Real Food Encyclopedia | Sorrel
There is something so tragic about a vegetable that once ran with the popular crowd, only to be later shut out of the cool kids’ parties. (We’re looking at you, kale.) Native to Europe and Northern Asia, where it still grows wild, sorrel was once pretty fashionable — eaten and cultivated by the ancients (Egyptians, Greeks, Romans) in quantity, and particularly loved by the French, British and Italians in the Middle Ages, when improved varieties began to be bred in earnest. (It is still fairly common in these countries.)
Food historian Alan Davidson notes that sorrel was a major component of the once wildly popular “greensauce,” a mixture of sorrel and other herbs, recipes for which date from at least the 12th century (and a version of which, Grüne Sosse, hails from Frankfort, Germany, and is still pretty popular).
In Northern America however, sorrel is a pretty underappreciated vegetable. But its tart, lemony flavor is one of the harbingers of spring that is often much loved, once tasted.
Fun Facts about Sorrel:
- According to food historian John Mariani, the word “sorrel” probably comes from the Old French word surele, meaning “sour.”
- Plants for a Future says that sorrel juice is used to remove stains from linen. Sounds sort of counterintuitive, but okay.
- Garden sorrel should not be confused with “sorrel drink,” a refreshing beverage common in Jamaica and other Caribbean cultures made from a type of hibiscus.
- “The Oxford Companion to Food” notes that British school kids once referred to wild sorrel, popularly foraged as a snack, as “sour dab.”
What to Look for When Buying Sorrel
Sorrel sort of looks like spinach; common sorrel has spear-shaped, deep green leaves, while French sorrel’s leaves are a bit wavier. Both have reddish-brown flower clusters when allowed to bolt. French sorrel is said to be more mild (i.e., less sour) than common sorrel. Sorrel has been described as tasting lemony, as well as like sour green apples, wild strawberries and kiwi mixed with basil and spinach.
When shopping, look for sorrel leaves that are deep green and not at all yellow or wilted, with no black or mushy spots. Smaller leaves tend to be milder in flavor than larger ones; if given the option, choose based on the way you’re going to use them (i.e., if in salads, smaller is better. For soups and other cooked dishes, larger is okay). Look for sorrel at farmers’ markets; you’re unlikely to find it in the produce aisle at a conventional grocery store. Some types of sorrel have a reddish-brown veins and/or stems.
Sustainability of Sorrel
Sorrel’s relative unpopularity means that it doesn’t even remotely show up on the Environmental Working Group’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, nor does it have much environmental impact at all. Good news for sorrel lovers.
Cultivated sorrel is a cool-weather vegetable/herb, available in most places starting in mid-March; once the weather warms up, sorrel tends to bolt. A fall crop is also not uncommon.
Sorrel is super perishable, and usually won’t last past a day or two in the fridge. Wrap in damp paper towels and stick in an open zip-top bag in your crisper drawer to extend its fridge life just slightly.
Cooking with Sorrel
- To remove sorrel’s bite (if you must), blanch it first. Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Drop in the sorrel leaves and boil for one minute. Plunge leaves into a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking.
- Unfortunately, sorrel turns a sort of drab brownish green when cooked; many recipes counter this by adding some spinach to the recipe to perk the color back up.
Some people love sorrel raw in salads, some people hate it. Try it raw in small doses (and incidentally, too much raw sorrel can make you a bit sick due to the oxalic acid). Try adding a handful of leaves to a nice spring lettuce salad, or toss it in with cabbage for a refreshing slaw. If you want to be bold and go for an all-sorrel-no-lettuce salad, pair it with a sweeter dressing or with fruit; this salad recipe pairs raw sorrel with white peaches and this one features a combo of beets, strawberries and sorrel,
You can also use raw sorrel leaves like you would an herb: chopped up and added to legumes or eggs, or as an addition to yogurt or sour cream as a refreshing, lemony dip.
Cooking reduces sorrel’s oxalic acid content, and it also makes the leaves soft and rich and delicious, like really good spinach. Highlight sorrel’s lemony flavor by pairing it with fish or shellfish, like this salmon with sorrel sauce. The historic sorrel-based “greensauce” was commonly paired with veal; here is the German version that Saveur magazine claims is delicious with boiled vegetables.
But probably the most common way to cook sorrel, across many different cultures, is in soup. Green borscht (aka sorrel soup) is an Eastern European spring delicacy, usually garnished with sour cream, hard-boiled egg and/or croutons. French versions of sorrel soup usually involve liberal amounts of cream and butter (surprise, surprise), both of which serve to temper its distinctive bite. Sorrel soups may be served hot or chilled. Sorrel is also used in Vietnamese cuisine (probably introduced by the French); called Rau Chua, it is used in herb plates (accompaniments to many Vietnamese dishes, such as soups or spring rolls). Indian cuisine also employs sorrel, like in this dal with sorrel dish.
Remarkably, sorrel is equally at home in sweet dishes, its tart flavor complimenting fruit especially, like these lemon cupcakes with sorrel meringue frosting. Or this strawberry sorrel ice cream, which would be perfect with the first early strawberries of the season.
There are several ways to preserve sorrel. Pickled sorrel is popular in Eastern Europe and used there as a condiment, and it’s an easy process to do at home. You can also freeze whole sorrel leaves, or puree it and freeze in ice cube trays. Or dry the leaves, which can then be used like a dried herb.
Lemony sorrel is super high in Vitamin C; just 1/2 cup of the leafy green provides you with about half of your daily Vitamin C needs. It is also high in Vitamin A and potassium and is a good source of iron.
However, sorrel contains very high amounts of oxalic acid — that’s what makes the veggie seem tart — which can be bad news for those who are prone to kidney stones (most kidney stones are made up of calcium oxalate). And bad news for everyone; oxalic acid in high quantities is really, really bad for your kidneys and it can inhibit the absorption of calcium and iron. There are a couple of things you can do to counter this — add a splash of lemon juice to your sorrel dish (Vitamin C helps enhance iron absorption), or just make sure you limit your consumption of raw sorrel. Cooking helps reduce oxalic acid content in veggies that contain the substance.