How to identify, clean, and store fresh grape leaves

One of the first, and favorite, things I ever wrote about food was a poem about picking grape leaves. There is, it seems, 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 grape leaf rolls (also known as the Greek version, dolma or dolmades).

Every spring, when the vines have unfurled 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. Our grape leaf.

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, this:

  1. Generally grape leaves are picked from 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 never bearing fruit. The vines are not as a rule planted in the gardens of the Lebanese (though I vow to have one of my own someday), at least not around here. Instead I think we enjoy the thrill of the chase to find the leaves along fences at the edges of deserted parking lots. When we pick there, a passerby wonders what it is those rather odd folk are doing.
  2. Wild grape leaves have three lobes and are notched all the way around. The vine itself is reddish and the leaves are bright green.
  3. Pick the medium-sized leaves. They are tenderer 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. That stem will be trimmed off later, but it protects the leaf from tearing when picked and gives the leaf more longevity until it’s used.
  4. Ignore the leaves that have holes or tears in them. They’re useless for stuffing.
  5. Wash 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, and especially if they are blanched (briefly boiled) before they are rolled. We don’t usually blanch the leaves before rolling, but if the leaves are tough they may need that or a warm water soak to soften up.
  6. Store the leaves by freezing them, without washing them, in stacks wrapped well with plastic wrap, then in a heavy duty freezer bag. Aunt Hilda froze hers in a shoe box for reinforcement. Smart. This protects the leaves from the cold and from being banged by other things in the freezer. If you’re holding the leaves for just a few days, keep them in a ventilated bag in the refrigerator.
  7. 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.

Do you have other tips for us? Please share! I just love hearing from so many of you. Your stories are wonderful. David Nader of Pennsylvania wrote to me that his treasured wild vine was transplanted 23 years ago from his mother’s vine, which was itself, it’s believed, transplanted from Lebanon. Here’s a shot of his first pick of the season this week, some 400 in all!

May you find, or grow, a fine vine everyone…and pick to your heart’s content.

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51 Responses to How to identify, clean, and store fresh grape leaves

  1. Marlene Hatton says:

    Ahh…thanks for reminding me, it is the first week in June that we pick in the Cleveland area. I am watching the grandkids today, guess what we will be doing…

  2. Geralyn Lasher says:

    Oh my gosh, Mom always kept Meijer grocery bags in the trunk of the car because you never know when you will be driving and spot some grape leaves that you have to pick! It cracks me up now that it never seemed odd to me that she would just pull over on the side of the road and we would grab a bag and go picking.

  3. Jerry Wakeen says:

    My parents moved into the back of the family grocery store after their parents went on to their new home. Out back is (still) a 100 foot grapevine that today yields leaves up to 8 inches across (though the small, young ones are used for cooking). That is in Wisconsin (La Crosse).

    I have lived in Maryland for over over 50 years and many times have tried to transplant a root from home to establish my own grape vine. Last time the newly planted root really grew, up to 20 feet across in the first year. So I added side extensions to the trellis and did a lot of bragging. It is on a clay hill and has been going downhill ever since. I may transplant it to a more level and fertile spot, it is still alive but only about 1 foot across today.

    This spring when trimming our road out to the mailboxes I noticed a wild vine. It was about 3/8 inch across, perhaps 12 feet long, had traveled along other tree limbs and looked good. I dug around, found where it went into the ground, dug where it connected to a 1 inch root, followed the root both ways finally cutting it out, about 4 foot of 1 inch root. I figured I had it made. I planted it, watered it, watched the green leaves sort of survive, pruned it and hoped for the best. It has slowly wilted, the leaves are now dried up, I have no idea if the root is alive and perhaps will come to life again next spring or not. As long as I kept the ground soaked the leaves stayed green and a few new sprouts even came out. When I stopped watering it so heavily the leaves dried up.

    Also found a 6 leaf very small wild plant that I transplanted and it is alive but I fear will not grow fast enough to yield much, after all I will be 80 in December, but it is still alive, so am I thus far.

    So this business of growing your own grapevine is touchy. My brother keeps saying, “use horse manure” which I have not tried. My wife says “you water it too much”. One year I clipped a bunch of long vines and kept the cut stems in water hoping they would root. They stayed green for weeks but didn’t show any signs of rooting.

