I remember back when I cooked a decent amount from scratch but didn’t know “real food” from “boxed and canned food,” I used to think of stuffed pasta shells as a “fancy meal” because of all the steps – boiling the noodles, making the sauce, mixing up the filling and taking the time to fill each shell. Lasagna was up there on the “high maintenance” list as well, with all those layers.
In our family’s current real food landscape (making nearly everything from scratch, from homemade mayo and crackers to yogurt and dressings) and with the number of mouths we have to fill (five), it takes me as long to chop vegetables for ANY given meal as it used to take to assemble two whole pans of stuffed shells – so my perspective on what makes a meal “a lot of work” has changed significantly.
But that doesn’t mean I’m looking for opportunities to spend even a second longer than I need to in the kitchen. On the contrary, I relish taking shortcuts as much as possible, and those meals that have four stages and three pots?
Forget it. I don’t want to mess with all that!
That’s why I am particularly excited to share this recipe with you today, because I’ve saved time on at least four different steps. Check THAT off the to-do list, baby!
The Story of the Cabbage Rolls
A year ago I was excited to try my hand at “stuffed cabbage rolls” for St. Patrick’s Day. They’re kind of a traditional thing that I knew my husband, kids and in-laws would all enjoy. Ground beef and rice wrapped in cabbage leaves and smothered in tomato sauce – what’s not to like? I set to work scanning the Internet for recipes to pull the best parts of many together into my own.
After steaming a cabbage, making a homemade sauce, and mixing up raw ground beef, cooked rice and seasonings, I still had to form each roll individually (while learning that 10 minutes probably wasn’t long enough to steam a whole head of cabbage) and arrange them in a casserole dish. One full hour in the oven wasn’t quite long enough to move the cabbage out of the “crunchy” category, so although the meal ended up rather tasty, I was less than thrilled with the overall experience. (But don’t worry, I fixed it right up!)
Thinking Outside the Roll
I’m always looking for faster, easier ways to get the same taste – in my eBook Better Than a Box I have a whole section teaching how to make many complicated meals into one-pot wonders, and I love doing it.
With this rolled-up meal, I brainstormed first about breaking the rolls out of their packaging – could the same taste be attained by layering sauce, meat and cabbage more like a lasagna instead of spending all that time rolling them up?
Then I wondered more about the crunchy cabbage – wouldn’t it be easier to jam the whole deal into a crockpot, which would certainly fully cook the cabbage over a span of 8 hours?
It is, and it does.
I present to you the super simple, slow cooker version of “Stuffed Cabbage Rolls,” which in good conscience I must call “Stuffed Cabbage Un-Rolls” because I skipped the rolling part.
I just layered it — sauce, raw cabbage, then raw meat mixture:
…Repeated, in a slow cooker. Simple, simple, simple.
On the final test run, it took me 17 minutes to put together from start to finish, including putting away supplies, two trips to the basement to get things, refilling my dried onion container and running to the computer in another room at least twice to take notes.
I’m not always the most efficient cook…so if I can do it in 17 minutes, you can do it in less!
(Then I almost forgot to turn the slow cooker on for the 4-hour test! Gah!! Don’t forget that part; it won’t turn out. EDIT: Or you can do it in under and hour in an Instant Pot, I discovered!! See recipe for details.)
- 1 medium-sized cabbage
- 1 lb. ground beef and/or sausage or ground pork (how to make homemade sausage)
- 2–3 c. cooked brown rice (using this soaking method)
- 2/3 c. dried minced onion (or 2 medium onions, chopped finely), divided
- 1 tsp. dried minced garlic (or 4 cloves crushed garlic), divided
- ¼ tsp. paprika
- ½ tsp. ground fennel (omit if using sausage)
- 1 tsp. thyme, divided
- 1/8 tsp. allspice
- 1 tsp. salt, divided
- 1 c. tomato sauce
- 6 oz. tomato paste
- 15–18 oz. diced tomatoes with juice (mine are really, really, thick)
- 1 Tbs. molasses
- ¼ tsp. oregano
- pinch cayenne pepper, optional
- Wash and core the cabbage. Cut into quarters and pull apart roughly into chunks about 4 leaves thick (see process photo above).
- In a large bowl, mix the ground meat with the rice, paprika, fennel, 1/2 teaspoon thyme, 1/2 teaspoon , and allspice plus half of each of the garlic and onions. Mix gently; feel free to use your hands.
- In a 4-cup or larger glass measuring cup, measure the tomato sauce and mix with the oregano, and cayenne along with the remaining onion and garlic. , , 1/2 tsp. salt, molasses, ½ teaspoon thyme,
- In the bottom of a 5-quart or larger slow cooker (greasing it is optional), pour a thin layer of sauce. Layer half the cabbage, half the meat, and half the sauce, then repeat. This pretty well filled my slow cooker, but if you have a large crock, you could use a larger cabbage. It looks like a lot but when it cooks down it practically seems to disappear.
