Eastern European Stuffed Grape Leaves Recipe You Need to Try

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Rich, hearty, and packed with deep flavor, my stuffed grape leaves recipe can be a real crowd-pleaser at any dinner party, celebration, or feast.

Historically an integral dish of the Ottoman Empire, through the ages this simple, creative food found its way into an array of Middle Eastern, Eastern European, and Mediterranean cuisines.

Today many different variations, utilizing different ingredients, exist. It is known as dolma in some cuisines, such as Armenian cuisine, and sarmale, such as Moldovan cuisine, in others. My recipe is Moldovan-inspired, fun to make, and sumptuous to gorge on!

Eastern European Stuffed Grape Leaves

Stuffed Grape Leaves Recipe

A Bit About Stuffed Grape Leaves Dishes

Before we begin, it’s important to point out that stuffed leaves dishes have existed as far back as ancient Greece, and have taken on a wide range of different variations and ingredients through time.

You’ll find stuffed leaf dishes in so many cuisines, with many different names. Dolma, sarma, tolma, yebra, and dolmades, are just some of its many forms.

While grape leaves are commonly used, you’ll also find dolma and sarma recipes that use cabbage leaves, along with many other types of leaves.

Even within neighboring cuisines, such as Romanian and Moldovan, the dish can be very different. In Romanian cuisine, sarmale stuffing is up to 70% meat, whereas in Moldovan cuisine, the stuffing has more rice than meat.

As mentioned, this recipe is Moldovan and Eastern European-inspired. It is, in fact, a recipe my mother has been making for decades, passed down from her mother and so on, with adaptations along the way.

But from different leaves to different fillings, the diversity in this recipe is vast. Enjoy making this recipe, and feel free to adapt it how you wish!

Ingredients

To make my Eastern European stuffed grape leaves recipe, you’ll need the following:

Grape Leaves – about 80-100, depending on the size, for the amount of filling below.

We used grape leaves freshly picked from a vineyard. Of course, not everyone would have access to that. So, you can also buy pre-packaged vine leaves on Amazon or specialty stores and even in some grocery stores with an international food aisle. For example, the ones below (sold on Amazon), come in a jar with about 90 leaves, which would be just the right amount for this recipe.

Stuffing Ingredients

  • Pork thigh (500 grams, about 1.1 lb)
  • Rice (2 cups)
  • Tomato Purée or Tomato Passata (1 cup)
  • Carrots (2 big carrots or 3 small ones)
  • Onions (3 medium-sized white onions)
  • Cabbage (1/4th of a cabbage)
  • Olive oil (1-2 tablespoons)
  • Salt (1 tablespoon)
  • Black pepper (1 teaspoon)
  • Cimbru/Summer Savory or Thyme (1 teaspoon)*
  • Oregano (1 teaspoon)
  • Paprika (optional, 1 teaspoon)

Note: Summer savory (or ‘cimbru’ as it’s called in Romanian) is commonly used in Romanian cuisine, especially in stuffed grape leaves. If you don’t have summer savory, thyme is quite similar in taste, so you can substitute in thyme. Don’t go chasing summer savory if not readily available!

Additional Ingredients for Serving with the Stuffed Grape Leaves

  • Cabbage (15-20 leaves, to line the bottom and the top of the pot in which we’ll bake the stuffed grape leaves)
  • Sour cream (for serving with the stuffed grape leaves)

Step-By-Step Instructions

Step 1 – Prepare the Grape Leaves

Note that you can skip this step if you’re not using fresh leaves and are using jarred ones instead. If using jarred leaves, just drain them, set them aside, and go to step 2. If you’re using fresh leaves, keep reading

First, bring a pot of boiling water to the boil. Once the water is ready, add all of your leaves into the pot.

You’ll need to let the leaves boil for around 1-2 minutes until they change color. Make sure the leaves are submerged in the boiling water.

After 1-2 minutes, using a slotted spoon, take them out and lay them to rest on a plate.

Step 2 – Preparing the Stuffing

With your leaves resting, it’s time to start making the filling to stuff in the leaves.

First, prep the ingredients. Dice the onions. Shred the cabbage and the carrots. Get everything else ready to go.

Now, put a pan on medium heat and add olive oil.

Add the shredded cabbage and carrots to the pan, and cook the mixture over medium heat, for around 10 minutes.

While your diced and shredded vegetables are cooking, you have time to prepare both the meat and rice, ready to add to the pan in due course.

First, take the meat, and either dice it into small cubes or mince it, depending on preference. We prefer it diced in small cubes. Set it aside.

Now, rinse the rice in a strainer under running water until the water seeping through is clear. Place the rice in a pot, pour boiling water over it, and leave it to rest for 5 minutes. After 5 minutes, strain it and set it aside.

