If you have access to grapevines – in a vineyard, on a grape arbor, or growing wild – you have a treasure trove of taste at hand! Grape leaves have been used in Greek cooking since ancient times, and abelofylla yemista (dolmades, stuffed grape leaves) are classics in Greek homes and restaurants around the world.
Grape leaves can be used fresh from the vine in late spring and early summer, when tender leaves are plentiful, and they can be stored for use at other times.
Here's what you need to know.
Choosing Grape Leaves
- Climate will be the final guide, but generally, pick grape leaves in late spring (May, June).
- Grape leaves should be whole, without holes, from vines that have not been sprayed with pesticides.
- Leaves should be light green, and tender (supple). The best are those below the new growth at the top of the plant and above those close to the grapes. Rule of thumb: count down three leaves from the new growth at the end of the vine, and pick the next 2 to 3 leaves, then move on to the next stem.
- Leaves should be medium to large, with no damage, and at least the size of the palm of your hand, large enough to wrap around a filling.
- The leaves from Sultana grapes (Thompson seedless) are hardier and more flexible than other types; however, any variety can be used.
- 2 to 2 1/2 pounds (about 1 kilo) of small fresh leaves = approximately 200- 220 leaves.
After Picking Grape Leaves
Use a sharp knife and cut off the stem.
Do not cut into the leaf itself.
Cooking with Fresh Grape Leaves
Bring them from the vine into the kitchen! Rinse well under cold running water and remove stems. Fresh leaves should be blanched before using.
How to Blanch Grape Leaves
- Method 1: Place leaves in a pan, and cover with boiling water. Let sit for 3-5 minutes.
- Method 2: Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Turn off heat and add leaves. Let sit for 3-5 minutes.
Storing Grape Leaves for Future Use
If you think leaves have any kind of residue from the environment (exhaust fumes, any kinds of sprays), choose a method that requires washing and/or blanching before storing.
How to Freeze Grape Leaves
- If you're not going to use them for at least a couple of months:
Don't rinse or wash. Wipe off fresh leaves to remove moisture and debris, lay one on top of the other and package 50-70 (or however many you think you will need for one recipe) in a plastic bag. Press to remove as much air as you can, close, and freeze flat. Label bags with date and number of leaves.
This method is easy but leaves need at least a couple of months in the freezer to tenderize, and care needs to be taken not to break them while frozen.
- If you buy fresh grape leaves and aren't sure about chemicals or sprays, wash and pat dry before freezing.
Defrost in a strainer or colander under running water and use without blanching.
If planning to use them earlier than two months:
Blanch first, drain well, pat dry to remove excess liquid and freeze as above.
Store in Brine - the Cigarette Method
- Start with 2 to 2 1/2 pounds (or more) of tender young leaves, cut at the stem.
- Make brine: 1 pound of kosher sea salt to 1 gallon of water. (A raw egg should float and break the surface in a circle measuring about 3/4 of an inch around - perimeter.)
- Fill a large glass jar 2/3 full with the brine.
- Roll each leaf up into a tight cylinder (like a cigarette) and put in the jar. Pack tightly.
- Place clean, washed stones or a small plate that fits through the jar opening on top to hold the leaves down in the brine.
- Seal the jars.
- Continue, using as many jars as are needed. Large jars are fine. Make more brine as necessary.
- Label jars with date and number of leaves.
- To use the leaves, remove as many as you need one day ahead and rinse under cold running water to remove brine. Blanch as per recipe directions.
- Leaves can also be bunched (15-20), tied with string, blanched, rolled up and stored in jars with brine.
Dry Store without Brine
Start with a number of leaves appropriate for a single use, since they will degrade once opened. Be sure leaves have not been sprayed with any chemicals or pesticides.
- Plastic Bottles
Plastic beverage bottles (HDPE, LDPE, or PP) work well.
Wipe leaves to remove moisture and debris. Fold up like a towel or napkin until small enough to fit through the bottle opening, and pack them in! Screw on tops, label with date and number of leaves, and store in a dark, dry place.
To use, cut the bottle open.
Use mason jars or other canning type jars with good seals.
Wipe leaves to remove moisture and debris. Fold leaves to fit (or lay flat for small leaves), pack in tightly, and seal. Label with date and number of leaves, and store in a dark, dry place.
Dry-packed leaves will keep for at least a year. The leaves will change color as they lose chlorophyll but the taste will be delightful.
Soak in water for a few minutes to soften, then rinse before using.
Dried Grape Leaves
Wipe off leaves to remove any debris. Using a needle, run a thread through the vine leaves right above where the stem used to be. Hang bunches in a dark cool place to dry (similar to drying herbs and flowers). When completely dried, pack bunches (still tied) in plastic bags and store for future use. When ready to use, hold the bunch by the string and dip in boiling water for about 2 to 3 minutes. The color will turn a lighter green.
How big should the bunches be? Enough for one recipe. Base the number on the amount required in your favorite recipes, and label each bunch with the number of leaves. Alternatively, make small bunches (20 or more leaves) and use as many as needed for each recipe.