apple cabbage dolma

apple cabbage dolma

Dolma resists the standard recipe genre, and I can totally relate. When I’m cooking for fun, I usually tend to estimate and improvise. But I insist on being super precise when I’m developing and testing recipes here. I need to be able to honestly guarantee that if you start with the first step, and then follow them one by one, it will turn out perfectly. And I love knowing that I’m not leaving you with a pile of leftover stuffing and nothing to wrap it with.

But dolma? Dolma doesn’t care about my digital scale or my measuring cups. Dolma is kind of a badass, and it will never let you define it with numbers and checklists. So whenever I’m writing a recipe for it, I get this strong urge to just throw the measurements out the window and write up a guide instead.

I think this tension has finally manifested in my recipe for apple cabbage dolma. I’ve tested this recipe so many times, but at the end of the day, dolma takes a certain know-how, and can’t always be explained in a step-by-step way. So while I did my best to standardize, the following recipe is occasionally more of a choose-your-own-adventure book than a packet of instructions for assembling an Ikea bookshelf.

The first adventure in making apple dolma? Choosing the right size pot! Apple dolma is a staple of Assyrian cuisine, so if you’ve made it a million times before, you probably don’t think twice about it. But to a novice, apples are big, inflexible obstacles, and it takes some practice to learn how to nest things around them efficiently.

apple cabbage dolma
apple cabbage dolma
apple cabbage dolma
apple cabbage dolma
apple cabbage dolma
apple cabbage dolma

choosing the right container for apple dolma

Picking the right pot is one of the trickiest things about making dolma. The problem is, the shape of the pot matters just as much as the size. But it’s easy to find the right pot once you know what you’re doing, and once you build up your dolma tetris skills, you’ll develop an eye for choosing the right size. So here’s the goal: you want to pick a pot that gives your dolma the tightest fit possible, but you need to make sure there is enough room at the top so it doesn’t bubble over as it cooks.

For this recipe, the essential first step is to find a pot that holds all 5 apples in 1 layer. A pot where they’re all just about shoulder-to-shoulder is perfect. But second, you need to make sure there will be enough space over their tops (at least 1 inch) to allow the liquid to rise and bubble a bit. Once you’ve packed cabbage around the apples, it’s going to be a tight fit, so there won’t be much room for the liquid to fill the empty spaces. But that’s what you want for a perfect pot of dolma.

If the apples are more loosey goosey, and have a lot of breathing room between them, you might not be able to get the tightest fit with the cabbage rolls all the way to the tops of the apples, so you may end up needing a little more liquid. If that’s the case, make sure you have a can of V8 or tomato juice on standby, and feel free to top off the pot with up to 3/4 cup of veggie juice if you end up needing it. The apples don’t need to be absolutely submerged, because the liquid level will rise a little eventually. But the liquid should reach at least almost to the tops. The problem with having to use extra liquid, and leaving your dolma a little extra space, is that they’re more likely to come unwrapped, and their flavor will be a little different from the ones that are packed in like sardines. But it’s really not the end of the world, and all part of the process of becoming a dolma master.

Now you know everything you need to know about selecting the right pot, but let me take a little detour to give you a suggestion for how to use up all those apple cores.

what to do with all those apple guts

It’s important to core things very thinly when making dolma (the sides should be no thicker than a quarter inch), and so you’re going to end up with a lot of apple guts. If you’re concerned about food waste, you might be tempted to leave the apples on the bulky side, but I highly recommend fighting that urge, because the final product will taste kind of watered down if you do. And besides—leftover apple guts means you get to make Julia Turshen’s applesauce cake!

