Vibrant in both color and flavor, sumac is a wonderful way to impart brightness and acidity to a dish without having to incorporate any liquid.
Sumac has been used for both culinary and medicinal purposes for thousands of years. For the Ancient Greeks, Romans, and early Native Americans, it was a pervasive ingredient in beverages and tonics, lauded for its sour flavor and antiseptic qualities.
But its gastronomic applications were explored most by Middle Eastern and Mediterranean countries, who utilized sumac’s astringency to flavor meat, vegetables, and even desserts.
Citrusy and tart with a hint of sweetness, sumac is reminiscent of freshly squeezed lemon juice. It has a bright and clean flavor profile, lacking the pithiness and pungency often present in other acidic ingredients such as vinegar or citrus zest.
Sumac is made from the berries of the sumac bush, which is native to Mediterranean and Middle Eastern countries. The deep violet-red berries are dried and ground to make the acidic spice we know today. In areas where sumac is widely consumed, you can also find it sold as whole dried berries.
The most common use for sumac is in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine. You can find it sprinkled over hummus, rubbed onto meat for grilling, or combined with herbs and toasted sesame seeds to create a flavorful spice mix called za’atar.
Use sumac’s acidity to create a tangy flavor profile, brighten and enhance the taste of a dish, or balance out overly rich, salty, or sweet flavors. Try it in dry rubs, whisked into marinades and dressings, as a finishing spice, or as a flavoring in meatballs. The advantage of using ground sumac is that you won’t be adding any extra liquid to the recipe, unlike vinegar or lemon juice. For this reason, it works especially well as a seasoning for dry dishes such as chicken wings, french fries, and popcorn.
Though sumac is used primarily in savory applications, its tart flavor also plays wonderfully in desserts. Pair citrusy sumac with rich chocolate, echo its sour notes with lemon zest and strawberries, or combine it with warm spices like cinnamon and cardamom.
Feature Image: Flickr user jackson3 (CC BY 2.0)