© Denzil Green
Sumac is a red or purplish-red powdered spice made from the berries and occasionally the leaves of the Sumac bush.
It has a tart, lemony taste and smell that comes from malic acid on the sumac berries. It is not, though, as sour as lemon or vinegar.
The berries are harvested when fully ripe, dried, then ground.
There are two varieties of Sumac. The one with white berries is poisonous. The white berries can occur along the stem, and hang in clusters, like teeny white grapes. These poisonous varieties such as Rhus vernix are limited to North America.
The variety of Sumac with red berries is not poisonous. The fruit grows at the end of branches.
This entry focusses on the edible, non-poisonous variety with red berries.
There are two prime varieties of edible Sumac, “Smooth Sumac” (“Rhus glabra”) and “Staghorn Sumac” (“rhus typhina”), which is found in North America. Staghorn is the tarter of the two. While Staghorn is not identical to European Sumacs, it has berries with an extremely similar taste.
Other non-poisonous varieties can be used as well such as Rhus trilobatu, Rhus aromatica or Rhus copallinum.
In Sicily, Sumac grows both wild and under cultivation. Sicilian Sumac (Rhus coriaria) is among the best flavoured.
Sumac bushes will grow from seed, root cuttings, or suckers. The berries grow in clumps and are ready for harvest in late summer and early fall.
© Denzil Green
The berries have velvet-like hair on them. The tartness is in the hairs. Most of the flavour is on the surface of the skin. A white sticky substance on the red berries is fine: that’s the malic acid.
They are picked when they are fully ripe, a dark reddish-purple, but before rain has had a chance to wash the flavour off them. If the berries are harvested before they are ripe, they will be bitter. If harvested after a rainfall, their flavour will be washed away.
They are dried after being picked.
Sumac is grown and used in the Middle East and Italy. It is used in cooking in Iran, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey and Sicily. Shakers of Sumac flakes are put on tables on restaurants in the Middle East, and it is used in making Za’atar.
Red berries from Sumac native to North America are mostly used to make a lemonade-type drink that some call it “sumac-ade.” For a pitcher of pink lemonade, use 6 to 8 clusters of berries. You pour boiling water over the berries, allow to stand for 15 minutes, squeeze the berries, then strain out through cheesecloth and discard the berries, then sweeten the juice to taste. For less tannin in the drink, instead of hot water, soak in cold water overnight. A juice can be also made from dried berries, and used in cooking.
When dried berries are ground into a powder, the powder doesn’t have much aroma, but has flavour.
Anyone allergic to cashews or mangoes may be allergic to Sumac.
Don’t even touch or brush against poison sumac: just touching it can cause skin irritation, rashes and severe dermatitis.
1/2 cup = 65g = 2.3 oz
1 tablespoon = 10g
Sumac is native to parts of the Mediterranean such as southern Italy, and to the Middle East, and to North America.
The Romans used Sumac juice and powder used as a souring agent.
Native Americans would gather red Sumac berries, and dry them for food over the winter.
Also spelt “sumach”.
From the Arabic word “summaq.”