What is Sumac And How To Cook With It

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Sumac is a beautiful flowering tree that makes its way into Middle Eastern cooking and my summer tea. The natural color of the sumac berry offers a gorgeous touch to drinks and salad sprinkles, as well as a bright lemony flavor that brightens lamb kabobs and bowls of hummus. Don’t let this spice confine you to Middle Eastern cooking because the plant is an original from Kansas!

What is Sumac?

Sumac is a ripe, fuzzy, red wine-colored berry used as a spice that grows on Staghorn Sumac tree, which is a part of the cashew family. It grows natively in the northeastern United States, especially in Kansas, along forest edges and old fields.

Sumac berries are harvested when ripe, and dried then ground and sold as a spice. Ground sumac is a main ingredient of Za’atar seasoning in Middle Eastern cuisine and used as a common cooking ingredient in Iran, even finding its place on dinner tables along with salt and pepper.

Historically, the dried leaves and sumac berries were combined with tobacco and other herbs and smoked by Native Americans. Other parts of the sumac tree and its berries were also used as an alternative medicine, and as a gorgeous dye for wood and leather.

An interesting sumac fact is that the plant contains toxins similar to those present in cashews, mangos, and poison ivy. Since this toxin is has various affects on people depending on their susceptibility, it is on the no-no list for some people. It’s best to start with a very small amount of this spice if you’re not sure if you are allergic to it or its other family members (do you break out if you touch poison ivy, or eat mangoes, for example).

Can you Buy Fresh Sumac?

Fresh sumac berries are not typical to the spice market, but can be harvested and used to make lemonade and tea if you know your plants well (there are several poisonous sumac varieties that grow wild).

What Does Sumac Taste Like?

Sumac berries don’t have an aroma. They taste fruity and tangy with notes of citrus like lemons, and flowers. This spice is primarily used to give food a tart flavor and bright red color.

Where to Buy

Ground sumac is the most commonly found form of this spice, and can be found for the best price at Middle Eastern markets or The Spice House. It generally costs not much more than $1.00 per ounce.

Online, you can also buy whole dried sumac berries and ground sumac.

How to Store

Store sumac in a sealed container in a cool, dry, dark place for up to six months.

Your kitchen cabinet is just fine, but make sure the cabinet is not too close to the stove where pots of boiling liquid can humidify the inside of your cupboard and dampen your spices.

What is a Substitute for Sumac?

Sumac itself is used as a citrus alternative. If you don’t have sumac though, replace it with spices or fruits that match its flavor, like lemon. To replicate its color, add a dash of beet juice.

A few sumac substitutes

  • Lemon zest replicates sumac’s tartness and texture. Replace with a ratio of 1:1
  • Citric acid goes a long way, so use 1/16 teaspoon or less to replace sumac
  • Lemon juice in equal amounts as recipes call for sumac makes for a similarly zesty flavor
  • Vinegar can be more overpowering than sumac, so use a ratio of 2:1 when replacing
  • Tamarind paste (mash your own dried fruit or buy in the jar) makes a great 1:1 replacement for sumac’s tartness

How to Cook with Sumac

Sumac is used in the kitchen in its ground form. You can buy it ground, or grind your own berries with a coffee grinder, spice grinder, or mortar and pestil.

Sumac is often used to make teas, lemonade, herbal tonics, and jelly and is well known as a main ingredient in Middle Eastern cuisine, like za’atar spice blend, as an ingredient in spice rubs for lamb, or a colorful and zesty topping for hummus.

Use sumac in large quantities as a main flavoring, in small quantities as a background flavor, or use like you would paprika as a light sprinkling just for looks. Put sumac in a small bowl with a spoon or in a shaker on the table and add for additional zest as you eat.

Sumac is a fun addition to drinks like Bloody Marys and other beverages like teas.

Sumac’s citrus flavor makes it a great use in fatty foods like meats (think lamb and duck), and legumes like garbanzos.

If bought from a Middle Eastern store, sumac will often be mixed with salt. Check the ingredients list on your jar before using this seasoning, because you may need to reduce the addition of extra salt if your sumac already contains some.

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