Stuffed Grape Leaves is a very popular Romanian recipe for vine leaves stuffed with meat and rice. The usual stuffing is beef and pork, but you can also make them with beef and lamb or just vegetarian.
This article also includes a recipe for making vegetarian stuffed grape leaves.
What are stuffed grape leaves?
Also known as Dolmas or Dolmades?
Dolma / Sarma is a stuffed grape leaf. Traditional in many countries, like Turkey, Romania, Bulgaria, Armenia, Iran, and Israel, just to name a few of them, this dish is versatile and easy to make.
Based on the geographical areas, traditions, or religious limitations, these dolmades can be stuffed with a mixture of minced/ground pork, beef, lamb, rice, onion, and different spices.
Dill, lemon, and sometimes parsley are popular ingredients, but there are countries that make them vegetarian and replace the meat with mushrooms, grains, different types of nuts, raisins, currants, etc.
Romanian stuffed grape leaves are also cooked in different ways, based on the part of the country where the recipe comes from.
The most popular one uses a tomato sauce or tomato paste to thicken the sauce, but if you go to the western side of the country, the sauce is made with sour cream/yogurt, dill, and lemon juice.
However, if you never had them before, you are here for a treat. Stuffed grape leaves are part of a big family of stuffed vegetables, and you will see on my blog some other recipes, like Stuffed Cabbage Rolls, or Stuffed Peppers.
The recipe is great for Easter, and it also feeds a crowd. We make them once in a while and eat them for a few days in a row, as we love leftovers.
Most Mediterranean countries, or the Middle East, eat these stuffed grape leaves as appetizers. Pine nuts and fresh mint might be part of the ingredients used to flavor this dish.
Romanians eat them as the main dish. I never had them as appetizers unless I ate them in a Turkish or Middle Eastern restaurant, part of a mezze platter.
Where to find grape/vine leaves?
I usually buy jarred grape leaves (affiliate link) from specialty grocery stores around Minneapolis, or I order them online. ( I wish to have my own grapevines in the backyard, but I don't).
There are many brands on the market, and all of them are good.
How I prepare the grape leaves for stuffing
I usually grab the jar of grape leaves, remove them from the inside and give them a good rinse under cold water. I drain them and remove the stems.
Note: For a pound of meat, I used only half of the leaves in the jar, but if you cook for a crowd and want to use them all, double the amount of meat filling. If you have leftover leaves, put them in a ziplock bag and freeze them for later use.
What other ingredients go into this recipe
- Ground/minced pork, ground beef, or a combination of both:
It is important to know what kind of stuffed grape leaves you want.
If you will use ground meat with a higher amount of fat in it, the dolmas will be fluffier inside and tender.
If you will use lean meat, they are going to be more compact inside.
My preference is to use meat with more fat, as fat makes everything better.
- Rice: While most Middle East recipes will use long-grain white rice, I like to use short-grain as it is more starchy and works better as a binder in the filling.
(I always use uncooked rice in the meat filling for stuffing vegetables or leaves, as it gets cooked together with the rest of the ingredients.)
However, it is just a matter of preference, so use what you have.
- Onions- I used a chopped yellow onion. It doesn't have to be chopped super small because it will kind of "melt" inside the filling while cooking and will provide some texture.
- Dill- Fresh herbs are always better than dried, but if you are like me, a jar with dried or salted dill is always available in my pantry.
- Thyme- I always have dried thyme in the pantry, and this is what I used.
- Lemon juice
- Salt and black pepper- because of flavor, obviously!
- Water or chicken/beef stock to cover the stuffed grape leaves in the pot.
How to make
1. Make the filling: In a large bowl, mix the ingredients for the filling together.
You will need minced meat (pork or beef, or a mixture of both), chopped onions, rice, and fresh or dried dill.
I used this clay pot originally from Bulgaria, but any deep pot would do the same job.
Make sure it works for the oven and has a cover. You can also use a large pot or a Dutch oven.
Before you place the rolls into the cooking pot, spread 3-4 leaves on the bottom of it, the rolls are not going to stick to the bottom when you cook them.
2. Fill the grape leaves with the filling.
How to roll the grape leaves so they don't open during the cooking process:
Take a leaf and spread it flat on your work surface. Place a teaspoon of meat mixture on the leaf but on the other side of the stem.
Fold the end of the leaf over the meat once. Then fold over the left and right sides of the leaf.
