Over a hundred different species of sumac grow all around the world. You can often see these hardy shrubs growing in colonies on dry roadsides. In the fall when their leaves turn bright red they really stand out, but I start noticing them in the summer when their large fruit clusters turn red and stand erect at the end of their branches. That is the time for harvest. Several species grow in the US and as long as their berries are red they are safe to eat and handle. Please make sure you learn how to safely identify any plant before harvesting and consuming it and consider the environmental impact on the plant before harvesting. I would stay away from landscape cultivars and stick with native, wild varieties.
Harvesting is easy, the stems are hollow and break easily. Sumac contains urushiol which some people are allergic to (cashew, pistachio, mango allergies) and its fruit has tiny hairs which can be irritating to some. Take only what you need and leave the rest for the birds, which will enjoy this tart snack in the winter months, when food is sparse.
Sumac has been loved and used for thousands of years and is especially popular in the Middle East as a spice and its leaves are used for tanning leather. Our indigenous nations have loved sumac for its tartness and are well-known for making Sumac-ade.
Sumac is a powerful antioxidant, high in vitamin C and has been shown to reduce blood pressure. Some people swear by sumac tea (from the berries) for sore throats.
The name Sumac comes from the Arabic سُمَّاق summāq, meaning red. The fruit clusters are usually as long as your hand with hundreds of small drupes covered in tiny hairs which carry the organic acids (malic, citric and tartaric) giving the fruit its tart flavor. Inside each drupe is a small tannic seed which can impart a bitter taste.
Sumac the Spice
You can use Sumac anywhere you would use lemon, lime or vinegar. I love it on salads, grilled meats, salsas or rice. The acidity of your spice depends on the age, just sample it before you use it.
You need a large wire mesh strainer, a small food processor or coffee grinder and a storage jar.
Start by picking the fruit off the small branches and letting it fall into the strainer, the stems and pieces of the branches will fall through the strainer after shaking it a few times.
Now the drupes are ready for grinding.
Preferably you want to use a grinder that is a little older and not very sharp because you don’t want to grind the seeds which will impart a bitter taste. I am generally not opposed to the bitter but are not fond of it in combination with sour. I have an older coffee grinder and a small food processor that work well. Grind the drupes until you can clearly see the seeds in the mixture. Pour the mixture back into the strainer and shake until you have separated the seeds from the covering.
I like keeping my Sumac spice in a wide-mouth container instead of a shaker because it is a little sticky and hard to shake out.
Should you grind the seeds as well, don’t despair, it is still good. If you don’t own a grinder, you can grind the drupes with a mortar and pestle but you have to let it dry for a little bit first, otherwise, it is too sticky and the parts will not separate.
Sumac is also used in spice blends like Za’atar and Harissa.
Sumac -Ade Recipe
You need a jar, water, and some bobs (yes, that is what the clusters are called ;~)) of Sumac, a coffee filter, and some sugar, or whatever sweetener you like.
Immerse the Sumac bobs in warm (not hot) water and rub the fruits with your hands a little to release the acid then let it sit for an hour or two. The more Sumac you use the more acidity you get. Hot water releases the tannins and makes the drink a little bitter. Strain the liquid through a coffee filter or fine cloth to get rid of any particles and the tiny hairs. Now you can sweeten the beverage to your liking. Refrigerate.
While I was writing this blog I was contemplating what else I could use Sumac in. I created the following recipe, all proud of myself, only to find out it was not the first time someone put this idea into a recipe, regardless, these cookies are very good.
Sumac Butter Cookies
- 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/8 cup Sumach powder
- 1/2 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 large egg
- Preheat the oven to 350°F and prepare two baking sheets for baking cookies
- Mix the flour, baking powder, salt, and Sumac powder in a small bowl.
- In a large bowl, beat the soft butter and sugar until smooth.
- Add the vanilla and egg, beating until well incorporated.
- Add the flour mixture and stir until combined.
- Drop the cookies by the tablespoonful onto the prepared baking sheets, flattening the cookies slightly with the bottom of a glass dipped in granulated sugar.
- Bake the cookies for 12 minutes.
- Remove the cookies from the oven and cool for 2 minutes on the baking sheets before transferring them to a rack to cool completely.