By now, the vegetables in the pan should be cooking away nicely, creating a colorful, earthy vegetable mixture that will form the base of your filling.

Once the 10 minutes passed since you started cooking the onion-carrot-cabbage mixture, add the tomato puree or passata to the pan, and mix it into the vegetables, as shown below.

As soon as the tomato passata has been added, add the spices (salt, pepper, summer savory or thyme, oregano, and paprika), and cook the whole mixture for 2-3 minutes, stirring it as you go, as shown below.

Now take the diced or minced meat, and add it to the pan.

Cook for around 5 minutes, letting the meat brown and mix with the vegetables and the spices, as shown below. After five 5 minutes, turn the heat off.

With the heat off, take your drained rice and simply add it to the pan.

Mix everything together to create your rich, hearty, and delicious filling, ready to be stuffed into the grape leaves.

Step 3 – Roll the Grape Leaves

With your filling ready, now comes the fun part: rolling your stuffed grape leaves. The video below shows you how to do it in a way that seals the leaves, so that the filling won’t pop out when cooking. You’ll notice these are rolled differently from the Greek/Turkish/Mediterranean versions (which are more like small cylinders).

Before you start rolling, have your pot that you will cook your stuffed grapes leaves in ready by your side, so as soon as you roll your leaves, you can place them in the pot. Line the bottom with a few cabbage leaves.

It takes a little practice, but you have plenty of leaves and stuffing to get through, so don’t worry if it takes you a few attempts to get it right.

It can take some time to roll all of your stuffed cabbage leaves, so make yourself comfortable. Maybe put some music or a show on, or get someone to help you.

In time, your pot will be filled with delicious wrapped grape leaves, as shown below.

Once all of your stuffed leaves are in the pot, add 400ml (about 1 and ¾ cups) of water to the pot. Finally, cover the top with a handful of cabbage leaves and cover with a lid (ovenproof lid if you’re going to bake them in the oven – see below).

Step 4 – Cook/Bake the Stuffed Grape Leaves

Option A (Bake the Stuffed Grape Leaves): Bake at 200° Celsius (390 Fahrenheit) for about 20 minutes. Then turn the temperature down to 180° Celsius (350 Fahrenheit) and bake for an hour. This is my preferred option as the stuffed grape leaves will taste much better than when cooked on the stove (in my opinion).

Option B (Cook the Stuffed Grape Leaves on the Stove): Cover the pot and put it on the stove over medium heat for about 20 minutes. Turn the heat to low and simmer for an hour.

Once the stuffed grape leaves are ready, they will be a deep, dark green in color.

Get a large serving plate, and get your stuffed leaves out of the pot, and stack them on the plate.

The rich, green color and the creased, crisp exterior of the stuffed leaves are beautiful to behold, particularly when glistening under the kitchen or dining room light.

But inside these little pockets is where the true magic lies. Pick one up, bite in, and prepare for a release of richness, heat, and spice, which will get you hooked from the first mouthful.

What to serve with stuffed grape leaves

Stuffed grape leaves, because of their abundance, are naturally an ideal serving for dinner parties or large gatherings as part of a buffet or spread, or as an appetizer or side to many main meals.

Serve the stuffed grape leaves with a side of sour cream, and you have the perfect soft and creamy complement to the texture and hearty filling of the stuffed leaves.

While a giant plate of stuffed leaves may look like a lot of food, you’ll be surprised at how quickly that plate shrinks when people start to realize how delicious they are!

In Moldova, we call this dish sarmale, and it is a regular staple of the dinner table at holidays or big family gatherings. It’s commonly served with roasted meats, stuffed peppers, and refreshing salads, among many other dishes.

I have such fond memories of this dish. If you end up making it for your friends or family, I hope it too brings you even a smidge of the happiness it brought me, family, and friends at so many gatherings, celebrations, and birthdays!

Stuffed Grape Leaves Recipe Card

Stuffed Grape Leaves Recipe

Stuffed Grape Leaves Recipe
Prep Time 45 minutes
Cook Time 1 hour 20 minutes
Total Time 2 hours 5 minutes

Ingredients

  • Grape Leaves – about 80-100
  • Pork thigh (500 grams, about 1.1 lb)
  • Rice (2 cups)
  • Tomato Purée or Tomato Passata (1 cup)
  • Carrots (2 big carrots or 3 small ones)
  • Onions (3 medium-sized white onions)
  • Cabbage (1/4th of a cabbage)
  • Olive oil (1-2 tablespoons)
  • Salt (1 tablespoon)
  • Black pepper (1 teaspoon)
  • Cimbru or Summer Savory or Thyme (1 teaspoon)*
  • Oregano (1 teaspoon)
  • Paprika (optional, 1 teaspoon)
  • Cabbage (15-20 leaves, to line the bottom and the top of the pot in which we’ll cook the stuffed grape leaves)
  • Sour cream (for serving with the stuffed grape leaves)

Instructions

Step 1 – Preparing the Grape Leaves.

