Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Sumac – a Taste of the Middle East

I have written prior Cooking Tips on herbs and spices in general and also some specific spices and/or herbs. In this Tip, I want to discuss a less common spice – Sumac.

Sumac comes from the berries of a plant that is native to the Mediterranean, the Middle East and parts of Asia. It is a relative to the cashew family. Because of that, avoidance is advised for those with nut allergies. Although most varieties of the sumac plant are not poisonous, there is a poisonous sumac – Toxicodendron vernix. It has whitish berries rather than red.

The sumac plant bears white flowers that develop into rust-colored berries and grow in dense clusters. The berries are harvested before they ripen and dried in the sun. They can be left whole or ground into a powder. The latter is how you will find it in most of our markets. This is at least in part due to the fact that grinding the berries is very difficult in a home environment and so, is usually done where they are picked.

The flavor of sumac is primarily tart and citrusy with some floral notes and an astringent finish. It is said that the Romans used sumac as we would use lemon juice or vinegar.

Besides adding that tartness to the flavor of a dish, it also imparts a dark red color. Lior Lev Sercarz, author of The Spice Companion, notes that the color of sumac can vary depending on the season. He says that has caused some marketers to add beet powder. They also salt to prevent clumping. Check the label of what you purchase to see if anything has been added. If it does contain salt, reduce the amount of salt in your recipe to compensate for this.

The use of sumac is prominent in Middle Eastern cooking but it can be used any time you wish to add a tart element to your dish. Because of its red color, it is also often used as a pretty garnish.

Common uses include:

  • Rubbing on kebabs and grilled meats
  • Stirred into rice dishes
  • A garnish for hummus or tahini
  • It is a major ingredient in the Middle Eastern spice blend known as za’atar.
  • Marinades and dressings

Serious Eats polled a number of chefs and asked how they liked to use sumac. Their answers were varied.

  • An all-around Mediterranean dish topper such as sprinkling on feta cheese, baba ganoush, hummus, roasted fish/chicken
  • Popcorn duster along with salt
  • Add to oil used for dipping bread
  • Season fried foods such as corn fritters, fried brussels sprouts, fried garbanzo beans
  • Meat loaf
  • Meat marinades
  • Sumac donuts
  • Chocolate sumac ganache

Although it is not that difficult to find, some people want to know what to substitute if they do not have sumac. If you are making a dish for the first time and it calls for sumac, I strongly advise you not to substitute. If you do, you will not know how the dish is really supposed to taste.

That being said, here are some possible substitutes. The first four are more strongly sour and so, should be used sparingly as a substitute.

  • Lemon zest
  • Lemon pepper seasoning
  • Lemon juice
  • Vinegar
  • If looking for the red color for garnish, consider paprika.

I do have sumac in my spice cabinet but, I must admit, I do not often use it. I need to think of it more often to add that citrusy, tart flavor as well as the red color. How about you? Does it deserve a place in your kitchen?