot with sour cream or garlic-yogurt sauce (1 clove of garlic pressed and mixed into 2 C of plain yogurt).


Russian Cabbage Rolls

For the rolls:

  • 1 medium cabbage
  • 1 C cooked white rice (either long or medium-grain)
  • 1 lb ground beef
  • 1 small or 1/2 large onion, chopped
  • 3 T of chopped/minced cilantro
  • 2-3 garlic cloves, chopped
  • Montreal Steak Seasoning or salt, to taste
  • black pepper, to taste
  • 1/2 to 1 t ground cinnamon
  • 1 stick of butter (you got that right), for sauteing the rolls

For the sauce:

  • 3 qt beef stock, either canned, boxed, homemade, or prepared from cubes or a beef base concentrate
  • 1 1/2 to 2 C of tomato sauce or crushed tomatoes with their liquid (depending on how acidic you like it)
  • 1 heaping T tomato paste
  • 1/2 C sour cream
  • a splash of white wine, optional

Prepare the filling by mixing together cooked rice, ground beef, cilantro, garlic, onions, Montreal Steak Seasoning or salt, pepper, and cinnamon. If desired, saute the onions and garlic until golden prior to adding them to the mixture. If you do so, add the garlic during the last minute of sauteing, as it tends to burn if added earlier. Cover and refrigerate until needed.

Meanwhile, trim the bottom off a head of cabbage, cover it with water, and boil for 5-7 minutes. Use tongs to pull off the leaves. Let the outer leaves drain, while covering the crunchier inner leaves with more water and boiling them for the additional 20 minutes. Remove from pot, drain, and let cool. Once the leaves are cool enough to handle, use a knife to remove the tough vein from the outside of each leaf.

To wrap, place a small amount of filling into the center of each leaf and wrap it carefully as you would a present. Set each roll seam-side down on a plate while you finish wrapping the rest.

Melt 1/4 stick of butter over medium heat in a pan and saute half of the rolls until lightly browned on both sides. Add another 1/4 stick of butter when you turn them. Use the rest of the butter to saute the remaining rolls. Remove to a plate.

Pour beef broth into the pot you used to brown the rolls and bring it to a simmer, scraping the bottom with a flat wooden spatula to release the flavorful brown bits. Stir in tomato sauce or crushed tomatoes, tomato paste, and sour cream. Add a splash of wine, if using. Return the rolls to the pot, and simmer them, covered, for 1 1/2 hours (leave the lid ajar after the first half-hour).

Serve with sour cream or garlic-yogurt sauce (1 clove of garlic pressed and mixed into 2 C of plain yogurt).

Note: Like many Russian dishes, these are even better the next day.

§ 20 Responses to Russian Cabbage Rolls, a.k.a. Golubtzi

  • Anna says:

    My mouth is watering. Stuffed peppers and golubtzi are my absolute favorite when it comes to Russian-type food. I should get my grandma to show me how she makes her golubtzi. I think she freezes the cabbage, but I could have totally misunderstood something.

  • Foodie says:

    I’ve got this on the menu for this week! We’re having our first frosts, too & it looks like just the thing. Any suggestions what to serve this with? My German-Amer MIL serves stuffed cabbage with potatoes, with the sauce over everything, and rye bread. But maybe there’s something traditional with the Russian version? thanks!

    • Sofya says:

      How cool! Well, to be honest, Russians serve them on their own, with a side of salad (sliced tomatoes in my case) and bread. If you think of it, beef, rice & cabbage make for a meal in themselves – but of course you can do whatever you want.

  • Irina says:

    Ooh, golubtsy! I used to love them. My mom would often make a big pot of golubtsy, stuffed peppers, and tefteli (meatballs) from the leftover meat-and-rice mixture. We didn’t add sour cream to the cooking sauce but used lots of carrots and onions. After becoming a vegetarian, I’ve made a veggie version of stuffed peppers many times, but haven’t tried to “vegetarianize” golubtsy yet, mostly because working with the cabbage leaves is more time-consuming than working with the peppers. I do hope to make them some day, though! Our last head of homegrown cabbage is sitting in our fridge right now – maybe it is destined to turn into golubtsy!

    • Sofya says:

      Cabbage is lots more work, no doubt about it. I am pretty sure I remember rice golubtzi existing back in Azerbaijan – I think it may have been called “blind dolma.”

  • Foodie says:

    Okay, this is maybe a dumb question to most of your readers, but this is a totally new cuisine to me. Is it ordinary to serve meals that are a more or less elaborate main dish (I hear you about slaves & servants!) and simple salad?

    I notice I keep bugging you about what else to serve with something & my default foodthink is very course-structured. By that I mean an ordinary weekday meal might have soup, meat, starch, sauce & 2 veg., and knowing how to combine those is pretty key. But is this cuisine not like that for normal eating?

  • Sofya says:

    Well, technically, traditionally a Russian meal would be like this:

    Lunch is very rich and multi-course and the biggest meal of the day – in the ideal world, it would involve a first course (soup + bread), a second course (what an American would call entree and have for supper), though not such a big amount of it (maybe two of those golubtzi) + bread, and we don’t usually do green salad like that at all (in Azerbaijan) – instead you’d have piled fresh herbs, whole to be eaten by hand in bunches, and sliced tomatoes, cucumbers, or pickles. Then dessert of (ALWAYS) black tea with fruit preserves and/or baked goods.

