Lovely Lemony Sorrel

There are indubitable signs of springs out there (besides the 2 minutes of additional daily daytime we are getting now).

For once, the snowdrops are nodding their tiny white bells in the still blustery gusts of wind and then, then!, yellow IS swelling the buds of the early daffodils. But for the ever hopeful kitchen gardener, a much surer sign that spring is coming is what’s budding, swelling, germinating, pushing up or otherwise showing signs of life in the vegetable garden.

Is there something fresh I can sink my teeth in – or at least wake up my taste buds (pun intended) with? Something green? With a little bite? Something… live? I have talked about reliable mache growing outside in winter, but a few other denizens that grow happily enough in a cold frame provide fresh taste at this time of the year: spinach, cutting celery, parsley, arugula, and sorrel are among them. They do not need a cold frame per se, but the protection provided by a cold frame allows them to send forth new leaves much earlier than their unprotected brethren, left totally outside in what is otherwise a generally bleak landscape at this time of the year.

sorrel-2008-04-057

Sorrel might be less well known on the list, so let’s talk about it, a little, shall we?

Sorrel (the botanical name of the genus is Rumex) is a vast family of 200 or so species. Check here if you don’t believe me.

Many people are familiar with Sheep Sorrel aka Rumex acetosella that grows like a weed and that many consider a weed indeed: it grows rampantly via energetic land-crazy stolons that refuse to relinquish the soil they’ve colonized. But it’s edible all right, with a taste that’s tartly pleasant, even if the collecting of its small leaves is quite a job.

What you do want is Rumex acetosa (see what the subtraction of an “ell” can do!) aka Garden Sorrel or Common Sorrel.

Buy it at your better nurseries (it can be sold as an herb or a salad green) or grow it from seeds. Really, it’s easy, the seeds are not finicky in their needs (and it self-seed easily – without being invasive): all the sorrel in my garden is grown from seed.

Start at anytime between now and May. The sooner you start, the earlier you’ll have leaves to eat. Just sprinkle a few seeds on top of the soil. Water. Germination occurs in 2 to 3 weeks in warmish conditions. If you starting indoor, make sure to provide lots of light as soon as the seeds have germinated.

Sorrel is a cool grower that dislikes very hot temperature; sometimes it looks really bedraggled in our Virginia summer, and will go almost dormant. But when cooler fall weather comes, it will grow fresh leaves and will continue to produce leaves even after light frosts have killed off other plants. Only a real hard frost will kill the top growth off, but it will come back the following spring. To extend the harvest into summer, water generously (it does like a moist soil anyway) and give it afternoon shade. Also keep picking!

Except for the occasional slug damage in my garden, it’s pretty care free, winterizing easily in our USDA hardiness zone 6, and will keep going for years. It clumps and reseeds (and, unlike sheep sorrel, does not “run” with underground stolons). Control reseeding by breaking off the flower stalks before they set seeds. Of the two pictures below, the first one was taken last year in very early April (this is sorrel grown in the open, not a cold frame), so you can see how strong it looks already, when the early peonies are barely coming out. The second picture was taken a month later in early May (yes, it’s the same spot) with the cowslips in full bloom.

sorrel-2008-04-058sorrel-2008-05-097

Young leaves are great in salad, older leaves should be cooked or pureed raw for dressing or cold soups. Sorrel sauce is a traditional sauce in France for poached or broiled white fish. A word of warning about cooking sorrel: firstly, it disappears… it just melts into nothingness, worse than spinach (so typically the little bunch that you find – very occasionally – in the grocery store is grossly insufficient for cooking). Second, it looses its bright granny-smith green color and turn a muddy green (“vert caca d’oie” if you must ask – yes, it’s a color).

How to use sorrel in the kitchen? Here are some ideas:

  • Add the young leaves it to green salads where it brings a zingy counterpoint to more bitter arugula or mild lettuces. You can also use older leaves, just remove the central rib, and tear the leaves in small pieces.
  • Blend some in your mayonnaise: it’s great for tuna fish sandwich or top a piece of broiled fish with a tablespoon of sorrel mayonnaise just before serving
  • Add a few leaves, finely shredded, to an egg salad.
  • Cold soup: blend a chopped seeded cucumber, a cup of plain yogurt and a big handful of sorrel leaves with a few sprigs of parsley until smooth. Salt & pepper to taste. Serves 2 (more or less) as a cold summer appetizer. This also makes a very nice dressing for anybody who is trying to cut fat.
  • Potato salad: add a handful of finely shredded leaves to your potato salad. To preserve the fresh green color, do that after the potatoes have cooled.
  • Cook it with a little cream and pour that on top of new potatoes (boiled, steamed or plainly roasted). How? Finely shred a BIG handful of sorrel leaves (discard any tough stems and ribs). Heat up a cup of cream until small bubbles appear. Add the shredded sorrel. Stir and let on the heat for 30 seconds or so. Pour on top or your cooked hot new potatoes. Miam miam miam!

