By Jill Henderson – Show Me Oz –
Last week, I talked about the various types of edible sorrel that can be grown in the garden or wild foraged. The two most commonly cultivated species are Common Sorrel (Rumex acetosa) and French Sorrel (Rumex scutatus), followed by their wild counterparts, Sheep’s Sorrel (Rumex acetosella) and Red-veined Sorrel or Bloody Dock (Rumex sanguineus). Of these, French sorrel is the most popular for cooking and fresh eating. This week, we’ll take a closer look at how to use French and Garden Sorrel in the kitchen and then delve into the medicinal aspect of these overlooked herbs.
I didn’t start growing sorrel because I couldn’t live without it in my garden – quite the contrary. I had been wild-foraging for years and I thought I knew what sorrel was. My thinking was, why grow sorrel in my garden when there was a great abundance of the stuff down in the meadow. All I had to do was go and get it. But when a friend gave me a small cutting of French sorrel, I immediately understood the difference between those wild weedy herbs and this lovely delicate one, and I’ve been growing it ever since.
Again, there are two kinds of culinary sorrel to choose from; garden sorrel, which has long ovate leaves and a robust flavor or the relatively diminutive French sorrel with distinctly arrow-shaped leaves and a milder lemony-tart tang. Once you begin to experiment with the tantalizing taste of these perennial herbs, you will wonder how you ever cooked without them.
There are so many ways to use sorrel, it’s almost mind boggling, but for newbies I suggest simply using the fresh leaves like you would lettuce – on sandwiches and in salads. From there, you can step it up a notch by chopping the leaves a bit and including them in cold salads such as potato, egg, pasta, and tuna.
Probably the most widely known use of sorrel is in Sorrel Soup or the French classic, soupe aux herbes. As it is with soup, there’s likely a hundred ways to prepare it, but check out this recipe for French Sorrel Soup De Ma Grand-Mere from the blog, Edible Dallas Fort Worth.
And while soup is the traditional use for sorrel, it can go do so much more. Pop a handful of leaves in the blender with a little vinegar, sugar, salt, and pepper and you have an excellent green sauce for fish, chicken, lamb, and veal. Dress that simple sauce up a bit with a little basil, garlic and just a dash of olive oil for an incredible dip for crackers and raw veggies or as a delightful dressing for cold pasta salads.
Sorrel is also an excellent potherb when prepared and served like spinach – lightly steamed and drizzled with butter. In that vein, try using the steamed leaves in casseroles, egg dishes, and stuffing, too.
Here’s an interesting factoid: The leaves of sorrel were once used to tenderize red meat and as a curdling substitute for rennet in cheese making, while the roots were used to impart a lovely red blush to herbed vinegar and oil.
In addition to its edible nature, sorrel has been used for centuries as a mild medicinal herb. Widely recognized as a blood purifier, sorrel is also used to prepare a detoxifying and bitter tonic to stimulate the appetite and to soothe indigestion, dyspepsia, constipation, diarrhea, and chronic gastrointestinal disturbances. But take care when consuming large amounts of sorrel, for its astringency can have the exact opposite effect on the digestive tract. Start slow and see how it works for you.
Sorrel’s strong astringent properties are best used for external applications to reduce inflammation and for soothing and drying skin rashes, hives, poison oak or ivy, and other hot, itchy, inflammations of the skin. It’s astringent nature has also been used to reduce excessive bleeding in women with heavy menses.
Sorrel also has multiple antimutagenic and antioxidant constituents, which may be helpful in treating various forms of cancer. Although I am not aware of any in-depth studies regarding its use to treat cancer, the herb continues to be used in a long-standing Native American formulation known as Essiac, which includes sheep sorrel (R. acetosella), burdock (Arctium lappa), slippery elm (Ulmus rubra), and Chinese rhubarb (Rheum palmatum).
With that in mind, there are definite drawbacks to the use of large quantities or excessive or prolonged use of sorrel, which is strongly discouraged. A small handful of leaves added to raw mixed salads is a pleasurable way of using sorrel medicinally. In some cases, the infusion of sorrel root is prescribed for severe diarrhea, but a leaf infusion should suffice for moderate cases. If diarrhea continues for more than three days or is chronic, a professional diagnosis should be sought immediately. The aerial parts of sorrel can be juiced, crushed, or infused and used externally as a skin wash, poultice, or compress. Tinctures are not recommended. The roots of sorrel are highly astringent and should not be consumed without the guidance of a professional. On the other hand, the roots can be decocted and used externally to dry up severe cases of poison oak or ivy.
Caution: Although the pretty little wild or wood sorrel common in North America share a similar acidic taste, their clover-like leaves clearly distinguish them as belonging to a different genus altogether. Members of the wood sorrel family, Oxalidaceae, are not recommended for medicinal or culinary use.
Sorrel contains oxalic acid and anthraquinones, which are known to be irritating and mildly toxic when consumed over long periods of time or in excessive quantities. Periodic consumption of leaves and tea are generally not a concern. Those who are prone to kidney stones, arthritis, or gout should avoid medicinal use of sorrel. Women who are pregnant or breast feeding should avoid using sorrel internally.
© 2014 Jill Henderson
The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs is a no-nonsense guide jam-packed with no-nonsense information on growing, harvesting and using 35 of the world’s safest and most flavorful herbs. In addition to the 35 detailed herbal monographs are entire chapters on growing, harvesting and using kitchen herbs to spice up your favorite dish or create healing herbal remedies. This is one book you will turn to time and time again!
Available in the Show Me Oz Bookstore
Jill Henderson is an artist, author, and the editor of Show Me Oz . Her books, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, The Garden Seed Saving Guide and A Journey of Seasons can be found in the Show Me Oz Bookstore. Jill’s work has also appeared in The Permaculture Activist, The Essential Herbal, Acres USA, and Llewellyn’s Herbal Almanac.