What To Use When You Don’t Have Grape Leaves For Pickles

I remember a few years ago, trying desperately to find grape leaves in the area where we lived. I was quite new to fermented foods, and I was excited to try making some ‘real’ sour pickles (aka lacto-fermented cucumbers flavored with pickling spice and all things nice…).  But much to my dismay, there were none to be found (not even bottled grape leaves).

fermented-zuchini
Pickled zucchini. Check out the recipe here.

So I forgot all about the pickles until my first summer back in New Zealand, when I suddenly realized (with some delight) that grape leaves were available all over the place. In fact, they hang over fences, drape themselves over trellises, and along with an abundance of vegetables, make pickle making wonderfully simple, and delightfully cheap all summer long!

Grape Leaves To Keep Pickles Crisp

So, if you’ve stumbled across this post and you’re wondering what all the hullabaloo is about grape leaves, well the answer is that they help keep lacto-fermented pickles crisp.

You see when you ferment cucumbers without a grape leaf, (and this also goes for some other vegetables), the cucumbers go soggy after sitting in liquid for so long. One of the secrets to those crunchy pickles is the tannin in a grape leaf that helps keep them crisp.

Wash grape leaves at least twice and thoroughly to remove any chemical residue, especially if you’ve collected them from a commercial vineyard.

What I didn’t realize all those years ago when grape leaves were rarer than hen’s teeth, was that there are alternatives to grape leaves that work just as well…

Alternatives To Grape Leaves

The following alternatives to grape leaves can be used in lacto-fermented pickles (sour pickles) in the same way as they also contain tannin:

  • Oak leaves
  • Horseradish leaves
  • Black tea leaves
  • Green tea leaves
  • Sour cherry leaves

I’ve also read that red wine vinegar, raspberry leaf, bay leaves and cloves might do the same job. I haven’t tried any of these, so I’d experiment with a small batch first.

Now going back to my dilemma of a few years ago when no grape leaves were available, I think I would have been pushing it trying to find any Oak leaves either as I was living in tropical Queensland at the time. But if I’d known, horseradish leaves might have been possible and failing that – black tea!

Everyone has access to black tea… (why didn’t I think of it?) If only I’d known… Oh well, I do now (and so do you) and the good thing is that it means zucchini pickle recipe is still a possibility during the winter when there are no grape leaves or oak leaves around (assuming I can get some zucchini as a reasonable price). Yay!

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Note: If I were to use tea leaves, I’d use unbleached (organic, if possible) tea bags. That way the tea leaves are contained and won’t be all over your pickled vegetables when it comes time to eat them!

I tried using teabags without much success, so perhaps loose tea would be better. I’m also thinking though that maybe the brand of tea might make a difference (variation in tannin content). The tea might be better soaked in warm water first (not too hot) to release more tannin and then add the tea to the ferment (2 tablespoons per 1 quart of brine water)

Store-bought Alternatives To Grape Leaves

1. Calcium Chloride

Food grade calcium chloride helps to keep the pickles from going soft. They can come in the form of granules that completely dissolve in your brine solution. The calcium helps to firm the pectin in the cucumber. This is an alternative to using alum or aluminium potassium sulfate in the pickling process. I’m not particularly a fan of anything that uses aluminium in any form of food preparation.

Apparently, a calcium chloride salt product can help remove the need for the food grade lime (calcium hydroxide) soaking process that can take up to 24 hours. Any excess lime must be rinsed out at least 3 times in order to make pickles safe for consumption.

Personally, I haven’t used this method and would only use it as the last result. However, if all methods from the “Top 8 Tips for Crisp Pickles” have been followed, these firming agents are generally not needed.

2. Tannin Powder

As another last resort, tannin powder that is originally made for winemaking can also be used if you already have some at hand due to your own wine-making efforts. Follow the instructions carefully as the measurements are a little different for red, white, and fruit wine. Choose the fruit wine measurement which calls for a 1/2 teaspoon to 1 gallon of liquid.

This translates to maybe just a small pinch of tannin powder that you will need to dissolve into your 1 quart of brine solution.

Top 7 Tips For Crisp Pickles

1. Choosing The Best Cucumbers For Pickling

Some people may not be aware that you actually need to use a pickling cucumber for that perfect crunch and not the regular one used in your garden salad. It will simply not cut the mustard… or should I say pickling… in this case.

Look for small, firm and dark green skin with some pointy bumps and these are some of the best ones to use:

  • Kirby Cucumbers – Small, firm flesh and bumpy skin. Pick the ones with dark green skin and leave the yellow ones for salads. Usually about 6 inches long.
  • Gherkin – Small and perfect for pickling. Pick the ones that are about 3 inches long. 
  • Persian Cucumbers – Great for dill pickling, mild and sweet flavour with a thin skin that makes it easy to chew. 
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Do avoid the seedless English cucumber variety that contains a lot of enzyme, making them not ideal for pickling.

