Modern cooks are rediscovering the delightfully tart flavor of sorrel.
Genus: Rumex scutatus
• Zones 6-10
Genus: R. acetosa
• Zones 3-9
Once a common ingredient in soups, stews, salads and sauces, sorrel vanished from use for hundreds of years. Now this delightful, leafy green is finding its way back into gardens and kitchens, where its tantalizing flavor and good nutrition can be enjoyed each spring.
Sorrels and their relatives, docks, are members of the Rumex family, found mainly in temperate climates all over the world. Although many Rumex species are considered weeds throughout the United States, sorrels have long been cultivated as culinary herbs, valued for their lemony flavor.
Europeans grew and used garden sorrel (R. acetosa)—a perennial with long, arrow-shaped leaves—until the milder-flavored, round-leaved variety (R. scutatus), now known as French sorrel, was developed in Italy and France in the Middle Ages. French sorrel became popular in England toward the end of the 16th century, and by the 17th century, it was the preferred form.
The tart, lemony flavor of both French and garden sorrels is due to the presence of oxalic acid. People with arthritis or kidney stones should eat only small quantities, as oxalic acid can aggravate these conditions. The herb tastes best in early spring, and becomes increasingly bitter as the season progresses. Use the tender, young leaves in salads, and the larger leaves for soups, stews and sauces. Sorrel also complements goat cheese, eggs and poultry.
Sorrel has long been known to be both edible and medicinal. Before packaged convenience foods and competent medical treatment became widely available, the woman of the house needed to know everything about caring for her family. Most cookbooks prior to 1900 contained not only cooking recipes, but also directions for growing plants and making medicines. Sorrel frequently appears in these early cookbooks, especially those of the Medieval era, when the church declared that no meat could be eaten on “fasting days”—about one-third of the year—so soups of sorrel and other greens and egg dishes were popular. For an authentic recipe, see “A Fasting-Day Soup,” at right.
Rich in vitamin C, sorrel was valued for centuries for its ability to prevent scurvy, a serious, even life-threatening problem when fresh fruits and vegetables were not available. The English physician Culpeper (1826) recommended sorrel “to cool any inflammation and heat of blood,” “to refresh overspent spirits,” “to quench thirst, and to procure an appetite.” Sheep sorrel (R. acetosella) is an ingredient in Essiac, an herbal mixture promoted as a cancer remedy in the early 20th century; the plant can be poisonous to livestock.
Sorrel was central to many culinary recipes and then seemed to vanish altogether. Why? It must be used immediately after harvest, so it rarely appears in markets. For a reliable supply, you must grow your own, but it’s very easy to do.
In spring after danger of frost, sow seeds directly in the garden in full sun or partial shade. Or, sow in fall, two weeks before the first frost date. Seeds germinate in about 10 days. When seedlings are 2 inches tall, thin them to 18 inches apart. Harvest the young leaves often; don’t allow plants to flower and set seed, as this will slow the growth of additional leaves. Garden sorrel is frost-hardy; French sorrel overwinters in Zones 6 and warmer. In my Zone 6 garden, I frequently find it growing in winter, surrounded by light snow.
Take spinach, sorrel, chervil and lettuce, and chop them a little; then brown some butter, and put in your herbs, keep them stirring that they don’t burn; then, having boiling water over the fire, put to it a very little pepper, and some salt, a whole onion stuck with cloves, a French roll cut in slices and dried very hard, some Pistachia kernels, blanched and shred fine, and let all boil together; then beat up the yolks of eight eggs with a little white wine and the juice of a lemon; mix it with your broth, toast a whole French roll, and put it in the middle of your dish, pouring your soup over it; garnish your dish with ten or twelve poach’d eggs and scalded spinach.
—From The Compleat Housewife or Accomplished Gentlewoman’s Companion by Eliza Smith (1758)
What we know as wood sorrel is not a member of the Rumex family at all, but an Oxalis. Wood sorrel, an attractive woodland wildflower, belongs in the flower garden, not in culinary or medicinal preparations.
Mercy Ingraham, a retired nurse, is an open-hearth cooking instructor who lives, gardens and cooks in eastern Pennsylvania.
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