Find seeds at:

  • Territorial – they sell “French” sorrel or Rumex scutatus – same thing from a culinary prospective, except it may be even tarter and the leaves are more rounded, vaguely heart-shaped
  • Johnny’s
  • Southern Exposure. Virginians, do note they are in Mineral, VA.
  • Fedco

and many others seed vendors with a large selection of herbs, salad and cooking greens (look for it under herbs, salad greens, gourmet greens, Europeans Greens or Greens). Be sure to buy it from a vendor who provides the botanical name. You do not want to end up with Sheep’s sorrel (R. acetosella). Trust me. Really.

If you don’t grow sorrel, have I convinced you? Will you try to grow it this year? Or at least, will you try to eat it is you see it sold? If you do you grow it, how/why did you start growing? How do you use it?

NB: I am sending this entry over to The Well Seasoned Cook who is this week’s host for Weekend Herb Blogging, an event in its third year where posters contribute information about or recipes with – you guessed it – herbs, lots of herbs, and more herbs.

23 comments

  1. El says:

    I LOVE sorrel, Sylvie. I think I started growing it about 10 years ago and yes, it would overwinter in zone 4 in Minneapolis! It was one of the plants I brought down with us when we moved. I broke it up and separated part of it last summer and moved it to the greenhouse and it thrived over the winter…it’s so mild tasting after being in there, too! I sauce it: it makes a mean tangy green sauce for cheese ravioli. It’s also in the salads. It can be an acquired taste but then again I like its astringency.

  2. susan says:

    Isn’t this lovely! I have never, ever seen it available commercially, although I may have some dried in a jar somewhere – couldn’t be the same as fresh. I’ve always wanted to try schav. Someday.

    Thanks for the great WHB tutorial, Sylvie!

  3. sylvie says:

    El – thanks for the reminder about division. Dividing a clump in another way to propagate sorrel.

    susan – I’d be curious to see how dry sorrel taste. I have an inkling they would not keep their taste very well, as I have never read suggestions for drying it in any of my herb books. Hope you have a chance to try fresh sorrel sometime.

  4. Olga says:

    Thanks for your comment on my ice cream blog!

    Growing up in Russia I ate quite a bit of sorrel…unfortunately it’s not wildly available in Washington DC area.

    We used to make a fabulous cold soup w/sorrel, potatoes, onions and boiled eggs (and then add buttermilk). Email me for more details if you want.

  5. Vanille says:

    Pour dire la vérité, je ne suis pas sûre d’en avoir jamais mangé…
    Ca me fait rire l’allusion au vert caca d’oie !

  6. Andrew says:

    Sorrel omelette is very good too.

  7. sylvie says:

    Olga – thank you for sending me your reminiscence of the sorrel soup. I know I will try to make something out of it… and maybe there will be a future post on that “Olga’s sorrel soup”.

    Vanille… c’est pourquoi je prefere avertir les gens. Por moi, cette couleur n’est pas forcemment tres appetissante, mais le gout est frais et acidule.

    Andrew, you are right. Sorrel goes well with eggs, including omelettes.

  8. Tiffany says:

    Thanks for the very informative post! I’ve always wondered what the best uses for sorrel were, and now there are so many to pick from.

  9. [...] (especially the cut and come again) – often called mesclun – are also good candidates, as well as sorrel (perennial), and other small greens such tatsoi, mizuna, bokchoi or mustard and kale grown as baby [...]

  10. Karen says:

    Yay for sorrel! I planted some in my Massachusetts garden 3 years ago, and it is up and ready for eating by late March. I mostly use it in salads, quiches and Polish sorrel soup (which is probably similar to the Russian one, though I don’t recall that the recipe includes buttermilk).

