Grandma Tillie’s Cabbage Balls

By | January 16, 2012

Like a lot of families, our family had its share of secrets. This is the recipe where I divulge my favorite family secret.

This recipe for sweet and sour cabbage balls certainly crossed the pond in steerage with one of my great-grandmothers at the end of the 18th Century. It is Eastern European in origin, probably Polish/Jewish. Ultimately this is peasant food. Inexpensive to make. Rustic in appearance. But really tasty and satisfying.

My Grandma Tillie (the same grandmother who used to feed me white raisins as a special treat when I was very little) prepared this dish and carried it across town on a bus to her three daughters and her grandchildren in an covered aluminum baking dish. I remind you, Fellow FoodBeest, that these were the days before Tupperware.

Family legend has it that my mother couldn’t make this dish as well as her oldest sister Esther. It annoyed her.

“Why are your sweet and sour cabbage balls so much better than mine?” she would ask Esther (who was, by all accounts the best cook of the three sisters).

I didn’t witness this conversation, but in my mind’s eye I can see my Aunt Esther giving my mother her sly sideways glance and smile.

“Do you use sour salts?” Esther asked.

“Sour salts?” replied my mother. “What are sour salts?”

So now you know the secret. It’s sour salts – citric acid – that give this dish its particular tang. You’ve probably overlooked sour salts a hundred times in the seasoning aisle.

The other thing you need to know is that when I inherited this recipe, there were no real quantities of any of the ingredients. It was all “to-taste.” One of my fondest childhood memories was hanging in the kitchen when my mother made this dish and her holding out a spoon of broth to me asking, “what does this need?” And I’d taste it before telling her to add more sugar, more lemon, more salt. Until it was “just right.”

I have weighed and measured all the ingredients so that they are both reproducible and as close as I can to the original that I remember as a child. Still, each batch requires an ongoing taste and correction process. You really want the sweet and sour to balance, but you can vary the intensity of the flavorings to your own preference.

When I started making this recipe on my own, I made some changes.
• Instead of ground chuck, I use either 85% lean ground beef or ground turkey or a combination.
• I use brown rice instead of white rice to hold the meatballs together.
• I added white raisins (in honor of Grandma Tillie) in both the meatballs and the soup portion of the dish.
• I also added dried chili peppers for a heat that comes up behind the sweet and sour and balances it out from being too cloyingly sweet. I used to use the little chili peppers that McCormick bottled, but these days I use dried Thai chili peppers. I guess that makes it Polish/Jewish/Thai.

What You Need to Make Grandma Tillie’s Sweet and Sour Cabbage Balls
1½ lbs ground beef or turkey
¼ C brown rice
½ t salt
1 cabbage, leaves separated
½ C white raisins
1 large can diced tomatoes
2 celery stalks, chopped
3 small dried chilies
Juice of one lemon
½ C plus 2 T brown sugar
2 pieces or 1 t sour salts (citric acid)
4 peppercorns
1 bay leaf

How to make Grandma Tillie’s Sweet and Sour Cabbage Balls

Cut Out the Woody Core of Each Cabbage Leaf

Core the cabbage and carefully break the leaves off the head of cabbage. Cut the woody triangular core out of each of the cabbage leaves and then cut the biggest cabbage leaves in half.

Scald the Cabbage to Soften the Leaves

The cabbage leaves will be firm and brittle so you have to scald them with boiling water to make them pliable. My mother used to put them in a colander and pour boiling water over them. I used a bowl so that they spent more time in the hot water.

Make Meatballs the Size of Walnuts

I mixed a pound of ground beef with a half-pound of ground turkey and then, with my hands, mixed in the brown rice, salt and ¼ cup white raisins. Using wet hands, form the mixture into walnut-sized balls. Remember that you have just gotten up close and personal with raw beef and/or poultry so wash your hands any time you touch something else.

Wrap meatballs in cabbage leaves so that the meatballs are completely covered on all four sides. Fasten them with toothpicks (you will want them strategically placed to hold the cabbage in place). If you need more than one toothpick, that’s ok.

Stuffed Cabbage Balls Ready for Cooking

Put the cabbage-covered meatballs in a large soup pot and cover with water. Bring to boil. Reduce to simmer for 45 minutes. Carefully remove any “scum” that has risen to the top of the broth.

Add tomatoes, celery, chilies, lemon juice, brown sugar, sour salts, peppercorns, bay leaf and the remainder of raisins.

Cover and bake in 325-degree oven for 2½ –3 hours. Correct sweet-to-sour seasoning to taste.

