My Grandma’s unstuffed cabbage and meatballs are the best. They have all of the flavors of her famous stuffed cabbage, but making this deconstructed cabbage roll recipe is a fraction of the work!! They are both gluten free and dairy-free and can be made in an Instant Pot or stovetop!

A serving bowl filled with cabbage and meatballs.

I remember visiting my grandma Dorothy as a child. She always greeted us with a bowl of her famous sweet and sour cabbage rolls. I could have devoured a whole pot of these homemade meatballs—they were that good.

As my grandmother got older, arthritis kicked in. It was hard for her to roll the cabbage rolls, so she started making unstuffed cabbage rolls so she wouldn’t have to roll the meat in the leaves. She would use the same meat and rice combination to create meatballs, shred the cabbage, and finally toss it all in a pot.

It was so much easier this way, and even better, the meatballs retained their delicious flavors! It was like she was able to take the recipe apart. I hope you love this deconstructed version of Grandma’s cabbage rolls as much as we do.

If you love this recipe, check out my Grandma’s Homemade Chicken Soup!

Why I love this recipe:

  1. Not only are my Grandma’s meatballs full of flavor, but they are filled with memories. This recipe has been passed down in the family for generations. It has been perfected for cooking in an Instant Pot to save time.
  2. These cabbage and meatballs freeze perfectly, and everyone loves them. It is the perfect family meal. Even my picky eater loves the sweet and sour flavors.
  3. The meatballs have a fun name! Because they are mixed with uncooked rice, they have the name porcupine meatballs. My kids called them porcupine meatballs with cabbage when they were little.
  4. These sweet and sour meatballs get even better as they sit in the refrigerator overnight. It is almost magical how the flavor continues to build.

If you love recipes that improve overnight in the fridge, try my Gluten Free Pasta Sauce recipe too!

Ingredient Notes:

Photos of the cabbage and meatballs ingredients that you need to make this recipe.
  • Ground Beef – Use 90% lean ground beef to keep this slightly low fat. You can also use ground turkey or chicken, but the flavor will be slightly different without the fat.
  • Rice – You can use white or brown rice. Basmati and Jasmine types of rice with a long grain turn out better than short-grain rice. *Note: brown rice will take much longer to cook, and you will need more liquid.
  • Brown Sugar – You can also use coconut sugar in this recipe.
  • Diced Tomatoes – I used canned, regular diced tomatoes. Do not use fire-roasted or flavored tomatoes.
  • Ketchup – Ketchup is part of what makes the sweet and sour flavors so good. Don’t skimp on this ingredient!
  • Grape Jelly – This flavor is the best, but in a pinch, I have used apricot successfully.
  • Lemon Juice – Use this liberally as it helps to create a sweet and sour flavor. Use fresh lemon or bottled lemon juice.
  • Egg – Use size large.
  • Raisins – Do not use golden raisins.
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If you love using an Instant Pot or pressure cooker, check out all of my easy, gluten free Instant Pot recipes!

Which Cooks Better: Stovetop or Instant Pot?

The answer is both! In the old days, the Instant Pot was more of an old-fashioned pressure cooker. My grandma didn’t have one, so she made this recipe stovetop, like all of her relatives before she did. I added the Instant Pot version because our weeknights are so busy. I wanted a faster option to make this recipe.

I am giving you the directions for this unstuffed cabbage recipe to cook these both ways. Instant Pot or the traditional slow-simmered stovetop way. This is the same one my grandmother would allow to simmer for hours.

I am also going to show you how easy this recipe is to make in your Instant Pot or pressure cooker. I will be honest that the flavor is deeper when you make this recipe stovetop, but if you are in a hurry, the Instant Pot is your friend.

Recipe Step-By-Step Directions:

First, you must dice your onions and thinly slice your cabbage thinly. You can use a sharp knife or a mandolin slicer, which will do the job much faster.

Onion and cabbage browning in an Instant Pot.

