What Is Sumac? How To Use It In Your Cooking?


By: The Foodie’s Avenue

Sumac, with its vivid red hue and zesty citrusy flavour, is a culinary gem waiting to be uncovered. In this article, we’ll delve into the origins, flavour profile and creative uses of sumac, showcasing how this unique spice can elevate your cooking to new heights. Whether you’re a seasoned chef or an adventurous home cook, sumac is a flavourful addition you won’t want to miss.

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What is sumac?

Sumac is a spice derived from the berries of various species of the sumac shrub, primarily found in the Middle East, the Mediterranean, and parts of North America. These small, reddish-purple berries are dried and ground to create the spice, which has a unique tart and citrusy flavour. Sumac adds a bright, tangy note to dishes and is often used as a seasoning in Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, and North African cuisines.

Types of sumac and their origins

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Sumac exists in various types, but the most prevalent ones for culinary uses are Staghorn Sumac and Smooth Sumac. They are primarily found in North America, with their red berries employed in creating sumac spice.

Mediterranean Sumac, renowned for its tangy, citrusy flavour, is favoured in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisines, while Sicilian Sumac serves a comparable culinary role. Fragrant Sumac provides aromatic leaves for herbal teas, and Lemonade Berry, indigenous to the southwestern United States, yields berries suitable for crafting a lemonade-like drink.

Flavour profile of sumac

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The flavour profile of sumac seasoning is characterised by its unique blend of tartness and citrusy brightness. Sumac imparts a zesty, tangy, and slightly sour taste to dishes. Its flavour is often described as reminiscent of lemon or vinegar, but with its own distinctive, earthy undertones. This tartness can be quite pronounced, making sumac an excellent spice for adding acidity and depth to dishes without using traditional acids like lemon juice or vinegar.

Common dishes showcasing sumac

Sumac brings a refreshing and bold flavour to foods, making it a popular choice in Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, and North African cuisines to enhance the taste of various dishes, from salads and meats to grains and dips. Here are some common recipes showcasing sumac as a flavour enhancer:

Fattoush Salad

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Fattoush is a Middle Eastern salad that prominently features sumac. It typically includes fresh vegetables like cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuce, and radishes, mixed with toasted pitta bread pieces. The dressing contains olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, and sumac, giving the salad its distinctive tangy and citrusy flavour.

Sumac spiced hummus

Photo: Ilya Rabinovich

Hummus, a creamy chickpea dip, can be elevated with the addition of sumac. A sprinkle of sumac on top of the hummus not only enhances its visual appeal with its vibrant red colour but also imparts a delightful tangy twist to the classic dip.

Grilled chicken with sumac seasoning

Photo: Daniel Hooper

Sumac is often used as a seasoning for grilled chicken. A simple marinade of sumac, olive oil, garlic, and various spices infuses the chicken with a delicious tangy and earthy flavour. This dish is popular in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisines.

Storage & shelf life

To ensure the freshness and longevity of your spices, proper storage is essential. Here are some guidelines on how to store sumac spice effectively:

  1. Choose an airtight container: Transfer the sumac powder into an airtight container to protect it from moisture, light and air exposure. A glass jar with a tight-fitting lid or a sealed plastic container works well for this purpose.
  2. Keep it in a cool, dark place: Store the container in a cool and dark area, such as a pantry or cupboard. Excessive heat and light can degrade the flavour and potency of the spice.
  3. Check for freshness: Over time, the flavour of sumac may diminish. It is a good practice to periodically check the spice for any signs of deterioration, such as loss of aroma or a faded appearance. If the sumac spice has gone stale or lacks flavour, it’s best to replace it with a fresh batch.

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