    In the back of the pantry is a jar of grape leaves, now and then my wife Bev buys those and makes Lebanese grape rolls. But I wonder why the vine that grew so well the first year slowly degenerated over the next 4 or 5 years. I did try to mildly fertilize them, apparently they may be touchy about fertilizer. The vine we used as young children is still growing, the property changed hands and they can’t kill it (they don’t want it there) and it grows on and on.

    My wife keeps saying she will buy a vine from the local nursery. I tell her wild vines are always used (but didn’t know why, thanks Maureen). She often repeats her favorite joke “if you Lebanese are so smart why didn’t you wait for the grapes”. I never laugh at her jokes. :(

    • Maureen Abood says:

      Wow Jerry. The trials and tribulations of our vine leaves. And what lengths we go to for them. You are dedicated, and you deserve a thriving vine at home!!

    • Carol Morgan says:

      Hi Maureen and Jerry,

      I only learned to cook with grape leaves a few years ago after tasting some delicious dishes at a local restaurant. I have four different grapes growing in our backyard and it never occurred to me to look for wild grapes. The leaves are a bit tougher, unless you pick them in the spring when they are new. However, I think they’re still quite delicious. Although next spring I am going to find some wild grapes and try those leaves because your article has piqued my curiosity, Maureen.

      Jerry, I hope you get that wild grapevine you want. However, please don’t discount growing your own purchases from a nursery. At least you’ll have the pleasure of growing and harvesting them! If you harvest them in early spring, they’ll be tender.

      Maureen, I know I’m making this comment serve multiple functions and I hope you’ll forgive me for this. If you do figure out how to get wild grapevines growing, I’d like to purchase some!

      Thanks for a wonderful article and great photos!

  4. Your grape leaves look perfect. Just checked our vine out back (climbing among the forest of trees) , and it looks as though someone has taken some equipment and cleaned out the brush…thus eliminating many of my precious vines. Therefore, dear cousin, where oh where are you picking? I need to invade that vine, unless it is in someones private property.
    Mom had one in her back yard climbing all over her fence. We always had enough for the whole family. I took most of my stash to Florida and used them there. Now I need to replenish.
    Those leaves you posted are amazingly perfect and all the perfect size.
    Thanks

    • Maureen Abood says:

      Janet, how upsetting to lose your vine. You won’t be happy to know that the vine these leaves came from is downstate, in Lansing…. We’re going to get our leaves up north one way or another, one of these days!!

  5. Diane Nassir (my maternal grandmother was an Abood (Jamileh) from Ammun Leb. says:

    Maureen, what beautiful pics! We had two cultivated vines in our back yard specifically for cooking–each produced about one bunch of grapes per year–deep purple–and I was the only one interested–but I was just five and the whole world was wondrous! My Mother and I would go out back, and she would teach me exactly which ones to pick, and yes, the satisfying snap of taking the leaf at the base from the vine and not tearing the leaf making it almost always unusable. Thank you for these endearing memories. They always take me back to my dear Mother–the best of times–being a child under her tutelage and love and care.

  6. Lynda Snage says:

    Maureen, thank you for the reminder!! My grandmother (from Damascus, Syria) lived with us when I was growing up, so I was lucky to have her wonderful cooking whenever I wanted, and her grape leaves were one of my favorites! My heart lit up when I saw your post:) I just learned how to make grapes leaves the way she did – with lots of lemon juice – from my aunt, and can’t wait to pick this year’s roadside crop and get cooking!

    • Maureen Abood says:

      How great that you are making grape leaves the way your grandmother did! Thanks for being here with us!

  7. Amanda says:

    Love this idea and the story. How is it that I live in California and haven’t picked grape leaves yet. I see wild grape all the time. So glad to know how to store it too! I wonder if it is too late in the season here…We already have a few cucumbers and melons!

  8. Cathy Estrada says:

    Great information on getting just the right leaves. I have a couple spots that I haunt during this week always with a shopping bag in the car for a quick stop. I really should do it with my nylons rolled just below my knee in my house dress and I would really look like my Zitto.
    Thanks Maureen

  9. Merry in Massachusetts says:

    Have only just recently discovered your site, and have been enjoying it immensely. I am blessed with having a grapevine right next door all to myself and plan to go pick tomorrow morning. My father’s mother’s grapevine was brought over from the old country, and its purported claim to fame was that its leaves were green on both sides. The vines next door have never been maintained, and there seem to be two varieties: one with leaves that are green on one side, white on the other; and one whose leaves are green on both sides. I have only ever picked the green-on-both-sides leaves, and those vines are green grapes; the other leaves are on vines producing red/purple grapes. I didn’t know that the wild vines grow no grapes at all!

