How to Pickled Cabbages Whole

fermented cabbagesWhen years ago my young Moldovan friend Cristina asked me if I’d ever fermented whole cabbages, I just looked at her dubiously. I’d never even heard of fermented whole cabbages. Could salt really penetrate through an intact cabbage before rot set in? I wondered if Moldovans simply tucked little second-crop cabbages into crocks of shredded cabbage while making sauerkraut. But I’d never heard of that practice, either.

So when my daughter sent me pictures of big fermented whole cabbages in a Moldovan market, I had to figure out how to make such things. I found an article that two Cornell researchers had published in 1961 with the help of their Yugoslav exchange student, Gordana Niketic. As Gordana had apparently explained to her mentors, “In Yugoslavia, particularly in the republic of Serbia, whole heads of white or red cabbage are packed in salt brine. Although sometimes the cabbage cores are scored crosswise before packing the heads in brine, more often the heads are packed with no alteration of the cores.” Just as in Moldovan, the fermented cabbage leaves were used to make meat-and-rice filled rolls, or sarma, an originally Turkish word for food wrapped in leaves; the Moldovan term is sarmale or galush. Yugoslavs also baked slices or chunks of the cabbage with turkey, goose, or pork and served the cabbage cold as a salad. After fermenting whole red cabbages, they would drink the pretty pink brine as an appetizer.

Since methods of fermenting whole cabbages varied from one Yugoslav household to another, Gordana and the Cornell researchers decided to experiment. The first year they packed whole cored cabbages tightly into barrels and added brine at three different strengths. The second year, they packed a barrel the same way, at the highest brine strength from the year before, but with uncored cabbages. The third year they packed a barrel as I’d imagined, by mixing dry-salted shredded cabbage with whole small cabbages placed among the shreds.

The best whole-cabbage kraut from the first year, the three concluded, was made with the strongest brine, 3.5 percent, “calculated from the combined weight of brine and cabbage.”* Whereas the least salty cabbages were soft throughout, and the medium-salty cabbages were soft at the core, the saltiest cabbages “showed only slightly soft cores and their leaves were firm and flavorful,” with “an enjoyable blend of taste and mellowness.” When the leaves were used for sarma, their taste perfectly complemented the meat filling.           

Far superior than even the saltiest version from the first year, at least in the judgment of “a former native of Yugoslavia” (Gordana? Someone else?), was the whole-cabbage kraut made in the second year, from uncored cabbage. So, coring turned out to be unnecessary and possibly also detrimental to flavor. The researchers concluded that the best whole-cabbage kraut was made from uncored cabbages pickled at a brine strength of 3.0 to 3.5 percent—calculated, again, as the weight of the salt to the weight of cabbage and brine.

The third-year kraut, made from small whole cabbages packed with shredded cabbage and dry salt, proved a disappointment. The quicker fermentation that resulted made this kraut more pungent and sour—like ordinary dry-salted, shredded sauerkraut, I suppose.

I began my own whole-cabbage pickling experiment late last fall. Because most of my fall cabbages had been damaged by freezing weather, I used the second growth from spring cabbage plants, seven very small heads harvested before the weather turned very cold. I sliced each stem at the base of the head, leaving the core intact, and half-filled a 10-liter crock with the cabbages. I added 10 tablespoons pickling salt dissolved in 5 quarts water, to make an approximately 3.5-percent brine, calculated—because I’d read the Cornell study too carelessly—in the way that’s familiar to me, as the weight of salt as a percentage of the weight of brine. In other words, my brine was weak, perhaps half the strength recommended by the Cornell team. I weighted the cabbages, and, a week or so later, I skimmed the brine once. The small amount of yeast growth didn’t continue.

A little more than two months after immersing the cabbages in their brine, I took them all out and examined them. Some of them showed a little softening around the edge of the core, and the largest one, 4½ inches across, had softened at the center of the leaves as well. If I’d used bigger cabbages, they might have rotted. Perhaps I could have prevented the softening by ending the fermentation sooner. But I simply cut away the soft parts, and all that remained tasted sweet, mellow, and very mildly tart and salty—really much nicer than typical shredded sauerkraut.

Last night one of the fermented cabbages made an excellent dinner salad, sliced and mixed with toasted walnuts, black pepper, and unrefined sunflower oil. No vinegar was called for; the cabbage was already tart. Walnut oil or roasted hazelnut oil might be nice in place of sunflower oil, Robert suggest, and maybe next time we’ll add some smoked meat.