If you want to save the apple guts, first use a melon baller or sharp measuring spoon to carve out the seeds and tough core. Throw that part away, and save the rest of the scraps as you continue coring. The apple scraps may start to oxidize and turn brown, which is totally fine—just throw them in a saucepan with a tablespoon or two of water and a little squeeze of lemon, bring it to a simmer over medium heat, cover, reduce the heat to low, and simmer for about 15 to 20 minutes, until the apples are super soft and falling apart. Mash them up with a fork, and chill in the fridge until you’re ready to bake. As long as you core your apples thinly enough, one recipe of this apple dolma makes enough for exactly one recipe of Julia’s cake, so nothing will end up going to waste.

apple cabbage dolma
apple cabbage dolma

apple cabbage dolma

yield: 6 to 8 servings
active time: 1 hour 15 minutes
total time: 2 hours 30 minutes
download a PDF to print
for more dolma recipes, visit the
dolma archives

make the filling

  • 28-ounce can diced tomato (800 gram can) (save the juice for the next part)

  • 1 cup green onions, chopped (55 grams)

  • 1 cup parsley leaves, chopped (27 grams)

  • 1/2 cup dill fronds, chopped (27 grams)

  • 3/4 cup cilantro leaves, chopped (27 grams)

  • 1 medium jalapeño, seeded and minced (27 grams minced)

  • 3 cloves garlic crushed through a press (15 grams)

  • 1 1/2 tablespoons tomato paste (22 grams)

  • 2 tablespoons melted butter (28 grams)

  • Shy 1/2 cup medium grain rice (100 grams) (e.g., Calrose)

  • 11 ounces ground or hand-minced beef (312 grams)

  • 1/2 teaspoon finely ground black pepper

  • 1 1/4 teaspoons salt (or to taste)

  1. Strain the can of diced tomatoes, reserving the juice (do not throw away the juice!). Press the diced tomatoes/tomato pulp with the back of a spoon to make sure they are extremely well-strained. There should be about 2 cups of reserved liquid, and about 1 cup (280 grams) of tomato pulp.

  2. Combine the tomato pulp, green onion, parsley, dill, cilantro, jalapeño, garlic, tomato paste, melted butter, rice, beef, pepper, and salt. Use your hands to mix everything together until it’s completely combined.

stuff and cook the apples and cabbage

  • 1 medium potato, sliced into 1/8 to 1/4-inch-thick rounds (enough to cover the bottom of the pot)

  • The reserved tomato juice (from above), about 2 cups

  • 1/4 cup lemon juice (59 grams)

  • 3 tablespoons melted butter (42 grams)

  • Salt to taste

  • 5 large granny smith apples (1025 grams)

  • 1 small cabbage (700 to 800 grams)

  • (optional: a can of vegetable juice or tomato juice, just in case)

  1. Lightly oil the bottom of an approximately 4-quart* dutch oven or stockpot. Arrange the potato slices on the bottom so the apples won’t touch the bottom directly.

  2. Combine the reserved tomato juice, lemon juice, melted butter, salt to taste, and set aside.

  3. Bring a stockpot of salted water to a boil.

  4. While you’re waiting on the water, hollow out the apples:** Cut about 1/2 inch off the top of the apple (reserve the top), then use a 1/2-teaspoon or melon baller to carve out the base, leaving no thicker than 1/4-inch sides (it should be quite hollow).

  5. Once the water is boiling, cut the cabbage in half from root to end. Use a paring knife to carefully remove the core (the part that holds everything together). Place the cabbage in the water, reduce to a simmer, and let it cook for about 10 to 15 minutes, just until the leaves are soft enough to bend very easily without snapping. As the large leaves soften and fall away, remove them from the water and let them cool on a plate, and eventually remove the whole thing from the water once it's soft enough.

  6. Stuff the apples first (don’t tamp the stuffing down super tightly, but make sure they’re pretty full).

  7. Finish prepping the cabbage by shaving down the ribs. Place a cabbage leaf flat on a cutting board, so that the bumpy part of the rib is showing. Carefully hold a sharp knife flat against the cabbage leaf, and cut across (but away from your hand!) to remove the bumpy part of the rib.

  8. Stuff the cabbage leaves sort of like spring rolls or burritos. If you’re having trouble getting them to stay closed, just use less filling per leaf.

  9. Build the pot: First figure out where the apples are going to go. Then use your tetris skills to nest cabbage leaves under the base of the apples, so it’s a super snug fit. Fit cabbage leaves around the apples wherever you can, leaving space for their caps. There should be very few gaps.

