Sumac is a spice that is popular in the Middle East. It is related to the poisonous shrub by the same name, but the culinary variety is safe to use and easily identifiable by its vibrant red berries (poisonous sumac is white). The berries are turned into a coarse powder and sold as a ground spice; the berries are also available whole, although this is much less common in the U.S. Sumac is a versatile seasoning that adds a bright red color and a tartness, similar to lemon juice, to a dish. One of the most common uses for sumac is in the spice blend called za'atar.
What Is Sumac?
Sumac berries grow on the Rhus coriaria shrub, which is typically found in high plateau areas of the Mediterranean like Sicily, due to its wild, rocky lands. Sumac also grows in Turkey and can be found in parts of Iran. Once the berries are fully ripe, they are harvested, dried, and ground. The processed sumac takes on a dark red-burgundy color and the texture of ground nuts. It has a similar smell and taste to lemon but is not as sour. Sumac is widely used as an acidulant in Arabic and Lebanese cooking, and similar to salt, it brings out the natural flavors of the foods it is cooked with.
The name sumac comes from the Aramaic word summaq which means "dark red." As far back as 2,000 years ago, sumac was noted for its healthful properties, namely as a diuretic and anti-flatulent, by Roman Emperor Nero's physician, Pedanius Dioscorides. Before lemons made their way into Europe, the Romans used sumac to add a tanginess to dishes.
In North America, indigenous peoples and early pioneers used sumac to treat a variety of ailments, from coughs and sore throats to stomachaches and wounds.
What Does It Taste Like?
The flavor of sumac is quite surprising as the deep red spice is reminiscent of fresh lemon juice. This sweet but sour taste is followed by an astringent powerful punch. While having a diverse flavor profile, sumac still blends exceptionally well with other spices such as allspice, chili, thyme, and cumin.
Cooking With Sumac
Ground sumac can be used as is, simply measured from its container. It is a versatile spice, and can be added to a meat rub, used as a flavoring in vegetable dishes (such as eggplant), and is the perfect seasoning for homemade hummus. Sumac is an ideal match for lamb and duck as it cuts through the fattiness of the meat. Similar to a squeeze of lemon juice over a finished recipe, sumac is at its best when sprinkled over a dish before serving. Sumac is also a good choice when looking to add a lemon flavor to a dish but don't want to add a liquid to the recipe. Before using sumac, be sure to read the ingredient label as some manufacturers include salt; if so, reduce the amount of salt called for in the recipe.
If using as a whole berry, crack or crush it slightly and soak in water for approximately 20 minutes. Add to marinades, dips, or dressings as you would the ground version.
Recipes With Sumac
Za'atar spice blend is one of the most popular recipes including sumac, but the spice is also a common ingredient in meat dishes, stews, salad dressings, and pita wraps.
- Spring Peas With Sumac and Feta
- Adana Kebab (Ground Lamb Kebab)
- Arnavut Cigeri (Turkish Liver and Onions)
If you cannot find sumac at the market, there are a few substitutions you can use to achieve a similar taste. Lemon zest can be used in its place or combine the zest with salt and black pepper for a more complex flavor. The spice blend za'atar is another good alternative as it contains sumac, which also means the food will still be tinted red. If you are using lemon zest and will miss the red hue, add some paprika for color.
Uses of Sumac
In addition to a zesty flavoring for various dishes, sumac can also be used for its essential oils to create a flavored oil or vinegar, a practice that dates back to ancient Rome. The berries are boiled, drained, and pressed, and the essential oils are mixed with either olive oil or vinegar. The flavored oil or vinegar is used on its own or as part of a salad dressing.
Where to Buy Sumac
Ground sumac can be found in the spice aisle of well-stocked supermarkets or in the international foods section along with the Middle Eastern products. Specialty grocers and Middle Eastern markets should carry ground sumac and may have the whole berries in stock. You can also find both forms of sumac online. When possible, buy the whole berry as it has a much longer shelf life.
While ground sumac can last for several months, whole sumac can last for upwards of a year. Store sumac in an airtight container away from heat and light.
Colorado State University. Guide to poisonous plants. 2021.