Most people associate sumac with being poisonous. While some Sumac species are indeed poisonous, no need to worry. Culinary sumac is easily identifiable by its vibrant red bulbs (don’t touch any of the white bulb shrubs!). Now that we've got that out of the way, let's talk about the basics:
The flavor of sumac is quite surprising. It has levels of tart and fruity flavors that can only be described as having an element of lemony goodness. This sweet but sour taste is followed by an astringent powerful taste bud punch. While having a diverse flavor profile, sumac still blends exceptionally well with other spices such as allspice, chili, thyme, and cumin. One of the most common spice blends sumac can be found in is Za'atar. Sumac also brings out natural flavors in which it is added too similar in the way salt does.
Sumac berries grow on a shrub called Rhus Coriaria. This plant typically grows in high plateau areas of the Mediterranean. Sicily is especially known for growing these tasty little berries due to its wild, rocky lands. However, Sumac also grows in Turkey and can also be found in parts of Iran.
Sumac is widely used as an acidulant in Arabic and Lebanese cooking. Sumac is more commonly found in the US as a ground powder but can be used as a whole berry. The most common use for the raw berry is to crack or crush slightly and soak in water for approximately 20 minutes and use add to marinades, dips, or dressings. As stated previously, the powder is most commonly used. Ground sumac is a great addition to meat rub, great seasoning for vegetable dishes, and necessary for your homemade hummus. Sumac mixes well with most nuts, such as walnuts and pine nuts and brings a mouth-watering element when added to eggplant dishes.
When able, you should buy whole spices and the same goes for sumac. This is because while ground sumac can last for several months in an airtight container, whole sumac can last for upwards of a year. Unfortunately, whole sumac is rarely found outside of the area it is grown. Ground sumac can be found at specialty food stores and online.