Not only is it organic and healthy, but we can forage certain varieties for snacks, meals, drinks and spices. High-end restaurants are gathering and using sumac in their dishes. If you are interested in foraging sumac, but have never done so, there are a few things to know.
First, it is not a great idea to forage for sumac along roads or highways, even though the bushes are often full of fruit. This sumac will have absorbed pollution from being so close to the road.
Taste: Sour, lemony, citrusy
Most Popular Use: Spice blends, dry rubs, salads
There are some 250 geniuses of Sumac. Sumac can be a small tree or a shrub in shape, and likes to grow on dry slopes. It can grow anywhere from 4 to 35 feet in size. The leaves are notched and grow in slightly staggered pairs until the end, where one leaf will be perpendicular to the rest. Sumac has upright fruit clusters, usually red and covered in a velvet fuzz. Sumac clusters are called drupes. The berries ripen in summer and tend to be wet and sticky when ripe. Their taste is sour and much like lemon.
Sumac grows all over the world, in North America, Europe, Middle East and the Mediterranean. It has been used for medicinal purposes, made into spices and often used as an ingredient in flavoring. Desserts and drinks are often made with sumac as a syrup.
Sumac is high in vitamins A and C, as well as being full of antioxidants.
Edible Varieties of Sumac
- Staghorn Sumac, Rhus Typhina
- European Sumac, Rhus Coriaria
- Smooth Sumac, Rhus Glabra
- Fragrant Sumac, Rhus Aromatica
- Desert or little leaf Sumac, Rhus Microphyllia
- Lemonade Sumac, Rhus Integrifolia
- Sugar Sumac, Rhus Ovata
- Dwarf Sumac, Rhus Copallina
Most types of sumac have fuzzy fruit except the Smooth sumac, hence the name. To harvest sumac, locate the desirable clusters that are the brightest color on the tree or bush. Touch the fruit to check for a slightly sticky feel. You can even lick your fingers to see if it has the tart taste. Clip at the base of the cluster early in the season with some sort of pruning shears. By doing this early in the season, there is less chance of mold or insects. Keep in mind: You only need the clusters.
Poison sumac – which grows mainly in the Eastern US — has white or gray berries, whereas edible sumac has red, brown, purple or maroon fruit. Also, people can be allergic to sumac, just like everything else. You need to be aware of this when you eat sumac for the first time. Poison Ivy, poison oak and poison sumac are all related to the edible kind of sumac, but all look different. Know what you are looking for, before foraging. Consult an expert before foraging if you are not experienced or are trying a new plant.
Ground sumac is widely available in Middle Eastern markets, and little by little it's making its way into the spice aisle of grocery stores. Store ground sumac in an airtight container, away from heat and light.
Sumac is a widely used, essential spice in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cooking. It's used in everything from dry rubs, marinades, and dressing. But its best use is sprinkled over food before serving. It pairs well with vegetables, grilled lamb, chicken and fish. Sumac is one of the main components in the spice mix za'atar, and is used as a topping on fattoush salad, and makes a nice topping on dips like hummus.
If you’ve ever dined in a Middle Eastern restaurant, you may have noticed the dark red powder that dusts everything from salads to meat to baklava. It’s sumac, and it packs a wallop of tart, lemony, almost vinegar-like flavor that brightens salad dressings, popcorn, even Bloody Marys. It’s a spice every kitchen should have, and one that isn’t as hard to come by as you might think.
The most basic use for sumac is sprinkled on top of things — fresh greens, a cucumber salad, grilled chicken or bread. However, some chefs are taking the ingredient and turning it on its head. “We use sumac in many different ways, from making vinaigrettes out of it to curing meats, seasoning meat and fish, and I have even made desserts with it, including puddings and ice cream,” says chef Dave Santos of Louro in Manhattan. “I like the acidity or citrus quality of sumac, which helps lend itself well to a lot of different ingredients.” As for desserts, Santos says it possesses a gentleness that works well in lieu of lemon. “When you think about sumac you think about its lemony quality along with a bit of astringency, just like a little pith from a citrus,” he said. Hence, he makes a traditional-style pudding that tastes of lemons but doesn’t have a lick of the fruit.