  10. Pour the liquid evenly over the dolma, allowing a little bit to pour into the open apples (you may not need to use all of the liquid). Top the apples with their caps, and pour on more of the liquid. It’s ok if the tops are slightly exposed, but the liquid should reach almost to the top of the veggies (if not slightly over their tops). Make sure there’s at least 1 inch of room at the top so it doesn’t bubble over. If you don’t have quite enough liquid, top it off with a little bit of veggie juice (you’ll know you won tetris if you don’t need more liquid).

  11. Bring to a low boil over medium-high heat, then place a heavy heat-proof plate face-down over the dolma, and use a wooden spoon to press it down a bit. Reduce to a simmer, cover, and cook for 30 more minutes. Control the heat while it cooks to make sure it is at a simmer (you’ll gradually lower the heat as it heats through). Once it’s done, keep it covered and let it rest for 30 minutes off the heat.

  12. Safely flip the dolma over onto a sheet pan or serving tray (visit this post for dolma flipping tips). For a showstopper: lift the upside-down pot to reveal the dolma, and serve.

* It’s important to find the right pot to make your dolma. I used a 3 1/2 quart Le Creuset dutch oven when testing and photographing this recipe, but it was a very tight fit, and it was close to bubbling over toward the end of cooking. So I recommend using a 4 quart pot if you don’t have advanced dolma tetris skills. When looking for the right pot, it’s important to find one that fits all 5 apples in 1 layer. They should be touching or almost touching, and not too spread apart, and there should be some space between the tops of the apples and the top of the pot (to make sure it doesn’t bubble over). Read the notes above the recipe for more details on choosing the right one.
** Feel free to reserve (and/or freeze) the insides to make applesauce, apple bread, or apple cake.

apple cabbage dolma

combination dolma | dolma khuitah

combination dolma

Dolma is a real labor of love, so my family only makes it about once every couple months. It's usually reserved for birthdays, out-of-town visitors, holidays, and other special occasions. But this summer has been the summer of dolma, and I've had more of it in one month than I usually eat all year.

It all started when I asked my mom and grandmother to teach me how they make their famous combination dolma. It took a few attempts to record all the little nuances, which meant that we ended up with a few gigantic pots of dolma over the course of a week or two. And then making all that combination dolma inspired another recipe for an easy vegan weeknight dolma (which I will post early this fall). The weeknight recipe requires absolutely no time, patience, or know-how... and so I might've tested it a few more times than was absolutely necessary.

All that is to say, there was a two or three-week stretch where I had dolma every single day, and we would all sit around the table joking about how tired we were all going to get of it. And, while the jokes continued through the summer ("dolma, again?! What are you trying to kill me??"), they never actually became sincere, and most of us eventually realized that we would happily eat dolma every single day. After all that, I wish I had some right now.

combination dolma

So here it is in all its glory: my family's combination dolma recipe! While I was writing it, I kept trying to find ways to make it shorter, but at a certain point I realized that was a futile goal, because this dolma is just never going to be easy or straightforward. It has a million different ingredients for the wrappers, all of those ingredients need to be prepared separately, the filling itself has another long list of ingredients, which need to be rinsed, chopped, and mixed together, and the whole thing takes hours and hours. But even though this recipe is ridiculously long and time-consuming, I hope I've at least made it clear, organized, and easy to follow.

So I'm not even going to try to convince you that it's actually much easier than it seems, or that it will only take a couple hours, because it isn't and it won't. This recipe is the kind of thing you make for someone to say how much you love them. Or it's the kind of thing you make with the ones you love, as an excuse to spend time together gathered around a big table, wrapping, stuffing, and building the pot. The little kids (or inexperienced adults) can separate the grape leaves along the side of the bowl, and the experienced cooks can prep the wrappers and core the peppers and zucchini. And everyone can help stuff. Working together will make things move a lot faster, but you'll have so much fun hanging out that you'll wish that there was more dolma to stuff. And that's the dolma Catch 22, which has just one solution: to make as much dolma as possible whenever possible with the people you want to spend your time with.

combination dolma
combination dolma
combination dolma

tips for dolma flipping success

After my dolma-flipping instagram story, I promised a few readers that I would include some tips on flipping a big pot of dolma with this recipe. Dolma flipping is a time-honored tradition, and everyone wants to lift up the pot and reveal that perfect stack of dolma, like an expertly shuffled deck of cards. Here's how I do it:

  1. Use the right shaped pot. A large dutch oven, rather than a stockpot, will work better here, because then you won't have to build it too tall (and tall dolma towers always collapse right away). Besides, the whole thing will cook more evenly if it's shorter and wider.

