An easy recipe for dolma or stuffed grape leaves that's healthy and hearty. Check out our video and step-by-step tutorial to see how simple it is to make this recipe.
If you love classic Mediterranean recipes like vegan lentil meatballs, spanakopita and briam, you're going to love today's recipe: dolma, also known as dolmades or stuffed grape leaves. Once you try this vegetarian dolma recipe, you won't bother to order it at a restaurant. And the best part? You can make a big batch and freeze them!
What is dolma?
Dolma is a family of stuffed vegetables that is common through the Middle East and the Mediterranean. To make this classic dish, vegetables such as zucchini, tomatoes and aubergine (all staples of the Mediterranean diet) are stuffed with lamb or beef, rice and herbs and cooked to perfection. One of the most popular types of dolma is stuffed vine leaves that are also called sarma in Turkish.
According to Wikipedia, stuffed grape leaves have played a role in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisines for centuries. However, the exact origins of dolma (or, again, dolmades as the Greek call them) is unknown.
You can find dolma in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean countries such as Iran (check out my Persian dolmeh recipe), Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt and the Balkans. Each country has a special recipe for dolma and you may even encounter regional variations. Some are only vegetarian whereas some also incorporate rice and meat.
What does dolma mean? The word dolma comes from the Turkish verb dolmak, which means to fill.
Turkish dolmas vs Greek dolmades
Both Turkey and Greece have very rich cuisines that share many characteristics in common. This is the case with dolma as well; both Turkish and Greek versions use rice as the filling.
Turkish dolmas, known as yaprak sarmasi, usually contains a bit of tomato paste and pine nuts whereas the Greek version known as dolmades contains more herbs such as green onions and dill. It's important to note that in both cuisines stuffed grape leaved should be rolled into cigars.
Are stuffed grape leaves vegetarian?
This completely depends on the recipe and the region it comes from. The Iranian version known as dolmeh are made with meat, rice, and split chickpeas. Turkish yaprak sarma, on the other hand, is vegetarian and doesn't call for any kind of meat. The recipe we have here is for vegetarian stuffed grape leaves with rice which is a more popular variation.
To make this dolma recipe, you need the following ingredients:
- Grape leaves: You can use fresh or jarred grape leaves for this recipe. We'll talk more about the difference between the two below.
- Olive oil: Extra virgin olive oil works best for this recipe. It's used to make the filling and you can also drizzle it over the dolmas for cooking.
- Onion: White or yellow onions are preferred.
- Short grain rice: Make sure not to use basmati or any other long grain rice as they will double in size when cooked. Short grain rice such as jasmine would work well.
- Tomato paste: Not tomato sauce or tomato puree. For this recipe, you need simple tomato paste.
- Cinnamon: Adds a little warmth and depth to the filling.
- Dried mint: This is a staple in Mediterranean cooking. It's available at many supermarkets and also Mediterranean shops.
- Pine nuts: You can leave this out if it's not available. It adds a nice nuttiness to the dish.
- Parsley: Adds freshness and so much flavor to the filling.
Fresh grape leaves vs. jarred grape leaves
There are two variations of grape leaves to use: fresh and jarred. Jarred grape leaves are ready to use since they've been marinated and blanched already. You can find jarred grape leaves in brine online or at your local Mediterranean, Middle Eastern or Turkish store. If using fresh grape leaves, it's best to blanch them in hot salted water for a few minutes to soften them and make them easy to roll.
I prefer using jarred grape leaves because the leaves are usually big and easy to roll. I also like the fact that an unopened jar of grape leaves in brine keeps indefinitely. It's best to stock up on a few jars since they keep for a very long time.
Step by step recipe
Making this recipe is easier than what you think. Make sure to watch the tutorial video to see how I wrap the grape leaves. Let's check out the instructions:
Make the filling
- Heat some olive oil in a pan and sauté onion until translucent. Add in the rice and cook for just a few minutes.
- Add the tomato paste, cinnamon, dried mint, sugar, pine nuts, parsley and salt. Stir well and cook for about 5 minutes. Turn the heat off.
Roll the leaves
- Set aside 5-6 grape leaves to cover the bottom of the pot.
- Lay a grape leaf flat in front of you on a clean surface. Place about 1 tablespoon of the rice mixture on the leaf (near where the stem was) and then start rolling.
- To roll, fold on the left and right side, then the bottom and then roll tightly into a cigar. Don't stuff the grape leaf too much. Ideally, each dolma should be as thick as a finger.
Cook the stuffed grape leaves
- Cover the bottom of a large pot with a few grape leaves that you've set aside and place dolmas in the pot to cover the bottom.
- Layer the dolmas on top of each other and nestle them tightly next to each other to make sure they won't open up when cooking.
- When all the dolmas are in the pot, pour ½ cup vegetable oil over the dolmas. Shake the pot a bit to make sure the oil goes all the way to the bottom of the pot.
- Gently pour boiling water over the dolmas until it barely covers them.
- Place a plate upside down on the stuffed grape leaves and cover with a lid.
- Place the pot over medium high heat until the water starts simmering. Turn the heat on low and cook covered.