To prepare edible sumac, you can dip the clusters in water (room-temperature) right after harvesting. Leave them overnight, or until the water turns red.
To use Sumac for Spice (option 1)
- Lay sumac out on newspaper, with lots of air flow.
- Move or stir sumac at least once a day.
- Once dry, remove the leaves and sticks.
- Place in food processor.
- Process for a few minutes, leaving just the seeds.
- Place into a strainer and sift. You also can grind in a coffee grinder.
- You can roast the seeds to eat or make a dye.
To use Sumac for Spice (option 2)
- Dry clusters under heat lamps or in an oven at 125-150 degrees Fahrenheit. You also can use a dehydrator.
- When dry, break up the clusters.
- Place in blender.
- Push through a medium-mesh strainer to separate any remaining sticks and seeds.
Regardless of which option you use to make Sumac Spice, it will last for over a year when stored in a cool, dry place, in a tightly sealed container or jar.
- Soak five to eight clusters in eight cups of room-temperature water, for a few hours or as long as overnight.
- Crush clusters by hand.
- Do not use boiling water or hot water as it will change the acidity of the berries.
- Drain with cheesecloth or a coffee filter to remove any debris.
- Add honey or sugar to taste
- Harvest the red cones in Summer when they are bright and full and before heavy rains that can wash out their color and flavor.
- Taste one drupe before picking to make sure that it is ripe, with a tangy, lemony flavor.
- A tablespoon or two of the drupes steeped in hot water, or left to sit in water outdoors on a sunny day, should yield one to two flavorful cups of “Indian lemonade.”
- Be sure to filter the pink liquid through a tea strainer, cheesecloth or paper coffee filter before drinking to remove any fibers that naturally occur with the drupes.
The cones store well in a paper shopping bag in a cool place for months and should yield good tea until springtime when mints can be harvested from the herb garden for a different tea!
Many herbal teas are considered diuretics, improving kidney function, and ridding the body of toxins. Sumac tea falls into this category. You can bet that there are definitely loads of phytonutrients in sumac! Plus, there is the added healthful psychological boost of knowing that this local tree that provides a tasty, seasonal drink, as well as a spice, has been used by millions of people for thousands of years. And you gathered it from living nature in your backyard. What could be better!
When we think of herbs to use in our everyday cooking, sumac is rarely on the list so you might think it is very rare. On the contrary, the shrubs bearing the sumac fruit can line many highways in North America and few realize the health benefits to be reaped from this sour tasting but rather delicious produce of nature.
The shrubs are known to grow in great numbers in Africa, the Middle East and North America, though they can take root in most places around the world. The flowers are greenish, creamy white or red and the berry fruit forms dense clusters of reddish drupes that are then dried into a tangy purplish or maroon spice.
Though it is known to be a staple in Middle Eastern cuisine, from the Arabic to Turkish dishes, North American natives use the berries for tea, to be drunk hot or cold and sweetened with maple syrup.
Note: Do not boil the berries as that will release tannic acid into the water, which you don’t want. Soak in cold water and filter the mixture through a double layer of cloth to remove the small hairs of the fruit.
Why exactly do the Native American tribes love this tea?
• It is antiemetic, antidiarrheal, antihemorrhagic
• It helps heal blisters and rashes
• It can be used as mouthwash
• It is great to fight colds, sore throat and tuberculosis
• It can be used to treat asthma and ulcers
• It is used as eye, ear and heart medicine
• It is used as a wash for STDs
Furthermore, the Natchez used sumac to treat boils. Studies also point towards other benefits:
- One study has discovered that sumac has antimigratory activity which helps prevent and treat atherosclerosis, a deadly coronary artery disease. The tannin acid which is released by boiling the berries has been found to treat vascular smooth muscle cell migration.
- Another study points out the antioxidants found in the sumac berries and leaves, which can be used to treat osteoporosis and might also be a great base for joint disease therapy.
- An Iranian study has pointed out the antibacterial and antimicrobial benefits of the plant, which can be cultivated in poorer sectors of the world to boost income and health in society.
CAUTION - Keep away from the white berry sumac, as it is similar to poison ivy and can irritate the skin.