Chill Finished Cabbage Balls Overnight

Like most soups, stews and other braised meats, this is much better the next day. Refrigerate it overnight (unlike my grandmother, you, Fellow FoodBeest, can use Tupperware) and in the morning (or when you are getting ready to heat it up), remove any fat that has risen to the top.

Makes two dozen sweet and sour cabbage balls, plus broth. That should be a good eight servings. Serve with a good crusty bread (we prefer rye with caraway seeds) and butter.

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Robin on January 16, 2012 at 6:57 am.

I thought I had Grandma Esther’s recipe which is slightly different from yours – no raisins, plus 1/4 c honey, 2 c chopped onion (no citric salt), the rest of your recipe is similar. I like your spices and tweaks, this is comfort food with a healthy twist. Yum.


FoodBeest on January 16, 2012 at 7:08 am.

The raisins were my addition. I never heard about honey or onion, but I bet it’s good. I guess the “secret” about citric salt now lives in the public domain. Try it and let us know what you think.


Yoda on January 16, 2012 at 8:28 am.

Be careful. Impale not your mouth on subtly disguised toothpicks.


Andi on January 17, 2012 at 8:55 am.

I’ve made it with raisins, lemon juice, and the sour salt (and so did my mom) and I thought that was Grandma’s recipe. This looks similar. Will have to check. Also, did you know you can put a whole head of cabbage in the freezer, take it out and let it thaw and the leaves will be soft enough to pull apart and work with? This can save a step or two.

Thanks for this post… I really, really want some. Now.


FoodBeest on January 17, 2012 at 8:59 am.

I love the freezing cabbage tip and will absolutely try it next time.


Gayle Gross de Nunez on January 22, 2012 at 4:27 pm.

A ground turkey question. I just tried 99% fat-free ground turkey breast as the “meat” balls in a favorite chipotle soup. Never tried ground turkey anything before. It tasted fine – as long as we kept our eyes shut! A meatball as pallid as Golum’s underbelly, not very nice at all, my precious. Very healthy – but is there anything that can be done to make ground turkey look less like the anemic little sister of whatever you are replacing? The recipe above looks scrumptious – but I don’t want to have to keep my eyes closed if I use turkey.


FoodBeest on January 22, 2012 at 4:43 pm.

I have used just turkey, Gayle, (and didn’t mind it) but I prefer a combination of low-fat beef and turkey. There are a couple of things I think you can do with straight turkey- brown them in oil before you put them in the soup (yes, I know that negates the low-fat value of using turkey instead of beef). In this recipe, they are not only hidden in the leaves of cabbage, but the tomato-based broth they simmer in for hours also helps to give them a little more color.


Gayle Gross de Nunez on January 23, 2012 at 7:42 pm.

OK. I thought of browning, but as you said it negates the low-fat. On the other hand I am more concerned about cholesterol than calories, so that may work. I was all ready to go with this, lovely cabbage, and darned if I didn’t fail to find citric acid in no less than 4 grocery stores. Also tried the local farm store which has canning supplies – and the guy asked if muratic acid (as in cleaning swimming pools) would work instead. I don’t think so!
For this first trial, I’ll need to accept diminished results and substitute for the citric acid. What should I replace it with?


FoodBeest on January 23, 2012 at 8:19 pm.

I don’t know what muratic acid is, but I don’t think I would eat it. If you can’t find citric acid (also called ascorbic acid or sour salts), I would use more lemon juice until it tastes the way you like it. The sour salts are more intense. The ones I use are made by McCormick. It used to come as little pellets; now it is powdered. You can probably find them on-line. Williams Sonoma has them as does something called and Amazon carries them also. Maybe I can bring some the next time I see Ramon.


Gayle Gross de Nunez on January 24, 2012 at 10:07 am.

Found it in the 5th grocery store, making the dish today!
FYI muriatic acid: “highly corrosive, becomes hydrochloric acid on contact with water…many uses, e.g. to clean, treat and galvanize metal, leather tanning ….. burning stain and mildew off of swimming pool walls”. Probably a little more than called for in cabbage rolls 😉


Gayle Gross de Nunez on July 20, 2012 at 4:21 pm.

Trying a new twist tonight. Necessity is the mother. Bugs got my cabbages, so I am trying the leaves of the brussel sprouts plant. Same family I think. They are softer, separated individually and nicely curled. I’ll let you know how it turns out.


FoodBeest on July 21, 2012 at 12:09 am.

Interesting. Are they little or do you use a bunch of brussels sprout leaves for each cabbage ball?


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