The rest of the cabbages are resting in their brine in a gallon jar in the refrigerator. My next challenge will be to make some of them into sarma, or sarmale. Or maybe I should say golabki (in Polish), golubtsy (in Russian), malfoof (in Arabic), kohlrouladen or krautwickel (in German), or töltött káposzta (in Hungarian). There are a lot of other names, too, because cabbage rolls—made from fermented, briefly brined, or simply blanched cabbage—are eaten throughout much of the world. Every region has favorite ingredients, and every cook seems to have a unique recipe. I guess it’s time for me to develop my own.


*In other words, 3.5 percent was the strength not of the initial brine but of the finished pickle. Because the amount of brine needed to cover whole cabbages can vary greatly, depending on the relation between the size of the cabbages and the breadth of the barrel, the researchers controlled the salt content with a much more accurate measurement than that of initial brine strength (the weight of salt as a percentage of the weight of brine). Their way of measuring is a lot more trouble, however, than using a brine-strength chart from The Joy of Pickling: You must weigh the cabbages and the water after putting them into the barrel, either by taking them out again or by weighing the filled barrel and subtracting the weight of the same barrel with nothing in it. To determine how much salt to use, you then use the following formula, in which x is the percentage you’re aiming for:

Weight of salt = Weight of cabbage and water x  x/100-x

If this calculation seems too much bother, I suggest simply fermenting your cabbages in a strong brine—say, about 1 cup fine salt per 1 gallon water.

About Linda Ziedrich

I grow, cook, preserve, and write about food in Oregon's Willamette Valley.
This entry was posted in Fermented foods, Pickles, Preserving science, Vegetables and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

27 Responses to How to Pickled Cabbages Whole

  1. Laurel says:

    My brother had a Serbian girlfriend and she taught him how to do this. He had grown a lot of cabbage and had a barrel. They removed the core and filled the hole with salt. Placed the whole heads in the barrel, core side up and filled the barrel with brine. I guess that’s the way her family did it.

    I’m Polish and just wanted to mention that golabki is pronounced go-wump’-ki. There is a letter in Polish that looks like an L with a slash through it. It is pronounced like a W. That is the same letter that is in kielbasa which is pronounced Ka-basa’ or Kiew-basa’. The L is not really an L sound.

    Just had to get that off my chest! Thanks!

    • Laurel, thanks for the report on the Serbian method. Next time I may try coring my cabbages and filling the cavities with salt.

      Thanks also for the pronunciation advice. I’m sorry I wasn’t able to reproduce the l with the slash through it.

      • Laurel says:

        Oh I wasn’t berating you for not being able to type in a Polish letter, but it drives me nuts when people say keel-basa (kielbasa). Kielbasa just means sausage, kinda like German wurst. Love your blog!

    • jrw says:

      I’ve always heard it pronounced “Kooba-Saw” by Ukrainians that I know.

  2. I understand completely, Laura. It’s good to know what the slash means.

  3. I Wilkerson says:

    I am in the process of making my first sauerkraut and this looks even more fun. I will keep it in mind for next fall. My CSAs always deliver some small cabbages that would be perfect for this.

  4. Pingback: Links: More Kumquats, Pickled Cabbage, and a Winner | Food in Jars

  5. Linda – thank you for sharing your experience and for the link to the Cornell U article. Whole cabbage pickling has always fascinated me, although I have so far stuck with making only sauerkraut & kimchi. Kimchi – by the way – is how I first encountered references and recipes for whole cabbage pickling.

    When it comes to weighing the cabbage and water, I suggest converting everything to metric, ie. grams/kilo – where math is so much easier anyway. Weigh the cabbage as it is placed in the jar or barrel, and keep track of the volume of water that is added. Every millimeter of water weight 1 gram. Every cup of water (i. 237 ml) weighs 237 g (although that is often rounded to 240g/240 ml in recipes). Every quart of water (946 ml) weighs 946 g or every US gallon of water weighs 3.786 kg. Then add the weigh of each and multiply by 3.5% and get how much salt you need. Digital scales that weighs both in oz/lb and grams can be purchased easily and inexpensively.


  6. Pingback: Links: More Kumquats, Pickled Cabbage, and a Winner | Canning For Life

  7. chateaunc says:

    I’m curious if you have experimented with this again? A friend from Romania recommended I try making this but was sparse on details since it was always her grandmother that made their pickled cabbage heads. Have you found a timing that worked well for you? Thanks so much!

