How to Use Sorrel

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Sorrel is a cold-hardy perennial herb plant that's easy to grow in sun or partial shade.
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Blood sorrel, also called red sorrel, is a beautiful ornamental to grow in partial shade.
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Sorrel is quite versatile in the kitchen, but a little goes a long way in any dish.
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Sorrel's bright lemony flavor is welcome in many dishes.

Many people probably haven’t had the opportunity to try sorrel, a surprisingly spritely, bright green herb. Yet it was not so long ago that this tasty herb was a standard in kitchen gardens. The flavor of the tangy, lemony leaves should earn this easy-to-grow herb a spot in every home garden and kitchen once again. Market gardeners would be wise to persuade local markets to carry sorrel so non-gardeners can taste this under-appreciated herb.

Sorrel (Rumex acetosa, R. scutatus, and R. sanguineus) — from the Old High German sur, or “sour” — is related to rhubarb and contains the same oxalic acid compounds that give rhubarb its tanginess. It’s zesty enough to stand in for lemon in a variety of recipes, as we have done with the tabbouleh recipe included here. That zestiness also makes sorrel a great foil for rich foods, which is how the ancient Egyptians and Romans used it. Sorrel’s acidity also means it’s not suited for cooking in aluminum or iron cookware because it will interact with the metals.

Because the plant is perennial, you can count on sorrel for early spring recipes — where it shines alongside eggs, greens, and milder herbs — as well as your heartiest fall fare. Sorrel purée will enliven bland root vegetables and tame strong-flavored fish.

Culinarily, sorrel is quite versatile but a little goes a long way in any dish. Try shredded sorrel raw in salads — it can even replace the dressing. “Sorrel imparts so great a quickness to the salad,” said 18th-century herbalist John Evelyn, “that it should never be left out.” One or two raw leaves are nice in sandwiches, used as a garnish, or layered between fillets of fish or chicken before baking. When cooked, sorrel has a variety of uses, from classic soup to sauces for fish and poultry. (Find recipes below.)

Sorrel can sometimes be harvested as a wild edible. R. acetosella, or common sheep sorrel, has arrow-shaped leaves that are much smaller than those of cultivated sorrels — often no more than 1 inch long. Sheep sorrel loves sun and often grows amidst the grass in lawns. To find larger, tender leaves, though, you should seek plants growing in light shade.

If you can’t find wild sorrel near you, consider planting your own. The perennial herb is compact and tolerant of pests, cold, heat, wet weather, droughts, and general neglect. Plus, it’s a good source of fiber, iron, and several vitamins. A few plants are all one family will need.

Types of Sorrel

Garden sorrel (Rumex acetosa), also called English sorrel or common sorrel, is a perennial valued for its early spring greens. You should cut off flower spikes to prevent reseeding.

French sorrel (R. scutatus) has distinctly arrow-shaped leaves, and strains have been selected for low oxalic acid content. Like garden sorrel, French sorrel can become invasive if reseeding isn’t controlled.

Blood sorrel (R. sanguineus), also called red sorrel, is a beautiful ornamental to grow in partial shade. The leaves are best when very young. Some mesclun mixes include red sorrel.

Growing Sorrel

Sorrel is a cold-hardy perennial herb plant that’s easy to grow in sun or partial shade. Young, edible leaves emerge from the plant’s center from late winter to late fall — but the lemony flavor is at its best in early spring.

You can grow sorrel from seeds started indoors in early spring, or you can purchase a plant from a nursery. Set out plants in spring about the time of your last frost date, in any fertile, well-drained soil. Sorrel plants will tolerate light frosts and are adapted to growing in Zones 4 to 9.

Allow seedlings a full season to establish themselves in the garden. Sorrel cultivars send up flowering spikes which eventually adorn themselves with thousands of seeds. Clip off the seed heads while they’re still green, because sorrel can become weedy in many climates. — Barbara Pleasant

Recipes for Sorrel

• Sorrel Soup (Schav) Recipe

• Sorrel-Strawberry Sorbet Recipe

• Sorrel Purée and Sauce Recipe

• Local Tabbouleh Recipe

Mother Earth Gardener
Mother Earth Gardener
Expert advice on all aspects of growing.