Sumac: What Does it Taste Like and How Do You Use it?
Tangy and vibrant red Middle Eastern sumac is a stranger to most spice cabinets, but trust us. Once you’ve tried it, you’ll want to use it more and more. Every kitchen should have a little jar of sumac! It might become your newest secret ingredient.
So what exactly is it? Well, sumac isn’t exactly a spice. It comes from the fruit of the sumac flower - Rhus coriaria - which is a member of the cashew family. You can find it in plants across subtropical and temperate parts of Africa, North America, the Middle East, and Turkey. Ancient doctors and indigenous peoples used it as a tonic, antiseptic, and astringent. They also added it to a sort of pink lemonade used to cool fevers.
You can find several types of sumac, but most stores sell smooth or fragrant sumac. The bright red berries, sometimes almost burgundy, are then dried in the sun and ground to create the typical Middle Eastern condiment. The fresher your sumac, the better. (Hint: Our small quantities guarantee your spices are always fresh.)
What Does Sumac Taste Like?
First, get a handle on how it tastes. Sumac is tart, lemony, tangy, with almost a tinge of vinegar flavour. Some might even call it sour. In fact, the Phoenicians used it for its tart, acidic properties to flavour foods before the Romans introduced lemons. Put a bit on your tongue and you’ll notice that it’s citrusy as well as berry-like, but also a bit earthy. It brightens everything it touches and it’s perfect for sprinkling over all sorts of things. Prevalent in the Middle East, sumac is slowly sneaking into Western cuisine.
How Do You Use Sumac?
For obvious reasons, sumac works well whenever you’re cooking Mediterranean, Israeli, or Moroccan cuisine. But we find that the best use of sumac involves sprinkling it over different dishes. Try dusting it over roasted chicken or fish. Or create a Middle Eastern dish that’s known to pair well with sumac, like baba ganoush, hummus, falafel, or even a simple plate of feta drizzled with olive oil and sprinkle sumac over it.
Surprisingly, it even livens up popcorn. Toss it with a little sea salt and it’s like eating a complex salt and vinegar popcorn. Not only are the flavours great, but dusting sumac over food gives any dish a bright pop of beautiful red color.
Try it over fresh leafy greens, grilled chicken, roasted eggplant, or cucumber salads. It works well on hot, crispy fried potatoes too. Speaking of potatoes, use it on latkes with feta, or try a variation made with spaghetti squash like these. Sumac makes raw and cooked vegetables much more exciting. It works well in vinaigrettes and salad dressings. Just add sumac in place of vinegar so you don’t get too much acidity.
Like dukkah and za’atar, you can even blend sumac with a nice extra virgin olive oil and sea salt and serve it alongside fresh bread for dipping. It’s simple yet intriguing, and your guests will wonder what they’re tasting. (Oh, and fun fact: Sumac is one of the main ingredients in the Middle Eastern spice blend za'atar.)
Try sumac as a seasoning for your fried foods. The citrusy taste of sumac will cut the rich flavour of fried food, but the earthy notes add complexity. Chefs recommend it on fried brussels sprouts, corn fritters, and chickpeas. Try it with deep fried halloumi or even fried eggs. Think of it as a citrus without the liquid, so your food gets that acidity without getting wet.
You can also use sumac in your dry rubs or marinades for proteins like roasted chicken, pork, lamb, and fish. For chicken skewers, marinate them in a combination of yogurt and sumac to keep them moist and flavourful. It works especially well blended with fruits, like this roasted chicken with sumac and meyer lemons or tomato puree and pomegranate molasses. Try marinating pork chops or ribs with sumac and blood oranges, lemon, or pomegranate flavours.
If you’re adventurous, try sumac in your desserts as well. Chefs report excellent flavour combinations when adding sumac to a bittersweet chocolate ganache. Use it where you might use lemon - puddings, ice creams, vanilla bean icing. Sometimes it’s sprinkled over baklava.
It doesn’t stop there. Sumac works in cocktails too. Think Bloody Marys or even sumac-infused vodka. You can even make your own! Well, once you get some sumac that is…
So where should you buy your sumac? Well, since this new addition to your spice rack works best when it’s freshest, get yours online at Zest & Zing. We stock small quantities and ship in smaller jars - so your spices are always at their peak. Happy experimenting!