We compare the best substitute for grape leaves for dolmas based on taste, look, texture and availability using swiss chard, cabbage, collard green and kale.
If you can’t get fresh grape leaves, you can just buy preserved ones from a jar off the shelf at your local supermarket. One jar of grape leaves normally holds about 40 leaves so you can get a good amount of dolmas from that. Jarred or canned grape leaves will work just as well as fresh ones for making dolmas or dolmades.
They are already salted and pickled so you can skip blanching them in boiling water and go straight to folding them into dolmades. This helps to cut down your prep time.
However, if you do insist on making fresh dolmas then based to our research, we find green cabbage leaves to be the best choice.
Swiss chard and collard greens come at a close second but with some challenges in terms of size and you will not be able to make as many dolmades out of a single bunch as you would be able to with cabbage.
Another grape leaf substitute such as kale may work but don’t come close to the cabbage and swiss chard dolmas for taste and texture.
Read on to find out how we came to these conclusions and hopefully they will help you to find an alternative that best suits your needs.
Why use grape leaves for dolmades?
We need to explore what makes grape leaves so suitable for making dolmades so that we can use those characteristics to determine our best substitute for grape leaves.
Availability Of The Leaves
The leaves from the grape vines of the Thompson Seedless variety, also known as Sultana or White Grapes are normally the ones used for making dolmas.
A dolma is actually the name given to a stuffed vegetable dish such as stuffed bell peppers or zucchini. A stuffed grape leaf dish is specifically called a dolmadaki or dolmadakia in its plural form.
These grape leaves are found in abundance in the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern countries and the locals have thus found ways to incorporate it into their cuisine. But this may not be the case where you live.
Swiss chard, collard green, green cabbage and kale are more likely to be available in your local farmer’s market or supermarket.
These alternatives are generally available close to the harvest of grape leaves too.
Winner: All are easily available
Quantity Of Leaves Needed To Make Dolmades
One dolma or stuffed vine leaf comes in a small serve (about 50g) and is normally expected to appear with about 40-60 dolmades, if it is a main dish.
Swiss chard, collard greens and kale are generally sold as a bunch of around 5-8 leaves and it will not be enough to make a dish of dolmades unless you are making to serve just one or two people or as a starter. You will have to buy many bunches to make up a main dish.
For its characteristic of quantity, this is where the green cabbage really stands out.
Cabbages are normally sold as a compact head and you can yield a lot of leaves from a head of cabbage. The more suitable leaves for dolmades will be the inner leaves that are more pliable.
Winner: Green Cabbage
Color Appearance Of The Leaves
Grape leaves lose their light green color and turn dark brown-green after blanching and remain that way even when they are made into dolmas.
When the leafy greens are blanched, they turn into either a darker green hue or a paler green color.
In terms of color, this characteristic seems to be a unique color change for the grape leaf and it is difficult for any of our leaf choices to simulate that look.
Winner: No Distinct Winner
Size Of Leaves
The grape leaves needs to be roughly around 4-5 inches, making them not too young nor too thin, just a little mature with a shiny and smooth texture.
This allows the grape leaves to accommodate the white rice expanding during the cooking process without tearing.
Swiss chard, kale, green cabbage and collard greens all come in different sizes to grape leaves.
Winner: No Distinct Winner
Foldability Of The Leaves
A single grape leaf can hold a tablespoon of filling once it is folded in without the use of toothpicks or pegs.
This phase proves to be a little challenging for some of our leaves because the swiss chard and the kale have thicker midribs and veins closer to their stem. The thicker and wider midrib makes it difficult to fold and can cause breakage or tearing of the leaf if you force it to roll.
The only way around this is to cut the thicker midrib that is closer to the stem. Grape leaves normally do not have such a thick midrib so this is usually not a problem.
Swiss chard, green cabbage, collard green and kale will give a broader area for your filling as compared to a grape leaf.
They are quite capable of being rolled up without tearing as well.
However, one major drawback to this method is that it will cause some wastage among your leaves if you are using swiss chard, collard greens or kale. You would need to remove a lot of midribs and stems.
My suggestion would be to do a simple stir fry with some chopped garlic with a pinch of salt and pepper.
Winner: Green Cabbage and Swiss Chard
Ability Of The Leaves To Hold Filling After Cooking Time
After the washing process, grape leaves are salted and blanched for about 3-4 minutes to soften them up for the folding phase.
They are very capable of withstanding being boiled in a pot and placed on the lowest heat for about 45 mins. These are some of the crucial steps for making dolmades.
All of our leaf choices seem to be ideal in holding a tablespoon of stuffing without tearing.
Each of our grape leaf substitute holds up well in the cooking process and taste well with virgin olive oil, medium grain rice mixture, onions, black pepper, fresh lemon juice, fresh herbs and even mince meat too.
Winner: All work fine, no distinct winner
Taste and Texture Of The Leaves When Cooked Over Medium Heat
Once the grape leaves are salted, blanched in boiling hot water, and cooked over medium heat, they will be quite tender to the bite. The grape leaves have a mild flavor and can take on the flavor of its filling and enhance it.
This is where the main difference will become apparent when using any of our leaf substitutes.
When kale leaves are boiled, they still retain that slightly bitter taste. It was a lot stronger when it was just blanched but is mellowed down when cooked for longer.
The swiss chard dolmas tastes a little bitter too but not as much as kale when it is blanched and boiled. It is the closest taste to stuffed grape leaves.
The green cabbage leaves turn out to be the mildest in taste and comes in at second place to the taste of blanched and boiled grape leaves as compared to kale and swiss chard.
Winner: Swiss Chard
How to Choose Grape Leaves Substitute for Dolmades?
The chosen grape leaves need to be light green, a little mature, not too thin and these will generally be about 4-5 inches. These leaves will be the most tender and not thick or leathery as long as you pick the ones that are about 3 leaves beneath the latest growth that faces the sun.
The best time to pick grape leaves will fall around mid to late spring and early summer.
Choose the ones with no holes, tears or blemishes and not pale or yellow.
It is also ideal to use unsprayed leaves that are free from any pesticides so it’s always best to use the leaves of your own homegrown vines or from reliable sources.
Based on these physical aspects, some similarities will apply towards choosing our grape leaf alternatives.
For swiss chard, kale, collard greens and green cabbage, pick the leaves that are not too thick or leathery and that can be blanched to make them pliable.
Substitute for Grape Leaves for Dolma Summary
Each one is a good substitute for grape leaves and there some clear winners based on their capabilities. The one that is best in our opinion is green cabbage leaves. Swiss chard was a close competitor but it loses out in terms of the amount of dolmades you can make out of a bunch as compared to a head of green cabbage. Although, swiss chard wins in terms of taste and texture.
This goes the same for kale. Often, kale seems to come with a thick midrib unless you are able to find some young kale near where you live. Its wavy ridges might prove to be a little challenge to tuck in and fold.
Therefore, if you want more bang for your buck and prefer a mild taste, then go with green cabbage but if taste and texture is really what you are after, then go for swiss chard.
Your grape leaf substitute is going to highly depend on the availability of the leaves in your area and your taste preferences. Hopefully, this article would have helped you to make an informed choice.
We also discuss another topic on why use grape leaves in pickles and its suitable substitutes.