Choose only the freshest and the very best cucumbers you can find for your fermentation. If any one of them is looking a little lackluster they may cause damage to the whole lot. The old adage, “One rotten apple spoils the whole barrel” really rings true as far as lacto-fermentation is concerned.

In addition to the above, you have to make sure that the cucumbers are not waxed. Please check with your greengrocer to be sure. If they are, it will be difficult for the brine to penetrate and turn your cukes into crunchy ones.

2. Cutting Off The Blossom End Of The Cucumber

A technique that works wonders for crisping pickles and might even help you to skip the use of grape leaves altogether, is to use fresh cucumbers and cutting off the blossom end. It is the end that was originally attached to the plant. The blossom end of cucumber contains enzymes that can cause softening making for a less than desirable product. 

3. Time from the Pick to Pickling Process

One of the secrets to a crisp and crunchy cucumber pickle is how quickly you can start the pickling process from the time the cucumbers were picked. No more than a few hours is the best option.

Cucumbers will start to lose their water content right after the pick and will cause the cucumber to soften in a short space of time. That crispness comes from the cucumber’s natural pectin and that pectin structure changes and will start to break down due to handling or excess hot temperature as the day warms up. So don’t leave your cucumber out on the counter for days on end.

Make preparation and schedule some hours a day for pickling so that you’ll get off to a good start. In fact, if you can do the pick and the pickling before lunchtime, then expect your pickles to be in good crunchy shape.

4. Soaking The Cucumbers In An Ice Water Bath

Of course, not everybody can be expected to pick and pickle within a few hours every time, so soaking your cucumbers in an ice bath for at least 30 minutes or up to 4-5 hours in the fridge will keep them plump for pickling later in the day.

5. Adding Mustard Seeds

If grape leaves or any kind of leaves are not at hand, then try mustard seeds. According to Bon Appétit Test Kitchen manager, Brad Leone, it keeps his pickles crunchy.

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Towards the end of the video, listen out for that loud crunching sound when they put it to the taste test after fermenting it for 10 days.

6. Keeping Cucumbers Below The Brine

When doing a lacto-ferment, it is very important that the entire batch of cucumbers is completely submerged in the brine. Otherwise, the tops ones will get mushy as they did not get the work that was needed to be done by our Lactobacillus friends.

This is where a fermentation weight will be useful to ensure an even ferment for the whole batch of cucumbers.

After placing your ingredients, pour in your filtered water, leaving about 1-1.5 inches from the mouth of the jar, then place in your fermentation weights to hold your entire batch down.

7. Proper Salt Ratio

One of the causes of a mushy pickle batch could be due to not using the right amount of salt. For a lacto-ferment to work, the Lactobacillus bacteria needs enough salt to build its domain over the other bacteria. Otherwise, it might lose its foothold and your batch will succumb to the bacteria of the horrible kind.

Dissolve 2 tablespoons to 1 quart of filtered water as a guide for the colder months but if the location you want to ferment your pickles goes over 85°F (approx. 30°C), then give your brine an additional tablespoon of salt.

Last Words

Pickles are loaded with probiotics that will strengthen your immune system and your gut will love you for it!

Enjoy it straight out of the jar or with your favorite bacon or ham sandwich.

However, just like everything we mention on this website, be sure to practice proper hygiene and food handling guidelines to make sure you are making a safe and healthy product for you and your family by checking out the USDA Complete Guide to Home Canning at the National Center For Home Food Preservation

5 thoughts on “What To Use When You Don’t Have Grape Leaves For Pickles”

  1. Hi Sue. Thanks, this is great for another Kiwi living in Aussie, in cooler rural climes than you were, yet not a grape leaf in sight. But we do have a horseradish plant gifted by a friend! I’ll be using horseradish leaf for my pickled cucumbers this year. The tea bag idea is great, and Aldi do a great organic black tea bag!

    • Hi Fiona. I’m glad you have horseradish leaves! When I used the black tea it didn’t work as well as grape leaves. Maybe I didn’t use enough? I’m not sure. But the horseradish should work perfectly. Pickled cucumbers are yum… 🙂

  2. How would you substitute black tea leaves? 1 tsp for a grape leave and submerge it in the brine?

    • That was what I thought. I tried it using teabags, but it wasn’t as successful as the grape leaves and the zucchini came out a bit soggy. I haven’t tried it again. Maybe black tea doesn’t have as much tannin? Or maybe I needed to use more? or maybe it was the brand I used or even maybe the tea needs to be made with hot water first to release the tannins. Who knows? If you decide to experiment keep me posted! 🙂

  3. I USED red wine, bay leaf and steeped tea in my brine. it kept the cucumber, carrots, radish and garlic crisp. chilled in the refrigerator, it never tasted better. added benefit of using this blend: it somehow controls the growth of kahm yeast – that white milky film that forms on top of the brine.

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