    Keep up the great work! You’ve really been inspiring me to cook more of the food of my childhood.

    • Maureen Abood says:

      How special Mary, thank you! I’m fascinated by the varieties of leaves…and lucky you, a vine all your own right next door. Enjoy them!

  10. Barbara Hammoud says:

    It’s this season again , everyone getting excited about those emerald colored tender leaves, waking memories …look at all the emotional responses !
    And to complete the stories of delicious grape leave dishes you all should make sure to pick some unripened grapes , ” husrum ” , and nestle one in between the stuffed leaves during cooking . This will give this dish the most amazing sour taste , that not even a generous helping of the usual lemon juice can compete with , yummy

  11. Ryan Lahoud says:

    I loved the story of picking wild grape leaves. Though I am at least a generation older than you, I remember well accompanying my Lebanese immigrant grandmothers to just the kind of roadside vines you describe to pick leaves. And i remember feeling the eyes of passersby looking askance at these weird folks. I grew up in Akron, Ohio. Once I went with my paternal grandmother to the Cuyahoga Gorge Park where we found bagfuls of leaves. And, discovered by a park policeman, we had to surrender them all. My grandmothers are long passed, but the memory is very vivid. Thanks for rekindling it.

  12. In the Palestinian Territories , stuffed grape leaves are called “Warak Dawali” in Arabic and are stuffed with parsley rice and ground beef or lamb.

  13. Gina Holmes says:

    Thanks so much for the info. I was sure what I had were grape leaves but got spooked because there were no grapes. I didn’t know some vines didn’t produce fruit. Can’t wait to stuff them!

  14. Mary Lou says:

    When I first got married, I would used to take my family to the cemetery to pick grape leaves as I did when I was a child. Now we have grape leaves growing and taking over our yard and our neighbor’s. I have a question. Near August our grape leaves have bumps on the back side of the leaves. Do you know what they are?

  15. julie pawlus says:

    Just had to let you know my best batch of grape leaves came from Cross Village,yup, your part of the country,picked after the 4th, so tender, love your posts.

  16. Janice Azrak says:

    I found your website while searching for fresh grape leaves. When we were growing up, my grandmother had her own grapevine so we had access to the best leaves. Sadly, that time has passed and I am now left having to purchase grape leaves in a jar.
    I just sat down to roll some, and the quality and condition of the leaves in the jar is abysmal. Most of the leaves are tough and badly torn…so few from each jar are actually useable!!! It really has taken the joy out of making this dish for me.
    I was looking at the leaves on your website and that is exactly what we were used to growing up. Beautiful, thin, gorgeous leaves. I grew up in New York (Brooklyn) and my grandmothers grapevine thrived in her backyard.
    So, I have two questions for you: do you have any experience with growing grapevines in southern Florida? I wonder if the climate down here is too warm in the winter.
    Second question would be…Do you have any idea where I can purchase (or pick) leaves like I saw on your site. I live in Boca Raton, FL and have not been able to get a handle on this – so frustrating!!!
    Thank you for your time and ay advice or information you can pass along would be greatly appreciated.

    • Maureen Abood says:

      Hello Janice–thanks so much for this. You are not alone! I’ve had so many people ask me how to get a starter for a wild vine for their yard that I’m thinking of seeing what I can do to make this happen. I will be sure to keep everyone posted on progress. I don’t know about the wild grape leaf vines in Florida, but as I research I will find out if they can grow there. We must keep our leaves alive and thriving all over the country!

      • Janice Azrak says:

        Thanks for your reply. You have inspired me to also do some research on growing vines down here in southern Florida. If I come up with anything, I will pass it along. Will also look forward to hearing about what you discover. I agree, we must keep our leaves alive!!! Thank you.
        Janice

  17. Helen Highmoor says:

    Hello, I was hoping to not waste my grape vines leaves and use them for making stuffed vine leaves, but I know see that I should have picked them earlier. Does it really matter if I picked a few now it won’t make anyone ill will it? Really desperate to try them out and it won’t get leaves or grapes like this by June…..