Continue to fold the leaf, pushing the edges inside so the meat doesn't come out during cooking.
Place the roll on the bottom of the pot and continue wrapping the stuffed grape leaves until you finish the meat mixture. Arrange them in layers in the pot.
3. Make the sauce for the stuffed grape leaves.
Add the fresh lemon juice to your pot and enough water or chicken/beef stock to cover the rolls.
Sprinkle some salt and pepper, based on how salty the beef stock is.
If you do not have a pot like mine with a lid, use aluminum foil to cover it.
Put the pot in the oven for an hour and a half at 350F or until the rolls are tender and the rice is cooked inside.
The lemon juice will make this dish a special delicate one. It goes perfectly with a glass of white light wine.
NOTE: If you want to make these stuffed grape leaves vegetarian/vegan, you can find the full instructions at the bottom of this article, on the recipe card.
The same filling can be used to stuff peppers, cabbage leaves, zuchinni, or make meatballs for a meatball soup.
You can serve them as a main course by themselves, with some bread and a little bit of sour cream or fresh plain yogurt on top.
You can also serve them with polenta. Some mashed potatoes would be good for a complete meal.
This is a great dish to serve for dinner parties.
Stuffed grape leaves can be stored in an airtight container for up to 5 days. You can reheat them in the microwave or on the stove.
You can also freeze them uncooked or cooked. For both versions, place them in freezer bags and keep them for up to six months.
Uncooked frozen stuffed grape leaves can be cooked according to the recipe, but they will take a little more time. Otherwise, you can defrost them in the refrigerator overnight and then cook them.
For frozen cooked stuffed grape leaves, follow the same steps as for uncooked ones.
Defrost them overnight and reheat them, covered, in the oven for 25-30 minutes at 350F.
If you choose to reheat them from the frozen state, place them in the oven covered and reheat them for about an hour at 350F or until they are hot inside.
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Stuffed Grape Leaves
- 16 ounces jar of grape leaves
- 16 ounces ground pork or beef or a combination of both
- ¼ cup rice
- 1 diced onion
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon ground pepper
- 1 teaspoon dried dill or 2 tablespoons fresh dill
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme
- 1 lemon we will use the juice
- 2 cups water or chicken/beef stock or enough to cover the stuffed grape leaves in the pot
- For serving: Sour cream or yogurt
- Preheat the oven to 350F.
Prepare the grape leaves:
- Take the leaves out of the jar and rinse them.
- Remove the stems so you can have a smooth leaf surface to work with.
- Note: For a pound of meat, I used only half of the leaves in the jar, but if you cook for a crowd and want to use them all, double the amount of meat, rice, and everything else.If you have leftover leaves, put them in a ziplock bag and freeze them for later use.
Make the stuffing:
- Put all the ingredients, meat, onions, rice, and spices, in a bowl. Mix everything well to combine.
Roll the stuffed grape leaves:
- Grab a leaf and spread it flat on your work surface.
- Place a teaspoon of meat mixture on the leaf but on the other side of the stem.
- Fold the end of the leaf over the meat once, then fold over the left and right sides of the leaf.
- Continue to fold the leaf like you would roll a cigar by pushing the edges inside, so the meat doesn't come out. Keep wrapping the stuffed grape leaves until you finish the meat mixture.
- Before you start placing the rolls into your cooking pot, spread 3-4 leaves on its bottom. This will prevent the rolls from sticking to the bottom.
- Fill up the pot with the rolls. Add the juice of one lemon into your pot and the water/stock, just to cover the stuffed grape leaves.
- Use aluminum foil to cover the pot if you don't have a lid.
- Place the pot inside the oven for 1 hour and 30 minutes at 350F or until the rolls are tender and the rice is cooked inside.
- Note: Serve with a nice glass of light white wine, a good slice of bread, and some sour cream.
¼ cup rice
Two tablespoons of tomato paste
Two tablespoons oil
½ teaspoon dried thyme
salt and pepper to taste 2 tablespoons tomato paste How to make vegetarian/vegan stuffed grape leaves: Use a food processor to grind the mushrooms. Mix the mushrooms with dried thyme. Chop the onion. Heat the oil in a skillet and saute the chopped onion until translucent. Mix the rice with cooked onion and mushrooms. Taste for salt and pepper. Follow the same steps as above for the recipe that uses meat. Instead of making a sauce with lemon juice and mint, use tomato paste and water to boil the stuffed grape leaves. Serve with sour cream on top.