  2. Use the right amount of liquid. Using too much liquid isn't great in general, because the dolma will get too mushy (it's supposed to be very soft, but you don't want the rice to totally disintegrate). And in terms of flipping, if you use too much liquid, the pieces won't stack together once inverted, and they'll fall everywhere instead. Too little liquid isn't ideal either, because the rice won't cook through in all of the pieces, and it'll be unpleasantly dry. The recipe below should give you the perfect amount, but it varies a little depending on how well you nest them together, and the shape and size of your pot.

  3. Stack the layers with stability in mind. I like to keep the wonky, inflexible ones (like long cubanelle, poblano, and mini sweet peppers) on the inside. Cabbage leaves, grape leaves, and to some extent onions, will all soften and nest together beautifully as the dolma cooks, so I use these as the outside layers. I try to build the outside layers as evenly as possible, sort of like brick-laying.

  4. Make sure the dolma rests covered for 30 minutes once you remove it from heat. This will give the top layer a chance to cook through a tiny bit more, but it also allows everything to calm down and for the juices to absorb more. Plus, it's less likely to fall apart when it's a little cooler (after 30 minutes, it'll still be quite hot, but not boiling hot).

  5. Flip the dolma alone, without everyone watching. I know this takes a little bit away from the excitement (and feel free to ignore my advice), but I find that the most exciting part is lifting the inverted pot away, rather than the flip itself, and I'm so much more likely to mess it up when there's a crowd watching me.

  6. Flip it carefully with one swift motion (you don't want to shake everything up while you flip it). Here's the fool-proof way to do it: Place the pot in the center of a big, clean towel (one you don't mind staining, although you probably won't stain it). Place the serving dish (preferably a large, round metal tray with steep sides) up-side-down on top of the pot. Cover the whole thing with the sides of the towel overlapping in the center, so it's securely wrapped up. Slide the towel-wrapped dolma off the counter, and onto your outstretched palm of your dominant-hand, and place your other hand over the top to keep it steady. Carefully lift the dolma to about shoulder-height, and then very carefully but quickly invert the pot so your non-dominant hand is now supporting its bottom. Set it down on the counter, and unwrap the edges of the towel from under it. This takes a little strength and coordination, so be very careful, and just skip the flip if you think you might drop it or hurt yourself.

  7. Once you've inverted the pot, give the bottom a few good thumps, and let it sit for at least a minute before lifting the pot away (I usually let it sit for about 5). This lets everything detach from the pot and settle in. The potatoes almost always stay stuck to the bottom, but it's fine, just don't worry about the potatoes.

  8. Call everyone over. Get a thin-edged spatula to lift one of the handles up just a little so you can get a grip on it, then do the same with the other side (you might need another set of hands to help, depending on how easy it is to grip), and then carefully lift the pot straight up to reveal a tower of dolma. Don't forget to save those ugly potatoes! (the cooks get to eat them, because they're too ugly to serve to the guests, and too delicious to share).

  9. You could also just not sweat it, because a perfect dolma flip is not necessary for delicious dolma. It's really just for fun, after all. The suspense is totally part of the fun, and so if you know it's reliably gonna come out a perfectly cohesive dolma tower every time, it just becomes less impressive and exciting. Besides, you're just gonna end up shaking it out into a single layer before serving anyway. So have fun with it, be safe, and don't sweat the small stuff.

combination dolma
combination dolma
combination dolma
combination dolma

combination dolma | dolma khuitah

active time: 3 or more hours if you're solo, and 2 1/2 hours if you have help wrapping and stuffing
total time: about 4 1/2 hours

serves a crowd (leftovers keep in the fridge for a few days, and freeze very well)
download a PDF to print
for more dolma recipes, visit the
dolma archives

the filling

  • 2 1/2 pounds lean meat (sirloin, round, etc.), slightly frozen for about 20 to 30 minutes

