We reveal the role of grape leaves in pickles, substitutes and where to buy grape leaves for pickling to ensure you get crispy pickles every time.
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 jarred grape leaves).
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 hung over fences, drape themselves over trellises, and along with an abundance of vegetables, make pickle making wonderfully simple, and that’s when I learned how to make fermented green papaya too!
Why Put Grape Leaves In Pickles?
Grape leaves in pickles are a must, to stop the cucumbers from going 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 lacto-fermented pickles crisp.
Wash grape leaves thoroughly by using apple cider vinegar in the first round then wash them again with fresh water to remove any chemical residue, especially if you’ve collected them from a commercial vineyard.
When looking for grape leaves for pickling, I did not realise that they were rarer than hen’s teeth and that there is more than one grape leaves substitute that can work just as well.
However, if you are still wondering where to buy grape leaves for fermenting pickles, I have listed some options further on this article.
What To Substitute Grape Leaves For In Pickling?
Any of the following are a great substitute to grape leaves for 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
- Raspberry leaf
- Bay leaf
- Red Wine Vinegar
Bear in mind that some of these grape leaves substitutes may add flavour to your brine that you did not expect. Don’t be afraid to experiment a little before settling on something you like.
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 lacto fermented pickled 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!
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 due to variation in tannin content. The tea might be better steeped 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)
Where to Buy Grape Leaves for Pickling
If we don’t have access to a vineyard or wild grapes then the question we would be asking ourselves is: where to buy grape leaves for fermenting pickles?
Fortunately, we only need to let our fingers do the walking at Etsy.com that has tons of good reviews and you are buying directly from people who have their own vineyard or grape plants.
These choices are both organically grown and you’ll get close to a minimum a dozen fresh leaves;
Fresh cut Wild Grape leaves. 10 Large grape leaves. Stuffed grape leaves. Vitis riparia Leaves.
Fresh Organic Grape Leaves Organic Fresh Picked / For Dolmas, Pickle making, Stuffing/ Healthy Culinary, Leaves 4-6”
From France: Fresh vine leaves, in vacuum bag, available only during the summer, products of my garden, organic vine, untreated grapes
Can You Use Canned or Jarred Grape Leaves for Pickles?
No, it is not advisable if you are using canned or jarred grape leaves to get the tannin needed to make your pickles crisp.
You may only need a little of bit of tannin to get your pickles crisp but most of the tannins from jarred grape leaves would have already leaked out and gone into the brine. This would render them quite useless as an alternative to using fresh grape leaves because commercially packed grape leaves are preserved using a canning method that uses boiling vinegar brine solution to fill the cans and jars.
Furthermore, adding a vinegar brine grape leaf into your fresh cucumber pickles might introduce more than you bargain for into your overall batch, especially if you want to keep your pickles lacto fermented as much as possible.
It is best to leave canned or jarred grape leaves for dolmas or if you find yourself in a bind to find some in your area, perhaps our article on grape leaf alternatives for dolma and their best choices explained might help.
Other Sources Of Tannin For Pickles
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 7 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.
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.
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. However, there are ways to pickle waxed cucumbers as mentioned in our other article; can you pickle waxed cucumbers?.
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 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.
The Role Of Grape Leaves In Pickles Summary
Now you know why we use grape leaves in pickles and which grape leaves substitute to pick that is obtainable for you based on the aforementioned options.
And if you are still wanting some fresh grape leaves, we have provided some options on where to buy grape leaves for pickling.
Pickles are loaded with probiotics that will strengthen your immune system and your gut will love you for it! We even have a lacto fermented pickled zucchini recipe.
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.
- Eve Mayhew is a stay-at-home Mum, graphic designer and wife who takes more of a relaxed and practical approach to her lifestyle. She prefers to live a more stress-free life and enjoys food and drink in moderation by counting her blessings rather than counting the calories or feeling guilty over the odd soft drink or fast food fix every now and then. (Contact Author)