Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Foraged Wood Sorrel Custard Pie

If you can get past the strange look, this pie is mighty tasty

Wood sorrel (Oxalis species) holds a special place in my heart. It always feels like the first wild food I ever ate, even though it really isn't. Ever since I can remember I picked berries with my mother, or chokecherries with my grandmother.

But wood sorrel was different. No member of my family ever pronounced it as safe, I never picked it with them. Rather, I learned it was edible from other children, who called it lemon clover. I ate it without hesitation, rather a dangerous precedent when your "expert" is an 8-year old, but it all turned out all right in the end.

Apparently my experience was typical; magically wood sorrel is enjoyed by children, who teach it to other children, and then somehow forget they ever ate it when they become adults. Sam Thayer tells of children all over the country delighting in this simple weed, and sharing their enjoyment with others. It goes by many regional names, lemon clover, lemon grass, sour clover, sour grass, and, apparently "juicies".

Abundant wood sorrel growth in the end of August
Wood sorrel grows, in different varieties, as a weed across the country. It's a delicate plant, easily identifiable by it;s heart-shaped leaves, which grow in sets of 3, (like a shamrock--though apparently true shamrocks only grow in Europe, and wood sorrel is unrelated). Wood sorrel has 5 petaled flowers, which in the northeast are yellow, but are white, pink, or purple in other parts of the country. Plants can reach about a foot tall, though they generally don't make it that far before getting cut down. At the start of the fall, (first week of September around here), the flowers will have turned into tiny fruit, about 1/2 - 3/4 of an inch long, and vaguely banana-shaped.

I have been wanting to do something with wood sorrel for quite some time, as I said, I am very partial to it. The problem is, it's a delicate plant, there isn't a whole lot of substance. Also, it tends to grow in disturbed ground, which frequently means contaminated areas.

Individual wood sorrel plant, showing both folded flowers and fruit
Wood sorrel has a tart, sour flavor, which is why it is frequently perceived as lemon. The small size of the plant means it's rarely used as more of a trail-side nibble, or as a prize for children. You need a lot of plants to make anything with.

When hurricane Sandy plowed through the Northeast, it took out 2 of my best hen-of-the-wood (a choice wild mushroom) trees--mighty oaks who must have been over a hundred years old. The town didn't seem interested in spending the funds to remove the trees, and just left them fallen in the park. Around them both grew an enormous field of wood sorrel, which were protected by the branches of the trees from the string-trimmers of the maintenance men. And it was here that I finally found enough wood sorrel to make a real dish.

Since you are using the food processor, you can use the whole plant, leaves, flowers, fruit, even the tougher stems. But even so make sure you have a lot on hand. I filled about half of a plastic grocery bag to get enough to make this pie.

This dessert came out quite tasty, though not as I had hoped it would. I had assumed the sour flavor of the wood sorrel would survive the cooking, but it didn't, not really. The flavor was very light and green, a little grassy, with just a very subtle tartness, offset by the creamy richness of the other ingredients. This dessert comes together very quickly if you use a pre-made pie shell.

Wood Sorrel Custard Pie

4 cups loosely packed wood sorrel, about 2 cups very tightly packed
1 pre-made or pre-cooked homemade pie shell
1 14oz can of sweetened condensed milk
4 egg yolks (you can make a meringue topping with the whites if you like)
  1. Preheat oven to 300.
  2. Rinse your sorrel thoroughly, then process in a food processor until very finely chopped, nearly pureed. 
  3. Mix sorrel with sweetened condensed milk and egg yolks. 
  4. Pour mixture into pie shell and bake in the pre-heated oven for 30 minutes. When you remove it, the pie will not be fully set, but that's ok. Let it chill, and set, overnight in the fridge.


  1. "The flavor was very light and green, a little grassy, with just a very subtle tartness..." Had the same experience when I tried to make YWS (Yellow Wood Sorrel) Lemonade. A bit disappointing. The one neat thing was that when we poured half a glass of the concentrated mixture into a tall glass, and used a hose to fill the class up, it created a foam head that looked like the head on beer.

    1. So I guess it isn't the cooking that kills the lemony flavor? I wonder if it's chopping it up? How did you make the sorrel drink? It sounds like it would be quite tasty even if it wasn't a good substitute for lemonade. The sorrel pie kinda tasted like the essence of spring

  2. My aunt used to make this for us when we were young. I remember it tasting somewhat like rhubarb pie.

    1. Yes! Rhubarb also contains oxalic acid, so very similar flavor profile

  3. As children in Northern and Southern Illinois, we called this Sheep Shear. We would be teased by others if caught eating this. They would tell us this grew where an animal had previously peed. Guilty pleasure, as I could not make myself stop eating it.

    1. That's so funny! No relationship with pee spots at all. Though of course, if you are in an area where a dog or other animal may have peed on the plant you should always rinse thoroughly. And along trails where animals go I usually cook those plants too.