  • 2 1/2 cups uncooked medium grain rice (e.g., Calrose)

  • 8 cloves garlic

  • 16 ounces spicy salsa *

  • 1 1/2 cups chopped parsley

  • 1 1/2 cups chopped cilantro

  • 2 cups chopped dill

  • 1 cup chopped green onion

  • 1 tablespoon salt

  • 1 teaspoon black pepper

  • 1 stick (4 ounces) unsalted butter, melted

  1. Soak the uncooked rice in cold water for about 5 minutes, and then rinse it.

  2. Trim the meat of any fat and gristle. You should be left with about 2 pounds 2 ounces meat. Set aside the scraps for the bottom of the pot, or discard them. Finely chop the 2 pounds 2 ounces of meat (no piece should be bigger than 1/4-inch).

  3. Mix the meat in a large mixing bowl with the medium grain rice, garlic, salsa, parsley, cilantro, dill, green onion, salt, pepper, and butter.

* This is the way my family has been making dolma since we immigrated to the US in the 1970s. Before this, we would make a sauce that happened to have pretty much the same ingredients as salsa roja, so this is a great way to save time without sacrificing quality.

prepping and stuffing the shells

  • 1 large head green cabbage

  • the biggest yellow onion you can find (about 1 pound)

  • 4 large cubanelle or poblano peppers*

  • 10 mini sweet peppers

  • zucchini corer

  • 4 medium 6 to 8-inch Italian zucchini

  • about 25 to 50 grape leaves **

  • it doesn't hurt to gather a bunch of friends and family who are willing to help stuff

  1. Bring a stockpot of water to a boil. Cut the cabbage in half from root to stem. Use a paring knife to carefully remove the core (the part that holds everything together). Place the cabbage in the water, reduce heat to simmer, and let it cook for about 10 to 15 minutes, just until the leaves are soft enough to bend easily without snapping (don't worry if the ribs are not very flexible). As the large leaves soften and fall away, remove them from the water and let them cool on a plate, and eventually remove the whole thing from the water once it's soft enough (but don't dump out the boiling water).

  2. Peel the onion and then cut just the fuzzy root off. Rest the onion on the table with the root-side facing down, place the tip of a paring knife at the top of the onion, and cut down just on one side. Place the onion in the boiling water for about 10 minutes. During the 10 minutes, remove the outer onion layers from the water as they soften and fall away from the onion. Once the onion layers are soft, remove them to a plate to cool.

  3. Cut the tops off the cubanelles/poblanos and sweet peppers and use a zucchini corer or boning/paring knife to cut away as much of the pith and seeds as possible.

  4. Cut the stems and ends off the zucchinis, partly peel them (see photos), and cut them in half the short way. Use a zucchini corer to hollow out the insides, leaving one end closed. Their sides should be very thin, about as thick as the sides of the peppers. Optionally, stab them three or four times with the end of a paring knife.

  5. If you're using fresh grape leaves, submerge them in boiling water off the heat, place an upside-down heat-proof plate on top of them to keep them submerged, and steep them for about 25 minutes (find more specific grape leaf prep instructions here). If you're using preserved grape leaves from a jar, rinse them well with water.

  6. Finish prepping the cabbage by shaving down the ribs. Place a cabbage leaf flat on a cutting board, so that the bumpy part of the rib is showing. Carefully hold a sharp knife flat against the cabbage leaf, and cut across (away from your hand!) to remove the bumpy part of the rib. This will make the leaves more flexible. Save the rib scraps for the next section.

  7. Call everyone over to help, and stuff the veggies, starting with the onion, cubanelles/poblanos, sweet peppers, and zucchini. Then stuff grape leaves and cabbage leaves until you run out of stuffing (but save the extra cabbage and grape leaves for the next section). Here are more specifics: To stuff the peppers and zucchini, use a little spoon to scoop filling into the openings, and make sure there are no big gaps (but don't tamp them down firmly—there needs to be a little breathing room). To fill the grape leaves, place the leaf with the veiny side facing up and the stem-end facing you. Place some stuffing in a sideways log near the stem, fold the two sides over, fold the bottom up, and roll it shut (watch the above video, and visit my stuffed grape leaf post for more photos and details). Fill the cabbage leaves and onions similarly (but these are a little more free-form, since they're not all the same shape).