- Cook on low for 8 hours or high for 4 hours.
- Serve hot with optional toppings: sour cream, shredded cheese, sliced green onion.
* To have cooked brown rice on hand, I recommend simply planning stir fry or another dish with plain rice earlier in the week. No extra pots for this meal! Cooked rice can also be frozen, so you can make extra anytime and always have some on hand.
* Feel free to cut the molasses if you don’t like added sweeteners; its only job is to bring out the flavor of the tomatoes.
* Grain-free adaptation: Omit the rice, and just before serving, make fresh “cauli-rice” (food processed cauliflower sauteed in oil). Serve the cabbage un-roll mixture over cauli-rice.
* I choose to used dried garlic and onion in most of my slow cooker meals because it streamlines the prep so very much, and that’s worth a tiny real food compromise to me. There’s nothing nutritionally inferior to dried garlic and onion except for losing a tiny bit of the immune-boosting compounds, which may be cooked out of there in 8 hours anyway…
* Also works in an Instant Pot! The “soup” setting cooks for 30 minutes after pressure is attained, so if you forget to get your slow cooker going or would rather have not-so-overcooked food if you’re going to be out of the house all day – get an Instant Pot on Amazon. I’m becoming a huge fan!!
* This is a pretty flavorful meal. If you prefer a more basic, bland recipe, you may want to start with half or 3/4 of the herbs and spices. My kids ate it without a word about the cabbage in there OR the tomato sauce from the one who decided she doesn’t like spaghetti sauce…so I’d say it’s just perfect. But that’s just our family. 😉
* If you don’t have all the right kinds of tomatoes on hand, feel free to substitute one for the other – more tomato sauce instead of diced tomatoes, tomato sauce and 1/2-1 cup water instead of the sauce, crushed tomatoes instead of sauce and diced, etc. As long as you have enough liquid in the cooker so that things don’t dry out, it will be a forgiving recipe.
* If you can’t fit your entire cabbage in the slow cooker, here are some great ideas for what to do with the rest of it.
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The slow cooker method is far superior to the old way of cabbage rolling because it saves so much time! You get to avoid:
- Steaming the cabbage.
- Cooking sauce.
- Rolling cabbage rolls.
- Plus most slow cooker recipes that call for beef and onion direct you to brown the beef first and maybe add the onion. Why bother? The meat gets cooked just fine and I can’t imagine taking the extra time and dirtying an extra pot to brown it first. This is a totally simple meal!
Now I’m wondering if we could just mix all the spices, meat, and sauce ingredients together! It may not make a difference once it all gets mashed up in the slow cooker anyway…
If you just love the rolls (or don’t like the “well-cooked” flavor that happens with slow cookers) you could go the other route as follows…
The Rolling Way
If you really love the idea of little rolls and can’t let that go, here’s how I made it “casserole style” last year.
1. Prepare the cabbage.
Wash and cut the core out of the cabbage. In a large pot, steam cabbage for 10 minutes. Run under water briefly to cool enough to touch, then begin to peel the leaves off one by one. When you reach the point where they are no longer soft, put back into the steamer another 5 minutes, repeating as necessary. Cool again and take apart all the leaves. (I only did ten minutes total and it wasn’t enough):
2. Make the beef filling.
Crush garlic. Melt fat and cook the onions 5-10 minutes over medium heat, stirring frequently (if you have the time, you can use the same pot you just steamed the cabbage in once you’ve removed it). Add the garlic for the last minute. Put half the garlic and onions into a bowl with the ground meat, rice, paprika, fennel, ½ teaspoon thyme, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and allspice. Mix gently; feel free to use your hands.
3. Make the tomato sauce.
In the skillet with the other half of the onions and garlic, add the tomato sauce, paste, and diced tomatoes, 1/2 tsp. salt, molasses, ½ teaspoon thyme, oregano, and cayenne. Bring to a low boil and reduce heat to a simmer for 15 minutes or more.
4. Make the rolls.
Place 2-3 Tbs. meat mix on each cabbage leaf, fold over, and roll up. Put a layer of sauce on the bottom of a 9×13 casserole dish and place a single layer of rolls on top of that.
5. Cover with the remaining sauce, and bake at 350F for at least an hour and 15 minutes, maybe more!
Watch for the edges to dry out though; you may even want to make a bit more sauce, even though this amount is ample for the slow cooker version. This is a photo of one of the most moist rolls, and you can still see a little brown singe on the edges (and it needed a longer cooking time!):
I also think you could roll up the cabbage rolls and arrange in a slow cooker to have the best of both worlds, the cute rolls and the easy cooking time. You would still need to steam the cabbage, but I think you could get away with not pre-cooking the sauce since it will cook for a long time in the crockpot.