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Spring for sorrel

Herb snips


April 27, 2019

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Sorrel in Spring

Sorrel has been a favorite culinary herb in Europe for centuries. It leafs out in the early spring when the lemony taste is at its peak. The flavor dissipates and it becomes tough in the hot weather. Rumex acetosa, garden sorrel and the French, rumex sculatus are the best varieties for cooking. The latter has a stronger lemon taste, and is less acidic.

Sorrel adds pungency to mixed green salads, vegetables, sandwiches, soups, egg dishes, soft cheese and sauces for strong meat and fish (recipe). The cooked leaves have a lemon verve and impart that flavor to yogurt, butter and vinaigrette. It can be combined with or substituted for spinach in most recipes. Spinach has similar oxalic acid content and can be used in place of sorrel, but I suggest you add a little lemon zest to attain that flavor. It adds a new and delicious dimension to potato soup (recipe). Try filling the larger leaves with a meat mixture and prepare as you would stuffed grape leaves.

Sorrel is from the Teutonic word for sour, although the flavor in peak season has more of a citrus overtone. Ancient Egyptians and Romans nibbled the leaves to relieve indigestion when overeating. If we are to believe any of the old movies they must have devoured large quantities of sorrel. It is one of the five bitter herbs of the Jewish Passover. Early Americans ate it while working in the fields for its refreshing lemonade tang.

Garden sorrel grows in a clump and has arrow-shaped leaves and clusters of tiny red flowers on long stalks. French sorrel has shield-shaped leaves with small reddish brown flowers. The latter is half the height of garden sorrel's 3-feet. The flowers of both varieties should be removed to prolong production, and prevent "seed invasion" of your garden. The long multi-flowered stalks are lovely in fresh and dried arrangements.

Sorrel is a hardy perennial that is easy to grow in good garden soil, with average water and about four hours of sun a day. The young succulent leaves come up from the base so you have a supply until frost sets in. It can be divided or grown from seed. The plant should be replaced if it becomes woody and bitter. Old age will do that! Mulching enhances the summer flavor of this herb. It keeps the soil cool during hot weather, and preserves the delicate lemon quality of the leaves. The smaller leaves are always the tastiest. It is said to be an excellent garden companion with leeks, onions, chives, epazote, rosemary and savory. It is apparently a very good neighbor!

Therapeutically it is a good source of iron, potassium and vitamins A and C. Its oxalic acid accounts for its slightly sour taste, and makes it effective as an astringent, diuretic and digestive stimulant. Sorrel tea may soothe mouth ulcers and skin wounds. It is a primary ingredient in Essiac tea. CAUTION: Those with kidney disorders, joint and muscle disease, arrhythmia or gout should avoid large quantities of this herb because the oxalic acid increases urination, and slows calcium absorption.

The high acidity of this herb causes it to discolor if cooked in iron pots or cut with knives other than stainless steel. Fresh leaves can be stored in the refrigerator loosely wrapped in paper towels for a few days or frozen in ice cube trays (whole or chopped). Use the frozen leaves without thawing because they become dark and limp when defrosted. The flavor is best in the spring and fall. These are the best times to freeze it for hearty winter soups.

We don't have experience with, or an appreciation for sorrel as do Europeans. It is not widely, commercially grown in the USA so we do not encounter it in the produce department. It grows eagerly in the garden and is an attractive container plant so let us change that! Give it a place in your landscape and add a zing to your spring dishes, and winter soups! The reader who requested this topic remembered her mom's delicious potato, sorrel soup. Let me know how you like this recipe. Looking forward to hearing from you at


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