    2013-09-29 07.13.07.jpg Don’t know if you can see the pictures?

    2013-09-29 07.13.07.jpg

    best wishes, Helen

    • Maureen Abood says:

      Hi Helen–I can’t see the photos here, but I don’t think picking later in the season is a matter of whether the leaves are edible or not, just a matter of how tough they are. If the vine is producing grapes, though, those are not the edible leaves used for stuffed grape leaves. Those leaves come from wild vines that don’t produce fruit.

  18. ESTHER COBB says:

    DEAR MAUREEN,

    I WAS PLEASANTLY SURPRISED WHEN MY SON REFERRED ME TO YOUR WEB SITE TODAY. WHILE I GREW UP IN CHICAGO, WHERE WE WENT OUT TO THE FOREST PRESERVES TO PICK GRAPE LEAVES OR ALSO ALONG ROADWAYS, BEFORE ALL THE DEVELOPENT TOOK PLACE IN THE LAST 50 OR MORE YEARS. I AM OF ASSYRIAN HERITAGE AND THE ASSYRIANS ARE GREAT IN THE COOKING AND PREPARATION OF NUMEROUS FOODS OF THEIR ETHNICITY. I HAVE LIVED IN NO. CALIFORNIA SINCE 1946. EARLY IN MY LIFE HERE, I WOULD TRY TO TALK VINTNERS HERE IN THE WINE COUNTRY INTO ALLOWING ME TO PICK A FEW LEAVES FROM A NUMBER OF DIFFERENT VINES, AFTER ALL THEY HAD PLENTY.
    HOWEVER THEY LOOKED AT ME AS IF I DIDN’T HAVE GOOD SENSE. LATER, I PURCHASED A THOMPSON SEEDLESS GRAPEVINE FOR MY YARD, AND I HAVE ENJOYED MANY MEALS FROM THIS VINE. WHEN I PRUNED THIS VINE A NUMBER OF YEARS AGO, I USED ONE OF THE STRAIGHT SECTIONS OF THE VINE I TRIMMED TO SUPPORT SOME FLOWERS. MUCH TO MY SURPRISE, THESE STRAIGHT SECTIONS USED TO SUPPORT THE FLOWERS PUT OUT ROOTS AND NOW I HAVE 4 GRAPE VINES, ALL FROM THE ORIGINAL NURSERY BOUGHT PLANT, PROBABLY ABOUT 40 YEARS AGO.
    I HAVE SHARED MY LEAVES WITH OTHERS WHO DEPEND ON STORE BOUGHT JARS OF LEAVES. IN THE SPRING IS THE BEST TIME TO PICK THESE LEAVES, HOWEVER, IF I REMOVE THE OLDER LEAVES DURING THE SUMMER, NEW ONES COME IN THAT ARE SUITABLE FOR DOLMAS. PEOPLE WHO ADMIRE MY GRAPEVINES ARE SURPRISED TO LEARN WE USE THEM FOR PREPARING AND ENJOYING EATING GOURMET-TYPE DOLMAS.

    • Maureen Abood says:

      Esther, thank you for your wonderful comment. I’m fascinated by your Thompson seedless grapevine and am going to look into that for myself! Please stay in touch and keep me posted on all of your delicious assyrian cooking!

  19. Maria Elena says:

    Hi Maureen,
    I would like to know where you can buy the wild grape vines? Also, how can you tell which ones are the wild vines? Can you take a branch and plant it? Will it grow?
    Great information about the difference of the vines. I have read about many recipes for grape leaves and nobody writes about the kind of leaves we must use. Thanks Again!

    • Maureen Abood says:

      Hello Maria Elena, and thank you for your great questions…you are not alone in wanting to purchase wild grape vines. I have not found a vendor for them, and am seriously considering finding a way to sell them myself so we can all enjoy fresh vine leaves from our own yards. The wild vines are distinguished by having no fruit, and the leaves are distinguished as noted and pictured above. Fruit-bearing vines have thicker, tougher leaves. I believe to transplant the vine you need to get the root, not just the branch. There will be more from me on this someday, some way!

  20. Leslie says:

    I would love a small supply of fresh frozen leaves to insert with my cucumber pickles. Can anyone help out? I am in Oklahoma.