Frequently asked questions
It take about 45 to 50 minutes for dolma to cook completely. To check, take one of the dolmas out of the pot and let it cool for a minute. Bite into it and if the rice is cooked completely, the dolmas are ready to eat.
We get asked this question often. While this is a matter of personal preference, it's common to serve the vegetarian variation cold and the non-vegetarian variation warm or at room temperature.
Turkish restaurants always serve these cold alongside other mezze dishes and Iranians usually serve Persian dolmeh warm since it contains meat.
The best thing about stuffed grape leaves is that they rarely go bad. It's best to store them in an airtight container and refrigerate. You can have them right out of the fridge or heat them. They make a wonderful appetizer or midday snack.
Mediterranean dolmas, especially the vegetarian ones, can be kept for a long time. You can keep them in the fridge for 5-7 days or freeze them for months.
Place cooked dolma in a freezer bag in one layer and freeze for up to 3 months. To serve, simply heat them in the microwave or place them in a sauce pan with just a few tablespoons of water. Bring it to simmer, cover and cook until completely heated through. Alternatively, you can just thaw them in the fridge overnight.
Turks tend to serve this dish with some lemon and plain yogurt. Some heat butter, cook a little bit of Aleppo pepper in it, and drizzle the red melted butter over yogurt before serving.
Notes and tips
- Stuffed grape leaves are made with short grain rice, please don't use substitutes such as cauliflower rice for this recipe as the flavor, texture and the amount of moisture would alter the results.
- The rice is cooked partially when you prepare the filling and will finish cooking when it's stuffed in the grape leaves. Therefore, it's important to use rice that doesn't get too large or long when cooked. I suggest you use short or medium grain rice such as jasmine rice. Avoid basmati rice since it gets longer and longer when cooked and might stick out of the grape leaves.
- When you start making this recipe, go ahead and use the whole jar of grape leaves. A complete jar of grape leaves gives you more than enough dolmades but you can simply freeze the leftovers and enjoy them later.
- The recipe calls for 1 tablespoon of rice mixture for each grape leaf. Feel free to use less if the grape leaf is not big enough. It's important to avoid over-stuffing the grape leaves.
More Vegetarian Mediterranean Recipes
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Authentic Dolma Recipe (Stuffed Grape Leaves)
- 1 jar grape leaves
- 2 tablespoon olive oil
- 2 onions finely chopped
- 1 cup short grain rice
- 1 teaspoon tomato paste
- ½ teaspoon cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon dried mint
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 2 tablespoon pine nuts
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ⅓ cup parsley chopped
- ½ cup vegetable oil or olive oil
- Boiling water
- Heat the olive oil in a pan and saute onion until translucent. Add in the rice and cook for just a few minutes.
- Then add the tomato paste, cinnamon, dried mint, sugar, pine nuts, parsley and salt. Add in ½ cup boiling water. Stir well and cook for about 5 minutes. Turn the heat off.
- Reserve 5 or 6 grape leaves to cover the bottom of the pot. Lay flat a grape leaf on a clean surface. Place about 1 tablespoon of the rice mixture on the leaf and then start rolling. To roll, fold in left and right side, then the bottom and then roll tightly into a cigar. Please watch the video for the complete tutorial.
- Cover the bottom of a large pot with reserved grape leaves from the jar and place stuffed grape leaves in the pot to cover the bottom.
- Layer the dolmas on top of each other and nestle them tightly next to each other to make sure they won't open up when cooking. When all the dolmas are in the pot, pour ½ cup vegetable oil over the dolmas. Shake the pot a bit to make sure the oil goes all the way to the bottom of the pot. Gently pour boiling water over the dolmas until it barely covers them.
- Place a plate upside down on the stuffed grape leaves and cover with a lid. Place the pot over medium high heat until the water starts simmering. Turn the heat on low and cook covered for about 45 minutes.
- To see if the dolmas are cooked, take one out of the pot and let it cool for a minute. Bite it and if the rice is cooked and soft, the dolmas are ready.
- Serve cold with some yogurt and lemon.
- Vegetarian dolmas are usually served cold with some plain yogurt.
- You can store the leftovers in an airtight container and refrigerate for up to 7 days.
- Dolmades freeze very well. Store them in a freezer bag and freeze for up to 3 months. To reheat, you can either use the microwave or heat them in a sauce pan with just a little bit of water.
- You can find grape leaves online or at Mediterranean, Middle Eastern or Turkish stores.
- Don't over stuff the grape leaves, a good rolled dolma should be as thick as an index finger.
- Don't forget to place a plate on the dolmas before turning the heat on. This will keep the stuffed grape leaves intact and will make sure that don't open up.
- Dolmades are made with short grain rice, please don't use substitutes like cauliflower rice for this recipe as the flavor, texture and the amount of moisture would alter the results.
- The rice is cooked only halfway when you prepare the filling and will finish cooking when it's stuffed in the grape leaves. Therefore, it's important to use rice that doesn't get too large or long when cooked. I suggest you use short or medium grain rice such as jasmine rice. Avoid basmati rice since it gets longer and longer when cooked and might stick out of the grape leaves.
- When you start making this vegetarian dolma recipe, go ahead and use the whole jar of grape leaves. A complete jar of grape leaves gives you more than enough dolmades but you can simply freeze the leftovers and enjoy them later.