Sorrel Vs. Hibiscus: SPICEography Showdown

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Sorrel (Rumex acetosa) and hibiscus (Hibiscus sabdariffa) are unrelated plants that have a few things in common but a lot of differences. Here’s where things can get confusing: hibiscus is called sorrel in some parts of the world. If you are attempting to use one or the other, it is important to know how the two herbs differ and to understand which one your recipe requires. Here is a look at how sorrel and hibiscus compare to each other. 

How does sorrel differ from hibiscus?

Usually, sorrel and hibiscus look almost nothing like each other. Sorrel leaves are typically bright green and elongated with a slight arrowhead shape. Hibiscus has variegated leaves and red stems. Note that there are some sorrel varieties that have red stems but most don’t. 

With sorrel, the edible part of the plant is the leaf, which you can consume raw or cooked. The bright red calyx at the base of each flower is the part of the hibiscus plant that is most commonly used for food. The calyx covers the seed pod. You peel the calyces off and they are edible raw, but it is more common to use hibiscus calyces for making infusions or to cook them. 

Sorrel is a savory green herb and is prepared in the same ways that spinach and dandelion greens are prepared. The main application for hibiscus in the West is in beverages, though it is also used to make jams and jellies in some parts of the West Indies — it is sweetened in most of these preparations. 

Sorrel’s acidity comes mostly from oxalic acid, the organic acid that is responsible for the acidity in rhubarb and other tart greens. Hibiscus gets most of its tart flavor from a variety of other organic acids, including malic and tartaric acid. 

Can you use sorrel in place of hibiscus and vice versa?

The flavor of sorrel and the flavor of hibiscus are both dominated by tartness so if you are thinking about using one or the other of these two herbs to make a tart savory dish, they may be interchangeable. Neither has much going for it in the flavor department outside of acidity. Still, there are a few important things that you may want to consider before making the switch.

Firstly, sorrel will not provide the bright red color that hibiscus provides. If you use sorrel as a hibiscus alternative, the resulting preparation will look noticeably different from a version containing hibiscus. Similarly, hibiscus will give a different appearance in a dish that is traditionally made with sorrel — it will make the dish bright red

Secondly, sorrel is not traditionally used to make a beverage. The main application of hibiscus is for making infusions that serve as the basis for drinks. How well sorrel’s acidity might work in a beverage is questionable. 

When should you use sorrel and when should you use hibiscus?

Use sorrel as a leafy green in salads or puree it for soups. Use it in Nigerian stews and salads or steamed as a side dish for fish. Hibiscus is a versatile plant with many applications but none is more popular than its use as a tea herb. You can serve hibiscus tea hot but in many tropical countries like Mexico and Jamaica, it is served sweetened and cold over ice. In Jamaica, the hibiscus drink is associated with the end-of-year holiday season and its flavor may be enhanced with spices and rum. In Mexico, it is a year-round favorite agua fresca.