* If you're using poblanos, you might end up with a few extremely spicy ones, in which case you may want to buy mild salsa for the filling instead of spicy. Or just go with it if you like a lot of heat! You can use any similarly shaped peppers here—they just need to be long and narrow, and not too-too-spicy.
** If you don't have grape leaves, you can substitute more cabbage leaves. We do this when they're not in season and we've run out of frozen ones.

assembling the pot

  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter

  • 3 1/4 cup vegetable juice*

  • 1/2 cup + 1 tablespoon lemon juice

  • 1 5-ounce potato, sliced into 1/8-inch rounds

  • (optional) up to 1 pound lamb chops or meat scraps

  1. Combine the butter, vegetable juice, and lemon juice in a small saucepan, and heat over medium until the butter melts and the liquid is warm.

  2. While the liquid heats, put together the pot. Lightly coat the bottom of a very large dutch oven (or two smaller dutch ovens) with olive oil. Arrange the slices in one layer on the bottom of the pot, followed by an even layer of lamb chops and/or meat scraps (it's ok if some of the lamb is touching the bottom of the pot). Nest everything together tetris-style, leaving very little space between the rolls and veggies. Here's how I like to do it: I put the zucchini in a ring around the first layer, then I fill in gaps between them with little grape leaves. Then I put the peppers in the center, and put grape leaves and cabbage leaves in the gaps between them, and in a couple rows at the edge of the pot around them. Then I do a layer of sweet peppers and onions, and fill in the gaps with more cabbage leaves and grape leaves, and make another border with the stuffed leaves. Make sure you leave at least 1 1/2 inches of space at the top of the pot, to make sure it doesn't boil over. **

  3. Pour the liquid evenly over the dolma. The liquid should come up just to the top of the second-highest layer (just to the base of the very top layer).

  4. After you pour in the liquid, put any extra grape and cabbage leaves and ribs on top of the pot.

  5. Place a heavy heat-proof plate face-down over the center of the dolma. Bring it to a boil over medium-high heat, and keep an eye on it while it heats. Once it reaches a gentle boil (a few big bubbles breaking the surface, but not a rapid boil), cover the pot (leave the plate in place, and cover the pot with a lid) and reduce the heat to medium-low to maintain a gentle boil.

  6. Cook this way for about 1 hour. Check on it intermittently to make sure it's at a gentle boil, and adjust the heat as necessary. Don't open the lid too often, or the top layer won't cook through enough. The liquid will rise as the veggies cook down, give off their juices, and settle in. To test whether the dolma are done, take a piece from the top layer, cut it in half, and see if the rice is cooked. Once it's done, keep the lid on and let it rest for about 30 minutes, undisturbed.

  7. Feel free to serve right out of the pot, or invert it for a real show stopper (see my tips above). Once it's inverted, shake it out into an even layer, and have everyone dig in.

* We use V8 brand vegetable juice, which has a decent amount of sodium, but if you use a low-sodium one, or if you juice your own vegetables, you will need to add quite a bit of salt, to taste. You can use tomato juice instead, but vegetable juice has a lot more flavor.
** If you run out of space, get a small saucepan and layer the additional rolls in it, and save some of the liquid for it. Also, if you don't nest everything together closely, you will need to use a lot more liquid, and then you will end up with water-logged dolma. It's really important to try to fit them together like puzzle pieces, but without mashing them down and tightly packing them in, otherwise it won't turn out right.

Make ahead: If you’d like to make this ahead, you can prep and stuff everything, and leave it in a pot in the refrigerator overnight (don’t add the liquid yet). When you’re ready to cook it, bring the liquid to a simmer, pour over the dolma, and cook as usual. It might take a few extra minutes to come to (and stay at) a simmer, since it’s starting out colder.

combination dolma