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The Sour Power of Sumac

Author Photo
By Richard Albert-Matesz | Jun 16, 2020

Getty Images/Gregory_DUBUS

In nature, one man’s pest is another man’s pearl. Dandelions are often considered pesky weeds; nettles seem a most unlikely side dish; and sumac may look like just another roadside shrub. To the resourceful, however, all of these plants are desirable not only as food, but also as medicine.

Cooks from many countries, including Turkey, Italy, and Israel, have revered sumac berries (Rhus spp.) for more than a thousand years. And yet, the fruits are hardly something from which to make a meal or snack; they’re smaller than gooseberries, contain almost as much pit as fruit, and have very little fragrance. They aren’t even sweet! What sumac berries do have going for them is a brilliant brick-red to purple-burgundy color, a tart and tangy taste, and a bushel full of therapeutic applications.

Sumac as a Seasoning

Prior to the importation of lemons in Europe, ancient Romans allegedly relied on sumac berries for sour flavors. Throughout the Middle East, even today, many people use sumac as a seasoning, the primary souring agent in cooking, or as a decorative garnish. The berries are commonly dried, then lightly dry-roasted, ground to a powder, and sifted to remove the hard, inedible seeds and soft, downy fuzz. Other times, the fresh berries are soaked in water for 15 to 20 minutes, or entire seed heads (with attached fuzz) are pounded in water, and then drained and squeezed through cheesecloth to extract their ruby juices and antioxidants. While the sour powder keeps at room temperature, the juice should be refrigerated or frozen.

Photo by Adobe Stock/ArchonCodex

Ground sumac may be rubbed onto meat kabobs prior to grilling, or sprinkled over raw onions, casseroles, or cooked vegetables. Za’atar, a blend of ground sumac, thyme, sesame seeds, and other spices, is used to flavor labneh — a cream-cheese-like spread made from drained yogurt. It may also be sprinkled over meat and vegetables, or blended with oil and smeared on bread as in Turkey and North Africa. Stirred into yogurt, sumac makes a piquant sauce for lamb kabobs.

A squeeze of sumac juice can replace lemon in your favorite recipes, particularly if you suffer from citrus allergies. It adds zest to citrus-free salad dressings or rice pilafs. Or, for a cooling drink on a scorching summer day, try adding sumac to an iced concoction, such as Sumac Berry “Lemonade”.

A Traditional Treatment

Sumac leaves and berries are astringent and cooling. Certain native North American tribes historically used sumac to treat urinary, digestive, reproductive, and respiratory ailments; infections and injuries; and more. Supposedly, the Chippewa people made a decoction of sumac flowers to treat gas, indigestion, and other digestive upsets. The Iroquois likely used sumac as a laxative, diuretic, expectorant, liver aid, and in countless other applications. The powdered bark and dried berries were allegedly combined with tobacco and smoked. The inner bark was also used to treat hemorrhoids.

Photo by Adobe Stock/Anna Quaglia

Early European pioneers used the berries to reduce fevers, and they steeped and strained the berries and thickened the mixture with honey to craft a soothing cough syrup. Some used the root to produce an emetic tea (to induce vomiting), the bark to make dye — as did Native Americans — and the leaves to relieve symptoms of asthma.

Sumac berries contain malic acid, which possesses antifungal properties and putative antifibromyalgic activity; tannic acid, which is present in tea and wine and is known for its astringent activity; and gallic acid, which is a white crystalline compound used in dyes, photography, and ink and paper manufacturing.

Hunting for Wild Sumac

Sumac might be deciduous or evergreen, and grows wild as a shrub or bushy tree along roadsides, at the edges of meadows, and in thickets in northern temperate regions around the world. Small plants may range from 6 to 12 feet in height; taller sumac trees may reach 23 to 33 feet.

Mention sumac, and at least one person is sure to ask about poison sumac (Toxicodendron vernix). Like its cousins, poison ivy (T. radicans) and poison oak (T. diversilobum), poison sumac contains the oil resin urushiol, which creates contact dermatitis that causes lesions and an intense itch. Should you decide to go foraging, you’ll need to discern edible sumac from poisonous. Luckily, their differences are readily visible. The simplest distinction between the two is the color of the berries. Poison sumac bears white fruit in clusters, so avoid ingesting any white-fruited sumac. These species also grow primarily in swampy areas. And, if the color of the fruit wasn’t enough, the white berries of T. vernix hang down as they grow, unlike Rhus spp., whose hard fruits grow in upright, cone-shaped clusters.

Poison sumac can be most easily distinguished from Rhus spp. by its white berries. Photo by dreamstime

Edible sumac varieties include smooth sumac (R. glabra), staghorn sumac (R. typhina), fragrant sumac (R. aromatica), winged sumac (R. copallinum), lemonade sumac (R. integrifolia), littleleaf sumac (R. microphylla), and sugar sumac (R. ovata). All nonpoisonous species produce berries that are red when ripe, and are therefore sometimes inaccurately and collectively called “red sumac.” The fruits of some are covered with a velvety fuzz that’s rich in vitamin C and ascorbic acid.

Sumac leaves are feather-like and lance-shaped with sharp-toothed margins, and they’re grouped in pinnated compounds with at least 11, and up to 31, leaflets attached to one stout but soft wooden branch.

Wild sumac should be gathered in fall as soon as the berries turn red. If left on the tree for too long, much of the flavor will be lost.

Shopping for Sumac

You can buy dried sumac berries from herb or specialty stores, or from websites, such as www.TheSpiceHouse.com or www.Starwest-Botanicals.com. For the best flavor and fragrance, briefly roast the berries in a hot, dry skillet, stirring continuously, until they start to crackle and barely smoke. Continue roasting until darkened, about 2 or 3 minutes more. (The exact amount of roasting time will depend upon the berry variety and size.) Allow to cool, and then grind in a mortar with a pestle, or in a small, electric, spice-dedicated coffee grinder. Sift the berries through a fine-mesh strainer to remove the hard, inedible pits that could otherwise crack a tooth.

Photo by dreamstime

Or, for convenience, you can purchase ground sumac from trusted sources. Keep in mind that some companies add salt to facilitate grinding, so ask before you buy, particularly if you follow a low- or no-salt diet. You can also purchase za’atar from specialty spice stores, including Penzeys Spices (www.Penzeys.com) and The Great American Spice Co. (www.AmericanSpice.com).

Store dried sumac berries and the ground spice in airtight jars at room temperature. 

Sumac Berry Lemonade

This recipe was inspired by discussions with a military man who made the drink during his travels. If you’ve collected fresh sumac berries, break off the stems at the joint, just below the seed clusters. Before brewing, separate the fruits from the clusters. Fresh berries will produce the best flavor, but you may start with dried. Yield: 1 quart.

Ingredients 

  • 1 quart filtered water
  • 1/3 cup dried sumac berries or 1 cup fresh berries
  • 1/4 cup raw honey, or to taste

Instructions 

  1. Bring water to a boil, then add the sumac berries. Cover, reduce heat to low, and simmer for 3 to 4 minutes.
  2. Remove from heat. Allow to steep, covered, for at least 15 minutes.
  3. Strain the liquid through a double layer of cheesecloth to remove any tiny hairs. Taste, dilute as desired, and sweeten with honey to taste.
  4. Chill, and serve over ice. Unused servings will keep in the refrigerator.

Rachel Albert-Matesz has been a freelance food and health writer, cooking coach, and natural foods cooking instructor for 16 years. Look for her books, including The Garden of Eating: A Produce-Dominated Diet & Cookbook.

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