Step 1: Set your Instant Pot or pressure cooker to sauté. Add the onions and oil. Sauté for 3 minutes.

Add half the shredded cabbage for the last couple of minutes. Use a wooden spoon to stir around the vegetables as they cook.

Stovetop: For the stovetop version, cook the onion in the oil until the onions turn clear and have softened. Add the shredded cabbage and cook for an additional 5 minutes.

Ground beef, uncooked rice, and egg in a bowl.

Step 2: Next, add ground beef to a large mixing bowl. Add the uncooked rice and the raw egg. Mix well.

Use your hands to form small meatballs from this meat and rice mixture.

Stovetop/Instant Pot: This is the same for the stovetop and pressure cooker!

Raw meatballs on top of cabbage in an Instant Pot.

Step 3: Put the uncooked meatballs on top of the cabbage and onions. The porcupine meatballs in the pressure cooker cook perfectly!

Instant Pot/Stovetop: This step is the same for the Instant Pot and stovetop.

All of the ingredients shown in the Instant Pot.

Step 4 Instant Pot: Add the rest of the ingredients on top of the meatballs in the Instant Pot. Close the lid and set the Instant Pot to 40 minutes (use the stew setting).

Stovetop: Add the rest of the ingredients on top of the uncooked meatballs. Do NOT stir everything yet, or your meatballs will break apart. Be sure the liquid is coming up to the meatballs.

Please wait until it cooks for 30 minutes and the meatballs firm up from cooking. Cover the pot and cook on medium heat until it boils. Turn the heat to low and allow it to simmer.

Step 5: When the Instant Pot beeps that it is done, follow Instant Pot directions to release the pressure. DO NOT open the lid without doing this first! The flavors of this Instant Pot sweet and sour meatball recipe are so good and will be even better the next day!!

Stovetop: Allow the mixture to simmer, adding more water as needed. For best results, simmer at least 1 ½ hours. The flavors absorb better the longer it simmers.

Make a batch of these Gluten Free Breadsticks or my Gluten Free Dinner Rolls to dip in the sauce!

Expert Tips and Recipe FAQ:

Can you make this recipe stovetop?

This unstuffed cabbage roll recipe can easily be made on the stovetop, as shown in the directions above!! If you are cooking on the stovetop, check periodically to see if you need to add more water. Simmer on low for 1-2 hours. (Technically, it is ready in an hour, but cooking it longer allows the flavors to really blend in.)

Can you make this deconstructed cabbage rolls recipe low fat?

You can make this recipe low-fat by using ground turkey or ground chicken instead of beef. The flavor will be slightly different because you won’t have the meat fat cooked into the sauce.

Can you use gluten free bread crumbs instead of rice?

You are welcome to substitute breadcrumbs instead of the rice but note the liquid levels in this recipe will be way off because you will not be cooking the rice inside the meatballs porcupine-style

How thin should the cabbage be sliced?

The cabbage should be sliced thinly so it is easier to eat.

How do you store cabbage and meatballs?

Store the cabbage and meatballs in an airtight container in the refrigerator. The meatballs will keep fresh for up to 4 days or for up to 4 months in the freezer.

The top view of a serving dish filled with cabbage and meatballs.

Serve With:

More Easy Instant Pot recipes:

If you love this unstuffed cabbage rolls recipe, check out these popular Gluten Free Meatball Appetizer recipes, which include these Gluten Free Ground Chicken Meatballs recipes!

A serving bowl filled with cabbage and meatballs.

