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What is sumac?

What is sumac?

Sumac is a dried red spice that is quite popular in Middle Eastern dishes. Though it’s still not a staple in kitchens around the world, there’s no doubt that it will soon become one because of its sharp and citrusy tart taste as well as many health benefits.

Sumac is one of the oldest spices to exist. It adds a unique and strong flavor to any dish, which is why adding small amounts of it goes a long way. This versatile spice can be used in rubs, marinades, vegetables, dips, and even desserts.

Chances are that this spice might not be available in your local supermarket. Despite that, it’s one spice that all home cooks should incorporate in their dishes.

Sumac is a bright-red spice made from dried and ground berries from the sumac flower and bush. Though it’s related to the poisonous bush of the same name, the spice made from the flower is entirely safe for culinary use. 

Sumac originated thousands of years ago and was popularly used because of the health benefits it provides. It was believed to help treat ailments and problems like cough, indigestion, sore throats, and wounds.

What does sumac taste like?

The taste and smell of sumac can be compared to that of fresh lemon juice. It has a sweet yet sour taste, which adds a punch to any dish. The sumac flavor can also be described as being fruity yet acidic. 

When added or mixed in a dish, sumac brings out the natural flavors of the meat or vegetables in the dish. The spice blends well with other traditional spices like chili, thyme, and cumin.

Sumac spice substitutes

Since the sumac flavor resembles that of lemon, fresh lemon juice is the ideal substitute for the spice if you’ve run out of it. If you want to add an acidic and sour flavor to a dish but don’t want to add any powders, you can use lemon juice instead. 

Other substitutions of sumac spice are lemon zest, vinegar, and lemon pepper seasoning.

How to use sumac

As I mentioned earlier, there are many different ways of using sumac in cooking. It adds a sour kick to whatever dish it’s added in, taking it to the next level. The best way to use sumac is in za’atar, a dish that’s incomplete without this spice. 

Here are some other ways you can use sumac:

  • As a rub or marinade for meat before grilling or barbecuing them
  • In dips or hummus
  • In desserts 
  • In Curries
  • In salads as a dressing  
  • Sprinkle it over a dish before serving 
  • To create a sumac flavored oil or vinaigrette

Tips on cooking with sumac

Though sumac is pretty easy to use, you should be a bit careful with the amount you’re using. Add a little bit, and then work your way up. Here are some other tips on cooking with sumac:

  • If you plan to use sumac, make sure to use it in lamb-based dishes
  • If you are using a whole sumac berry for cooking, crack and crush it lightly and then soak it in water for twenty minutes

Tips on buying sumac

Here are some tips on buying sumac from the supermarket:

  • Read the label of the sumac spice packaging to see if the salt has already been added; if so, reduce the amount of salt when cooking 
  • You can find sumac in the international food aisle section, along with other middle eastern spices 
  • If you can find the whole berry, we recommend you buy that instead of the powder version since it will last longer and have a fresher flavor

The bottom line

There are now many reasons for you to make sumac a staple ingredient in your home. To get you started, here’s a recipe for sumac chicken with cauliflower and carrots. Trust me when I say that your guests will come back for more with this one!