    For supper, then, which is a smaller meal, you would have something like the described second course.

    In this context, golubtzi were never ever served with another source of starch, because they are full of rice already, that’s why the side is light, like fresh vegetables.

    This too varies from one home cook to the next, this was just the pattern I grew up with.

    Also, you will have to keep in mind that you are experiencing the Russian cuisine through the prism of how I, personally, do things here in Wisconsin, and I make no claim to that being typical of what a person would do back home. I am by no means the most accurate window into the Russian cuisine proper (or Azeri cuisine for that matter) – I mix and match things a lot, based on the places I’ve lived and how the food was prepared there and what’s available. For that, you can check out this website (a terrific Azeri-cuisine website in English) written by a girl from California: “”. Either way check it out – it’s truly fabulous.

  • Foodie says:

    Thanks! That’s pretty helpful. When you do your cookbook you might explain that for readers coming from the Italian/Greek/French/Southern paradigm; so many Amer. foodies have that background who I think will be really attracted to the flavor pow of what you’re writing here.

    Buying cabbage tonight….

    • Sofya says:

      Excellent suggestion! Thanks!

    • Anna says:

      Just to illustrate Sofya’s point, here’s an example of how we did it in Uzbekistan (and to some degree still do for big occasions like birthdays and such). For dinner, we would have a “cold table” (1st course) which would be some slices of different salamis and pickled tomatoes/pickles, etc, salads of various kinds. Then for the “main course” (2nd course) we’d have soup (unless soup was part of the 1st course) and then something meaty and starchy (chicken with potatoes or a stew or meat with pasta, etc.). Then the 3d course would be dessert, which was ALWAYS tea with a variety of sweets, and if it’s summer, we might have had ice cream (but not very often). This part is the same as what Sofya described. And yes, it was all home-made, from scratch, and fresh (unless leftovers were re-purposed).
      Take a look at my Thanksgiving posts here to get an idea. Though Thanksgiving is thoroughly American, I choose to serve it “Russian Style”:

  • Foodie says:

    thanks! it doesn’t sound so different from the traditional S. European meal, described this way, except my relatives would have black coffee at the end to fuel the normal table-pounding exchange of opinion. And after seeing your T-day, I’m thinking of adding the golubtzi to our Thanksgiving spread, esp. if I can get them to work in the crockpot.(heresy?)

  • Foodie says:

    Report: YUM! Very delicious, and very different than the dillweed-laced German ones I’ve had. I wouldn’t have thought the cilantro and white wine would work, but they do. I did fry the garlic & onion first, as you suggest.

    I followed the recipe pretty carefully, with one big shortcut, and I was in and out of the kitchen in a hour. First, I started rice in my rice cooker. I used Napa cabbage instead of real cabbage. I love real cabbage, but….With the Napa cabbage, I cut off about 15 leaves & rinsed them, then popped them into the rice cooker once it had started to boil. While the rice/cabbage pot cooked, I prepped the stuffing (except the rice, obviously) and put 1 can of tomato and about half a cup of white wine in the crockpot. Once the rice was done steaming, I let the cabbage leaves chill while putting rice in the meat, then stuffed immediately. They went into the crockpot in 2 layers; I added 3T tomato paste to about a cup of broth, to barely cover.

    The crockpot takes a lot less liquid, and if I were using a stock concentrate I’d probably make it very strong to compensate. My husband can’t eat any dairy at all, so I skipped frying them in butter. If I were going to fry them, I’d steam the Napa less because it’s more fragile than real cabbage.

    My husband has them straight out of the pot. I mixed some sauce & sour cream in my bowl & swished them around, with an extra blob on top. This is probably not as good as the all-butter, real cabbage version, but it’s really, really good and only took an hour my first try. I had dried apricots w/ tea after & that was a nice finish. I’m Totally doing this for my MIL in Nov.

    • Sofya says:

      I am really glad that you tried it that it worked for you! Thanks for trying! I think those are all fine substitutions – I really provide recipes more as guidelines/inspiration for people to take and make their own, so yes, I am really excited to see how you changed things around.

      By the way, where are you again?

      • Foodie says:

        The Pigbelt.

        No, seriously, that’s what it’s called: that part of the Midwest where Jello is a salad & TV commercials tout seeds that are “genetically uniform and Round-up Ready!” Kathleen Norris’s “Dakota” has been an enlightening read on the local culture & she even tries to explain the Jello thing.

      • Sofya says:

        Still not sure where that is… but my husband and I both decided (independently of each other) that this meant Iowa.

      • Foodie says:

        LOL! Well, the pigbelt includes southern S. Dakota and E. Nebraska, too. Omaha is sometimes called “the Paris of the Pigbelt” ‘though I’m not sure why–maybe because it has Chicken Tikka Masala and Falafel? But yes, the Tardis stopped in Iowa.

        And I’ve discovered the Napa cabbage doesn’t reheat well. 😦 I hope drawing the ducks & geese went well today.

      • Sofya says:

        Went great!

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