Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Sorrel Makes Sour Sweet

One of my dinner guests insisted that the cold soup I served included lemon juice. "No," said another, "it's definitely vinegar." Both wrong. Well, the complex cream sauce on the salmon, they agreed, must have taken hours to put together. Wrong again.

The secret ingredient is sorrel, a deceptively bland-looking green that bursts with lemony tartness. Cooking with sorrel offers depth and a surprise flavor with almost no effort. It is spring's little gift to the cook.

Sorrel has a natural affinity for fish and eggs, and is the basis for many soups. When sauteed for a minute or so, it melts into a puree that, with a little butter and cream, makes a lovely, easy sauce for fish or vegetables. A sorrel cream is a perfect bed for poached eggs. It adds a fresh, tart edge to any salad.

The cold soup I served was a variation on schav, a traditional dish of Eastern European Jews who like sour tastes. It is often called white or green borscht, and is such a common part of the diet of Jews from this part of the world, it is sold bottled in supermarkets. The word "sorrel" has both German and French roots from words meaning sour.

The French have probably had the longest, most ardent love affair with sorrel. Potage creme d'oseille, also called potage Germiny for a former French finance minister, is a French classic. It is a lovely, rich cream of sorrel soup.

Another French standard is shad stuffed with sorrel. Because of its lemony accent, sorrel often is paired with fish.

The English historically have used sorrel as both a medicinal and a kitchen herb. They made a sorrel-based sweet-and-sour condiment called green sauce to eat with meats. It was so common, sorrel itself was sometimes called green sauce.

An ancient herb, sorrel was used by the Romans, Greeks and Egyptians as a digestive aid. It also was wrapped around meat to tenderize it. Sorrel's purported properties as a tenderizer and aid to digestion are related to its abundance of oxalic acid. This natural chemical gives sorrel its tart citrus flavor.

Because of its load of oxalic acid, sorrel should not be cooked in unlined aluminum or cast iron. It will turn black in color and nasty in taste. Even at their best, the bright green sorrel leaves turn a muddy green when cooked. You'll overlook the color, though, once you experience the surprising taste.

Americans, who don't generally go for the bitter, have come to sorrel late. While it has been discovered by cooks and well-traveled eaters, sorrel still is difficult to find outside farmers markets. It is, however, simple to grow from seed. Sorrel is a hardy perennial — a member of the buckwheat family — and can be sowed and reaped for many years. While there are native American wild sorrels, the varieties most often used for cooking are cultivated from European species.

Sorrel is the herb that keeps on giving. It requires almost no care aside from a little weeding, and cutting back any flower stalks that appear, sorrel will produce all summer.

When it appears in markets in mid-May, young, small-leafed sorrel is available. Like other spring greens, early sorrel is tender enough to be eaten raw. Whole small leaves can be tossed with other greens in a salad. As sorrel matures and the leaves grow larger, the acidity becomes more pronounced.

Sorrel comes in a number of varieties, most commonly with an arrowhead-shaped leaf. At farmers markets, I have found a round-leafed sorrel and one absolutely beautiful variety with deep burgundy veins. "Chefs are going to flip over this," the farmer selling it said. She labeled it "blood sorrel."

Whatever the variety, look for sorrel that is bright green with firm leaves. If leaves are limp or yellowing or the stems look woody, take a pass. Sorrel is somewhat fragile and should be refrigerated in a plastic bag for no more than three days. It can be pureed and frozen for later use.

While small, young leaves can be used whole; larger leaves will need to be stemmed and cut, or they will be tough and too strong. Fold a large leaf in half, grab the stem from the back and gently strip off any large rib or fibrous strings. Pile leaves on top of each other, roll into a cigar shape and chiffonade (cut into thin slices) with a non-aluminum knife.

That will be the hardest part. The rest is easy. Toss sorrel in a saucepan with a little water, and in a minute or two it will reduce down to almost nothing and melt into a silky puree, ready to liven up soups and sauces. It may look a little muddy, but that's to be expected from the refreshing taste of spring.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit

Bonny Wolf
NPR commentator Bonny Wolf grew up in Minnesota and has worked as a reporter and editor at newspapers in New Jersey and Texas. She taught journalism at Texas A&M University where she encouraged her student, Lyle Lovett, to give up music and get a real job. Wolf gives better advice about cooking and eating, and contributes her monthly food essay to NPR's award-winning Weekend Edition Sunday. She is also a contributing editor to "Kitchen Window," NPR's Web-only, weekly food column.