Note that you can skip this step if you’re not using fresh leaves and are using jarred ones instead.

  1. First, bring a pot of water to a boil. Once the water is ready, add all of your leaves into the pot.
  2. You’ll need to let the leaves boil for about 1 minute until they change color. Make sure the leaves are submerged in the boiling water.
  3. Using a slotted spoon, take them out and lay them to rest on a plate.

Step 2 – Preparing the Stuffing

  1. Prep the ingredients. Dice the onions. Shred the cabbage and the carrots. Get everything else ready to go.
  2. Put a pan on medium heat and add olive oil.
  3. Add the shredded cabbage and carrots to the pan, and cook the mixture over medium heat, for around 10 minutes.
  4. While the diced and shredded vegetables are cooking, prepare both the meat and rice, ready to add to the pan in due course. Take the meat, and either dice it into small cubes or mince it, depending on preference. We prefer it diced in small cubes. Once diced or minced, set it aside.
  5. Now, rinse the rice in a strainer under running water until the water seeping through is clear. Place the rice in a pot, pour boiling water over it, and leave it to rest for 5 minutes. After 5 minutes, strain it, and set it aside.
  6. By now, the vegetables in the pan should be cooking away nicely. Once the 10 minutes passed since you started cooking the onion-carrot-cabbage mixture, add the tomato puree or passata to the pan, and mix it into the vegetables.
  7. As soon as the tomato passata has been added, add the spices (salt, pepper, summer savory or thyme, oregano, and paprika), and cook the whole mixture for 2-3 minutes, blending and mixing as you go.
  8. Now take the diced or minced meat, and add it to the pan.
  9. Cook for around 5 minutes, letting the meat brown and mix with the vegetables and the spices. After five 5 minutes, turn the heat off.
  10. With the heat off, take your drained rice and simply add it to the pan.
  11. Mix everything together to create your rich, hearty, and delicious filling, ready to be stuffed into the grape leaves.

Step 3 – Rolling the Grape Leaves

  1. With your filling ready, now comes the fun part: rolling your stuffed grape leaves. The video below shows you how to do it in a way that seals the leaves, so that the filling won’t pop out when cooking. You’ll notice these are rolled differently from the Greek/Turkish/Mediterranean versions (which are more like small cylinders).
  2. Before you start rolling, have your pot that you will cook your stuffed grapes leaves in ready by your side, so as soon as you roll your leaves, you can place them in the pot. Line the bottom with a few cabbage leaves. It takes a little practice, but you have plenty of leaves and stuffing to get through, so don’t worry if it takes you a few attempts to get it right.
  3. Roll the grape leaves. See the video in the post above for how to roll stuffed grape leaves. In time, your pot will be filled with delicious wrapped grape leaves, as shown below.
  4. Once all of your stuffed leaves are in the pot, add 400ml (about 1 and ¾ cups) of water to the pot. Finally, cover the top with a handful of cabbage leaves, before placing the pot on the stove.

Step 4 – Cook/Bake the Grape Leaves

Option A (Bake the Stuffed Grape Leaves): Bake at 200° Celsius (390 Fahrenheit) for about 20 minutes. Then turn the temperature down to 180° Celsius (350 Fahrenheit) and bake for another hour. This is my preferred option as the stuffed grape leaves will taste much better (in my opinion).

Option B (Cook the Stuffed Grape Leaves on the Stove): Cover the pot and put it on the stove over medium heat for about 20 minutes. Turn the heat to low and simmer for another hour.

Once ready, serve them on a platter with sour cream.

Notes

Note 1: We used grape leaves freshly picked from a vineyard. Of course, not everyone would have access to that. So, you can also buy pre-packaged vine leaves on Amazon or specialty stores and even in some grocery stores with an international food aisle. For example, the ones below (sold on Amazon), come in a jar with about 90 leaves, which would be just the right amount for this recipe.

Note 2: Summer savory (or ‘cimbru’ as it’s called in Romanian) is commonly used in Romanian cuisine, especially in stuffed grape leaves. If you don’t have summer savory, thyme is quite similar in taste, so you can substitute in thyme. Don’t go chasing summer savory if not readily available!

Note 3: If baking the stuffed grape leaves, make sure it's in a an ovenproof pot and if cooking them on the stove, use a pot with a thick bottom (at least 1 cm or 0.4 inches).

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Author: Doina is a content writer and strategist from Moldova, who has traveled to over 30 countries and counting. A passionate foodie, she loves to get inspired by international foods, and uses them to inspire new and exciting recipes back home.

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