What Is Sumac and How Do You Use It?

This ground red berry packs a tart punch.

Reviewed by Dietitian Emily Lachtrupp, M.S., RD

If you've ever eaten at an Iranian or other Middle Eastern restaurant, you're likely to have come across the crimson-colored spice that is sumac. The deep red specks can be found sprinkled on salads, hummus, meat dishes, rice and more. Sumac's color is the reason for its name, as it originates from the Arabic word for dark red, "summaq." This ancient spice adds a complex flavor to anything it's added to, and because of its tartness, it's sometimes considered a dry acid.

Try It: Sumac Chicken Thighs with Purple Cauliflower

What Is Sumac

Sumac comes from the shrubs of the Rhus genus and its scientific name is Rhus coriaria. Interestingly, the Rhus genus comes from the Anacardiaceae family, the same family of plants that cashews come from. (If you're allergic to cashews or foods in the cashew family, like pistachios, mangoes or pink peppercorns, talk to your doctor before consuming sumac.) The fruit of the sumac plant is a red berry that is dried and ground into the spice. The plant is native to Iran and has historically grown all over the Arabian peninsula, Turkey and most of the Mediterranean. The plant can also be found in parts of Africa, Asia and North America.

Isn't Sumac Poisonous?

The sumac spice is not to be confused with the poisonous sumac plant. The poisonous shrub is a different plant altogether. It yields a white berry, so it's easy to spot the edible one which grows red berries, meaning the spice will be red in color, and isn't poisonous at all.

What Does Sumac Taste Like?

It's hard to describe the unique flavor of sumac, but many compare it to a kind of smoky lemon flavor, but with earthier, floral notes. Its slight sourness makes for a perfect addition to anything that needs a hint of acidity. It's great on richer cuts of meats like lamb, where it helps to cut through the fattiness and balance the flavor.

What Is Sumac Used For?

Sumac is most commonly used as a spice in a lot of Middle Eastern cooking, including in the dressing of the popular Lebanese salad fattoush. It's also the base flavor in musakhan, a Palestinian chicken dish, and one of the key ingredients in za'atar, the famous Arabic spice-and-herb sprinkle.

It's such a versatile spice that it can be used in multiple ways, both savory and sweet. You can dust it on popcorn, fries, rice or dips like baba ganoush, hummus or toum (the Lebanese garlic sauce). It can be used both during the cooking process, like in meaty stews, or sprinkled on after cooking, making a perfect finishing spice on proteins like grilled chicken and fish.

It also makes a great addition to baked goods, pairing well with berry flavors and vanilla, or sprinkled on top of yogurt and honey. It can even be consumed as a beverage, as some people make a refreshing sumac "lemonade" by steeping the fresh fruit, or steeping dried sumac like tea leaves, and then cooling it. Sumac has been used in traditional medicinal practices all over the world to treat different illnesses like diarrhea, hemorrhoids, pain and fever.

Where Can I Buy Sumac?

The rise in the popularity of sumac means it's relatively easy to find. Most grocery stores, including Walmart, Costco, Safeway and Whole Foods, often stock sumac. You will also find it in any Middle Eastern, Persian or Indian grocery store, where you may find both powdered ground sumac and dried whole berries. To buy it online, you can find it at various online food stores like Kalamala, Burlap & Barrel and Diaspora Co.

Foraging for Sumac

If you're foraging for sumac, you want to remove the red berries of the Rhus plant (you'll most likely find Staghorn sumac or Rhus typhina in the U.S.) The berries are little pea-size fruits that are densely clustered together on the ends of the shrub's upright branches. Harvest the most brightly colored berries, as they'll be the ripest and have the most flavor. Use your finger to lightly squeeze a berry; if it releases a slight stickiness and tastes tart, they are ready to be picked. Using pruning shears or scissors, you should cut them right at the base of each cluster, where the fruit meets the branch. They should be used or dried as soon as possible to prevent them from molding. To avoid the poisonous sumac plants, stay away from the ones with white or green berries.

To make the sumac spice, the process requires two steps, drying and deseeding. There is some debate about which order of doing so yields the best flavor, but the easier method is to do the drying first. You can dry the berries in a dehydrator or in your oven at a low temperature (125°F to 150°F) until completely dry—start checking at 5 hours, but it could take up to 12 hours, depending on the moisture level of your sumac. Then, using a grinder or a blender, pulse the berries down to a rough powder. The seed husks will be larger particles that you can eliminate by sifting the powder through a fine-mesh sieve. Store the ground sumac in a cool, dry, dark place for up to a year.

Sumac Substitutes

If you can't find sumac, you can substitute it with other acidic ingredients like lemon, lime, vinegar or a little tamarind, but bear in mind that nothing can substitute for its distinct flavor.

Bottom Line

Sumac is a spice that's ubiquitous in many parts of the world and is rapidly growing in popularity in the U.S., thanks to a number of chefs, like Reem Assil, Sami Tamimi and Yotam Ottolenghi, who are spreading the word and sharing delicious recipes that celebrate sumac. With its unique, tart flavor, a pinch of sumac provides so many ways to lift a dish, salad, drink or dessert with a hint of earthy freshness.