How to identify and preserve fresh grape leaves
Jun 05, 2013, Updated Jun 19, 2023
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Here is all of the information you need to discover how to identify and preserve fresh grape leaves. Watch my step-by-step video and learn how to store and cook grape leaves.
Harvesting fresh grape leaves for the many favorite Middle Eastern and Mediterranean recipes for stuffed grape leaves is an ancient practice. Fresh picked grape leaves, if available, are preferred to jarred leaves because the picker can select smaller leaves which are more tender and have smaller veins.
Jarred grape leaves are of course a staple! Find them in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean grocery stores. Depending on where you live, some of the big grocery stores like Kroger or Publix also carry them too. Look for Orlando or Yergot brands.
One of the first, and favorite, things I ever wrote about food was a poem about picking grape leaves. It seems there is poetry to be found in the memory of being a child following the ladies out to the edge of a parking lot somewhere to pick what felt like illicit leaves to be stuffed for our big pots of Lebanese Stuffed Grape Leaves (also known as the Greek version, dolma or dolmades).
Every spring, when the vines unfurl their leaves at that perfect moment between tender and strong, I imagine the mass exodus of Lebanese coming out of their homes across the wide world and scurrying out to their secret vines to pick the leaves by the hundreds. It’s our pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, our holy grail, our heart’s content. Often we turn to jars of leaves for our rolls, but fresh leaves are a tradition worth holding onto. Mothers teach their children and then their grandchildren, and then we, God-willing, teach ours, a tradition so worth keeping alive.
Here’s everything you need to know about how to harvest and store your own fresh grape leaves.
Watch my video tutorial on how to identify edible fresh grape leaves for stuffing:
How to identify edible grape leaves
Wild edible grape leaves have three distinct lobes with pointy notches all the way around the leaf. The vine itself is reddish and the leaves are bright green.
Generally edible grape leaves are on wild vines. Cultivated vines for grapes are not used for their leaves, because they are not tender or as flavorful. The wild vines are just that, devoting all of their energies to the leaves and not typically bearing much fruit, if any. The vines are not necessarily planted in gardens, but in Lebanon every home I visited had wild vines growing on a giant trellis over the patio. Gorgeous.
Get into the thrill of the chase to find the leaves along rivers and streams, even fences at the edges of deserted parking lots!
How to Pick Fresh Grape leaves
Pick the medium-sized leaves that are 4- to 5-inches in size. They are more tender than the larger leaves, but stronger than the very small leaves and will hold more stuffing. Pick at the base of the stem, where it attaches to the vine. Just snap the stem from the vine. The stem will be trimmed off later, but keeping it for now protects the leaf from tearing when picked and gives the leaf more longevity while stored until it’s used.
Don’t pick leaves that have holes or tears in them! The stuffing will fall out of these.
How to Store Fresh Grape Leaves
Clean the leaves by rinsing them in cool water just before using them, then patting dry. But they may well not need any washing at all if they look clean. Blanching (briefly boiling) the leaves before rolling softens the leaves, making them easier to roll, and also sterilizes them.
Store the leaves two ways:
- In the refrigerator. Store stacks of leaves in a container or zip top bag that’s ventilated so there is some airflow, in the refrigerator for up to one week.
- In the freezer. To freeze grape leaves, do not wash them first. Wrap stacks of leaves in plastic wrap, then place the stacks in zip top freezer bags. Aunt Hilda added another layer of protection for her precious leaves by placing the bags of leaves in a shoe box for reinforcement. Smart. This protects the leaves from the cold and from getting banged by other things in the freezer.
Frozen leaves last 6 months to a year in the freezer. I used leaves I picked last spring for a batch of our vegetarian grape leaf rolls this week, and they were a little dry and some frost-bitten, so I’d get at them sooner than a year ideally. But they rolled and cooked up beautifully. And tasted great.
Frequently Asked Questions
No, these are not tender enough for stuffed grape leaves.
Late spring and early summer is the best time to pick fresh grape leaves. The leaves are tender and just the right size. Later in the summer, grape leaves are too large, veiny, and tough.
Yes! Use a standard pickling brine that does not include sugar. Trim the stems from the leaves before rolling stacks of leaves to place in jars, then brine. Sterilized canning procedures are necessary for shelf life of jarred preserved leaves.
Jarred leaves are a great alternative to fresh picked leaves. They can be found in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean grocery stores. Depending on where you live, some of the big grocery stores like Kroger or Publix also carry them too. Look for Orlando or Yergot brands.
Fresh grape leaves are generally more tender than jarred, which can have thick veins. When you pick your own leaves, you can select the size as well. Jarred leaves are often so big that the leaves must be cut for the proper-sized stuffed grape leaf roll.
If the leaves are the same noted in this post with the three lobes, notched edges, from wild vine, then yes! Not all grape leaves are the same, but the one described here are edible.
Choose leaves that are 4-5 inches in size to make a 3 inch stuffed grape leaf roll.
Recipes for Grape Leaves
How to Identify and Store Fresh Grape Leaves
- Location location location!
Generally find edible grape leaves on wild vines. Cultivated vines for grapes are not used for their leaves, because they are not tender or as flavorful. The wild vines produce tender, thinner leaves that are right for stuffing, rolling, and cooking.
- Pick the right leaves.
Wild edible grape leaves have three distinct lobes with pointy notches all the way around the leaf. The vine itself is reddish and the leaves are bright green. Grape leaves should be about 4- to 6-inches in size.
- Pick the leaves like this:
Pick the leaf at the point where the leave stem meets the vine, keeping the stem on the leave and snapping it from the fine. Don’t pick the leaf from it’s own stem. The stem will be cut off later just before rolling the leaves. Avoid leaves with holes or tears.
- Store the grape leaves.
Store grape leaves with the stems on, either in the refrigerator to cook within one week, or in the freezer for 6 months to a year. Store in zip top bags. Keep the bag partially open in the refrigerator for ventilation, but airtight in the freezer. To thaw frozen grape leaves, place them in boiling water to blanche them for just a couple of minutes before rolling.