    • Maureen Abood says:

      I want to try grape leaves in my pickles this year, thank you for reminding me Leslie! I wish I had some frozen to send to you!

    • Gudrun B says:

      i could send you some!
      i bought a house that came with an asparagus patch and a wild grape vine
      i knew what to do with the asparagus, but that wild and always growing out of control grape vine that never produced any thing (but a wreath or two in the fall)
      thanks to this post i now know what to do with my “jungle plant”
      i tried the first time yesterday and added a grape leaf to my pickles…..
      oh the possibilities THANK YOU MAUREEN!

  21. Rosalie Hoffman says:

    Our back yard grape vine is not producing as much as we’d like, so, I need to find a place to buy fresh leaves, not in jars, but, fresh. Do you know where I can purchase fresh leaves? Thanks

    • Maureen Abood says:

      I wish there was a source for this Rosalie. If I ever find one (or become one myself) I will proclaim it loud and clear!

  22. Barbara says:

    You can buy vine leaves in Camden Town London in the right season.

  23. phyllis says:

    i made a little vinyard with several varieties. i have one that is a white grape and is really doing good. i was going to use the until i read your comment that they have to be wild. tne only wild grapes we have are mustangs and these leaves are fuzzy. have you found a source for wild ones yet.

  24. Tracy says:

    Thanks for you article. I have about 8 acres being taken over by wild grapevines. I have one very old grapevine that lives in an old oak tree and the base of the vine is literally 36 inches around. I am thinking it may be one of the biggest here in Florida. Its incredible. I do like to boast that such a vine exist on my property, And I do/will protect it.
    I do eat the tips of the grape vines raw in salads. And I do harvest the grapes as long as I can get to them before the coons and birds and foxes get them.
    I do not have experience cooking the leaves but I do want to try this. I forage on my land quite a bit and want to include these grapevines in my menu.
    Hope it works.
    Thanks again, Tracy

    • Maureen Abood says:

      Wow, you are a great cook with the grape leaves–I’m interested in your use of them raw in salads. Sounds like you have quite an abundance of them there…lucky you…

  25. Diane Hagopian says:

    This was a lovely explanation on grape leaves – my children, nieces, nephews and neighborhood children have all gone with me to pick leaves. Have created memories they still talk about years later.
    To avoid freezer burn – I stack my leaves in bunches of 50 (all the same size) fold in half lengthwise and put in special bags to be vacumn sealed – they last for more than a year – no freezer burn. Have even used leaves two years old and they are perfect. No boiling – I am going picking tomorrow as it is going to be a cooler day and the spot (a secret) is ready. Keep bags and a small ladder in the trunk of my car. Always put a label in the bag as to date, size and where picked. Another thing I do is separately pack about 30 extra large (huge) leaves per pkg. to line the pot and put between each layer – and top. Regards, Diane

    • Maureen Abood says:

      Your vacuum sealing is a great idea and a sure-fire way to keep the leaves fresher longer in the freezer. Two years! That’s wonderful. Thanks for sharing that and your picking stories too, Diane!

  26. Paula Calvert says:

    I grew up with a grapevine in my backyard. When I moved away my former neighbor managed to get a vine started for me to plant in my new yard. My neighbor spliced the stem of the grapevine by the node, filled a small plastic bag with potting soil, dipped the cut end in rooting hormone and wrapped the bag filled with soil and moistened around the cutting. When roots appeared he planted it in a clay pot until it grew to about 12 inches. I then planted it in my yard.
    I tried the same process to start another plant but was not successful. I was able to start another plant by laying cuttings dipped in rooting compound in plant flats filled with soil. Do not leave in direct sunlight and keep moist. After they developed roots (and not all did), I planted it in the garden and have another thriving vine.

  27. Cindy Sfeir Aguglia says:

    We used to pick ours every 4th of July with your cousin Rosemary Abowd Schwendler and her husband Tom at their cottage on Lake Erie. Now that we moved to Albany from Buffalo we no longer travel there for the weekend. We thought of them yesterday when we picked around 200. That’s not enough for the year so we’ll be looking for another spot next weekend.

    • Maureen Abood says:

      Hello Cindy! How great that you picked with Rosemary and tom and now have the grapeleaf-picking fever! I hope you find many more to store up for the year.

 

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