Every week we get Down & Dirty, in which we break down our favorite unique seasonal fruits, vegetables, and more.
Today: Sorrel is an ancient herb, beloved by other countries, but less common in the States. We’re okay with being a little late to the party, though -- sorrel’s worth the wait.
Sorrel has a refreshing sour tang -- in fact, it’s often referred to as “lemonade in a leaf.” That pleasant lip-puckering is thanks to oxalic acid, a naturally occurring substance that makes some foods taste tart, like sorrel’s family member, rhubarb. (It’s less noticeable in other foods like spinach, parsley, and bananas.) You might have heard that oxalic acid can be toxic; this is true, but only in very large doses, so just stick to reasonable levels of consumption. Oxalic acid isn’t all bad -- its presence is what allowed Romans, Greeks, and Egyptians use sorrel as both a meat tenderizer and a digestive aid.
More: Fiddlehead ferns are another spring favorite that aren't stranger to controversy.
Keep your eyes peeled for sorrel at a specialty grocery store or your farmers market; look for leaves that are similar in appearance to elongated spinach, almost arrow-shaped (2, below). You’ll most likely find common sorrel (also called garden sorrel), or French sorrel, the latter of which has less of a bite. Or pick up seeds or a starter plant and grow your own -- sorrel is a perennial, and you’ll appreciate it coming back year after year.
When young, the stems of small leaves (1) are tender -- but later in the season the stems toughen up, so at that point it’s best to remove them. If you’ll be puréeing mature leaves for a sauce or soup, Deborah Madison recommends removing the stem from the entire length of the leaf -- just fold each leaf in half and pull up on the stem. According to Gordon Ramsay the leaves are delicate and bruise even easier than basil, so always use your sharpest knife when chopping them.
How to Cook with It
Sorrel is happy to be treated as an herb or a leafy green, and it can be cooked or used raw -- a little can go a long way, so remember that it’s easier to add than it is to subtract. When cooked, it will turn a dreary shade of greenish brown (thanks to that oxalic acid), but not to worry -- the tart flavor won’t be lost.
Add small young leaves whole or chopped to a sandwich or salad, or chiffonade and scatter on top of egg dishes. Sorrel pairs well with both potatoes and fish -- try turning it into a sauce for salmon. It also likes to mingle with other spring flavors, like asparagus, peas, watercress, and nettles. It can also stand well on its own: creamed, in soup, or in pasta. And you won’t believe what it can do for our favorite: avocado toast.
Go crazy with sorrel now, but don't forget to save some for a taste of spring in colder winter months too. Deborah Madison suggests making and freezing a sorrel purée: “Drop stemmed leaves into a skillet with a little butter and cook until the leaves dissolve...which takes only a few minutes. Cool, then freeze flat in a ziplock bag.”
Tell us: How do you like to use sorrel?
Photos by James Ransom