  8. chateaunc says:

    I’m curious if you have experimented with this further? A friend from Romania recommended I try making these but was sparse on details since her grandmother always made them in her household. Have you found that fermenting longer or less than two months improved results? Thanks so much!

    • I didn’t grow enough cabbages this year to ferment any whole, but I doubt that a longer fermentation would improve the results. If you try fermenting whole cabbages, I suggest you start examining and tasting them after three to four weeks. As with any sauerkraut, the length of the fermentation period will depend mainly on ambient temperatures.

      The comment here from Sylvie in Rappahanock will help you follow the researchers’ method.

      One technique that the researchers didn’t try but that is often used in eastern Europe is to core the cabbages and to pack the cores with salt. If you try this–or not–I’d love to hear how your kraut turns out.

      • chateaunc says:

        Unfortunately my first go at it was a total bust! When I opened the container after three weeks the top of the brine was covered in yeast and it smelled awful. I’m bummed as I’ve never had this happen before when pickling! I wonder where I went wrong exactly. The heads were completely submerged and the container sanitized and covered. Oh well I’ll just have to try again :)

      • I’m sorry to hear that. It’s a good idea to check on any fermenting vegetables regularly and skim off any yeast promptly. Keep in mind, too, that the microbial population in a ferment is always in flux; as the mix of microbes changes the smell will change. Besides, I don’t think that fermenting cabbage ever smells good. Next time, I’d take out a cabbage (or cucumber or other vegetable) and slice it before concluding that I’d produced a barrelful of rot.

  9. Egon says:

    I just bought at a local supermarket two large pickled cabbage heads to make cabbage rolls.
    Even though the heads were huge, their price was even bigger. I paid $13.50 Canadian each. (more than $10.00 U.S.) They are delicious and are produced by a local Mennonite commune.
    I’m sure I can pickle my own when the average head costs about a dollar in season.
    Question: Is it o.k. to use stainless steel containers to pickle them in?
    As an aside: My background is German (Berlin) and my mother made these cabbage rolls with plain steamed cabbage. Once I tasted Serbian Sour Cabbage Rolls, there was no turning back.

    • So, cabbage rolls really are better with brining!

      I’m interested to learn that you can buy whole pickled cabbage heads in a supermarket. In what part of Canada do you live? If you ever get to chat with the Mennonite commune members about their pickling method, I’d love to hear about it.

      Stainless steel containers are fine to use for pickling cabbage provided they truly are stainless–that is, they will never rust.

      • Egon says:

        I live in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. I bought my pickled cabbage heads at “Food Basic” on Hamilton’s West Mountain. I understand Starsky also carries it. Also some smaller Polish stores nearby.
        We don’t really have much contact with the Mennonite community so trying to engage them would not be easy. I did, at one time, spoke to some of their members at the local market downtown, Hamilton. A somewhat frustrating experience. As soon as they detected my German accent they tried their version of German on me. Now, their Low-German (Plattdeutsch) is about as far removed from the rest of the spoken German as Scottish is from English. We did laugh a lot though.

      • Thanks, Egon, for letting readers of this blog know of one place in North America to buy whole pickled cabbage. If others know of other places, I hope they will share the information here.

  10. klab says:

    I’m trying this but instead with cabbage wedges with the core intact to keep the wedges together. I don’t have a vessel large enough for whole heads! I’ve successfully fermented cauliflower, cucumbers, asparagus (which are fabulous and taste like mild Greek olives) and green beans. I decided cabbage is next and this sounds less cumbersome then making traditional sauerkraut. I’ve always used 2 tablespoons of coarse sea salt per 4 cups of spring water with great success as long as everything is fully submerged under a few inches of brone, weighted down (a baggie of extra brine one the top of the jar works well), then loosely covered and stored in a cabinet. I’ve yet to get any mold. Knocking on wood for the cabbage!

  11. Shirley says:

    Safeway in BC sells whole sour cabbage heads.

  12. Jason says:

    Sour heads are available in Harrisburg, PA at Schmidts sausage.

  13. Pit Minaska says:

    I made my cabbages in a 23 Litre food grade pail. Cabbages are 92 percent water. So for 10 Litres of water and 10L of cabbage ( I filled the pail to the 20 Litre mark) you would need 2-1/2 cups salt.I cored the cabbages poured some salt directly inside each of the cabbages . the rest of the salt I made the brine with.Put a plate and weight on the top so no cabbages are exposed to air . I mix the water periodically .

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