Grandma’s Unstuffed Cabbage and Meatballs Recipe

Sandi Gaertner
My grandmother's easy deconstructed, unstuffed cabbage rolls recipe. This is an amazing sweet and sour cabbage and meatballs recipe.
4.84 from 59 votes
dairy free allergen icon
gluten free allergy icon
nut free allergen icon
soy free allergy icon
Prep Time 20 minutes
Cook Time 1 hour 35 minutes
Total Time 1 hour 55 minutes
Course Gluten Free Dinner Recipes, Meal Recipes
Cuisine American
Servings 8 people
Calories 433 kcal

Ingredients
  

  • 14 ounces diced tomatoes do not use any flavored tomatoes
  • 3 tablespoons lemon juice
  • ¼ cup brown sugar (coconut sugar works too!)
  • cup raisins
  • 1 onion diced
  • 4 cup cabbage (1 medium cabbage)
  • cup ketchup
  • ¼ cup grape jelly (apricot jam also works)
  • 1 ½ pounds ground beef * see note
  • 1 cup rice * see note
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ¼ teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 ½ cups water

Instructions
 

Instant Pot:

  • Set Instant Pot to sauté and cook onion and olive oil for 3 minutes. The last couple of minutes, add the cabbage. (Stovetop: brown onion with olive oil until the onions are soft. Add cabbage to the pot.)
  • In a large bowl, add ground beef, egg, and uncooked rice. Mix well. Form small meatballs and drop them into the Instant Pot. This is the same for the stovetop version.
  • Add the rest of the ingredients to the Instant Pot or stovetop pot.
  • Instant Pot, set it to stew and cook for 35 minutes. Stovetop: cover and set to low temperature. Simmer 1-2 hours.
  • Serve hot

Stovetop:

  • Follow the above directions to make the meatballs and slice the cabbage.
  • In a large soup pot, add the oil and sauté the onion until it is soft.
  • Add the rest of the liquid ingredients to the pot.
  • Drop the meatballs gently into the pot and add the cabbage.
  • Do not stir the meatballs while they are raw or they will break apart.
  • Cover and cook on medium heat for 30 minutes, then reduce the heat to simmer.
  • Gently stir being very careful not to break the meatballs.
  • Continue cooking an additional 30 minutes. This can simmer much longer and the flavors will continue to develop and blend overnight in the refrigerator.

Notes

  1. You can use any ground meat in this recipe. Ground turkey and chicken will make it low-fat, but ground beef will give the most flavor. I have not tested Impossible meat.
  2. Use plain no salt-added canned diced tomatoes, not seasoned.
  3. I recommend using long-grain rice. You can use brown or white rice for the porcupine meatballs. Note you will need a longer cook time and more liquid if you use brown rice.
  4. Note this recipe can also be made stovetop.
  5. The flavor of this cabbage and meatballs recipe will continue to get better overnight as it sits in the refrigerator.
  6. These meatballs will keep up to 4 days in an airtight container, or up to 4 months in the freezer.

SPECIAL NOTE

Please know that every gluten free flour blend has a different starch to grain ratio. If you use a blend I didn’t test, you may need to adjust your moisture levels in your baked goods.

Nutrition

Serving: 1gCalories: 433kcalCarbohydrates: 46gProtein: 18gFat: 20gSaturated Fat: 7gCholesterol: 81mgSodium: 323mgPotassium: 543mgFiber: 3gSugar: 17gVitamin A: 173IUVitamin C: 23mgCalcium: 71mgIron: 3mg
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Nutrition Disclaimer

Nutritional information is an estimate provided to you as a courtesy. You should calculate the actual nutritional information with the products and brands you are using with your preferred nutritional calculator.

This post was updated with more detailed directions from an older February 2018 post.

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44 Comments

  1. 5 stars
    I have a cabbage roll recipe that I rarely ever make because I HATE rolling them … HA! This is a great idea to just deconstruct the whole thing. Love the addition of the raisins. Is there a certain type of rice you recommend using?

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  4. 5 stars
    This is the best unstuffed cabbage I’ve ever had! The only customization I made was to sub Splenda with a teaspoon of molasses for the brown sugar and beef broth for the water. It was so delicious that we were planning making another batch while eating dinner! Thank you for adapting and sharing your Grandma’s recipe!

    1. I am thrilled you like it Pat. Thank you for taking the time to let me know. I will have to try with beef broth next time.