  11. Andrew says:

    Looked for sorrel at Whole Foods. They don’t have it (but I get it from my CSA later in the year and I’m growing it this year). Tried your idea of potatoes with sorrel cooked in cream but with dandelion greens and some lemon. Roasted the potatoes with garlic and poured the lemon-dandelion green-cream on top and it was pretty good.

  12. sylvie says:

    Karen: sorrel being so wide spread in Europe and one of the early spring veggies, I am sure that the are countless similar ways to prepare it throughout Europe.

    Andrew: thank you for the comment. Weere are you – it might be a little early for sorrel. I don’t think I would have thought of that combination. I love it when posters had so much to the conversation! Did you blanch the dandelions greens first?

  13. Andrew says:

    I’m in Arlington, VA.

    Wilted the greens in a little bit of butter, then added the cream and let the greens cook a while. Roasted the potatoes in the oven with garlic. Then, poured the greens and cream on the potatoes and added some lemon juice and lemon zest.

    Not sure if it tastes the same as the sorrel. I will try the sorrel (without the lemon) if I grow or get some this year.

  14. Ed Bruske says:

    yes, sorrel is much underappreciated. you never see it in the produce section. yet it is one of the most delicious of all greens (related to rhubarb, hence the oxalic acid in the leaves). Even kids who don’t like salad love sorrel for the lemony tartness. Our daughter can’t pass a sorrel plant without picking a leaf and eating it.

  15. [...] tried it: duck fat makes the best fried potatoes. As far as the green salad, it was a mix of mache, sorrel, baby red Russian kale & Tuscan kale, and frisée endive, fresh from the garden. Any [...]

  16. Sue T says:

    I first grew sorrel 3 years ago. My college-student daughter went to France one summer to study abroad, and while there ate a sorrel sauce on salmon that she loved. When she came back, we looked in many grocery stores, including ethnic ones, for sorrel. No one had it. We ordered seeds from Richter’s herb catalog, but then found some plants in a local farmers’ market. They did wonderfully in containers, even over the summer, in my east-facing, zone 7 back yard. Now I’m trying to divide the clumps and re-pot the smaller clumps. I hope I don’t kill the sorrel in the process! Thanks, Sylvie, for all the great info and ideas for using sorrel!

  17. sylvie says:

    Sue – I am fairly sure that sorrel is virtually indestructible.

  18. Viviane says:

    Je ne suis pas dingue de la sauce à l’oseille mais je l’adore en soupe (chaude) avec un peu de tapioca, crème fraîche et oeuf ou en garniture d’oeufs durs “farcis”, un régal …

  19. [...] people are not familiar with sorrel in the United States. A shame really, because it is one of the few perennial vegetables for [...]

  20. Seth says:

    Sorrel grows well here in Newport News, Va!
    Multiplies like crazy! Beautiful, healthy leaves!

    Could I have some suggestions on growing marigolds, nasturtiums and greens such as mache, sorrel, and swiss chard in a greenhouse? This is my first year and I would like to be able to harvest as soon as possible.
    Thanks!

  21. sylvie says:

    Hello and Welcome, Seth.

    I am growing Swiss chard throughout the winter in an unheated hoophouse, and in climate that colder than yours in winter since I am in the mountains of Virginia and you are on the coast. I start my Swiss chard very early in the spring (March for me) in cell pack in the heated greenhouse and transplant out in April, they’ll grow through the summer, the fall, the winter (in the hoophouse – albeit a lot more slowly and with smaller leaves) and will give me a big flush of leaves in the spring (while my new crop of swiss chard is just starting) before going to seed, since they are biennial. I also direct seed spinach outside in April. Can you tell I like Swiis Chard? They are semi-hardy, i.e. will take some cold – down to 20/25 F depending on the cultivar. I’d say start your plants now and see where it goes (caveat about a heated greenhouse to grow all those things you mention: they are often too warm for good growth in winter because there is not enough light). Better to keep your greenhouse cool (but frost free) to grow hardy greens. I have started nasturtium in December before, and they grow nicely as salad greens in the winter – again in a cool bright greenhouse.

    The best advice however is: try! try small batches of seeds in different places and at different times, keep good notes and see what works for you.

  22. [...] digits. This week we in short-sleeve shirts and harvesting mache, baby lettuce, just-emerging sorrel, baby arugula, escarole and… spinach – lots and lots of spinach. [...]

  23. [...] fail, I grow lachrymose over the fact that we are eating great bowls of arugula, spinach, mache, sorrel, chicories and the very first of the lettuce – all planted last fall, all growing again with the [...]

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