By Maryann Readal
Sorrel (Rumex acetosa), a tart, lemony herb, is used today primarily in cooking. However, you may have to grow your own sorrel or visit a farmer’s market or specialty store in early spring if you want to make any recipe with it.
Chopped and combined with cream and butter, sorrel makes a nice sauce for fish. If you have Eastern European or Jewish heritage, you may have had sorrel soup (schav) growing up. The leaves can be chopped and added to casseroles, or added to any soup to brighten the flavor. You can also make a pesto with the leaves or use it in combination with basil, mint, etc. to give your pesto a different flavor. Leaves can be cooked along with spinach, and baby leaves can be tossed into salads. Add it to salad dressing to give a tangy taste. It’s best to use the young leaves, as older leaves tend to acquire a more sour taste. Combining it with sour cream or cream will lessen its sourness. At one time, meat was wrapped with sorrel leaves to tenderize it. Sorrel is used in French cooking, for which the preferred species is Rumex scutatus. This species has a milder, lemon-like flavor and smaller, rounded leaves.
Sorrel was, at one time, a very popular herb in places where citrus fruits were not available. Because of its high Vitamin C content, it was eaten in the 16th-18th centuries to prevent scurvy. It was thought to also cure diseases of the mouth including loose teeth, which is a symptom of scurvy. Because of the oxalic acid in sorrel, people with arthritic, renal, and gastrointestinal disorders should eat it with caution. However, light cooking of sorrel decreases the oxalic content of the leaves. Young leaves also have less oxalic acid than older leaves.
The roots and seeds have been used in traditional medicines, with the roots as well as the leaves having components that produce a laxative effect. “Currently, studies on sorrel offer promising results in the areas of digestion, infection prevention, topical skin treatments, and anti-proliferative activity.” (American Botanical Council, HerbalEGram, May 2016).
In the past, sorrel was used to remove ink stains, rust, and mold from linen. Juice from the leaves makes an olive green dye, and the roots produce a bright yellow dye.
Sorrel has bright green, long, arrow-shaped leaves, and produces an inflorescence in May-June. It is easy to grow in zones 4-8. Seeds can be sown directly in the ground before the last frost. Plants can also be divided and shared. It is a perennial in my zone 8b garden. Sorrel does like acidic soil and plenty of sun, but will tolerate some shade. There is a species with red veining, Rumex sanguineus, that makes a nice accent plant in the garden. It is also edible, though it lacks the strong flavor of garden sorrel, Rumex acetosa.
Here is my mother-in-law’s recipe for sorrel soup:
¼ lb. sorrel leaves
1 tbsp. butter
2 cups chicken broth
3 eggs yolks
½ cup cream
Salt and white pepper
Shred the sorrel leaves that have been well-washed, with the stems and center ribs removed. Cook in the butter for a few minutes until soft. Add the chicken broth and simmer for 15 minutes. At serving time, beat three egg yolks with the cream and add to the hot soup, being careful not to let it boil. Season with salt and white pepper to taste and serve immediately.
For more information and recipes using sorrel, please go to The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month webpage.
Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.
Maryann is the Secretary of The Herb Society of America. She is a member of the Texas Thyme Unit in Huntsville, TX. and is a Master Gardener. She gardens among the pines in the Piney Woods of East Texas.