What Is Sumac? Learn More About This Mediterranean Spice

Prized for the sharp citrusy flavor it brings to dishes, sumac has been used around the world for thousands of years and is now taking hold in America.

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If you look at any cuisine around the Mediterranean Sea, chances are a good many of the recipes are going to contain sumac. It’s been grown and eaten in this area long before the Roman Empire reigned over much of Europe. But what is sumac exactly and how can you add it to your cooking?

What Is Sumac?

While there are various forms of sumac growing around the world, the variety used most in cooking comes from a native bush growing throughout southern Italy and the Middle East. The bright red berries are harvested, dried and ground resulting in a coarse powder with a dark purplish-red color.

It has a bright, lemony flavor without the sharp, acidic punch lemons bring to a dish.

Is Sumac Good For You?

The flavor of sumac may have been the primary reason it became popular, but it didn’t take too long to figure out this spice has more to offer than just seasoning foods. Ancient Greeks first wrote about the health benefits thousands of years ago.

Today, researchers have discovered this spice is an antioxidant dynamo and is one of the most powerful anti-inflammatory spices you can find.

How Do You Cook with Sumac?

There are many ways to use sumac, from spice rubs to marinades and even in some desserts. One way I like to use it is by sprinkling it onto foods as a finishing touch. Whenever I make hummus, I always reach for a little sumac to sprinkle on top along with some good olive oil and coarse sea salt. It’s also good on grilled vegetables, chicken, fish and lamb.

Try mixing it into your favorite spice blend anytime you want a lemony flavor. It’s also delicious mixed into ground meat, say for tacos or a topping on Armenian pizza-like dish called Lehmejun.

Where Can I Find Sumac?

Most spice companies have sumac in their inventory, so check out their websites and shops. You can also find sumac at specialty grocers. You may have trouble finding sumac at your local supermarket, but don’t be afraid to ask your store’s manager to start stocking it.

What Is a Good Substitute for Sumac?

The flavor of sumac is very distinct but if you can’t find it or run out in the middle of a recipe, there are a few substitutions you can make. First is lemon zest. It will add that fresh citrus flavor but it lacks a little of that depth you’ll find in sumac. So add a little freshly cracked black pepper along with the zest. If you have lemon pepper seasoning, that will also work in a pinch.

Sumac is also a major component in a number of spice blends, like za’atar so you can swap in some of that if you have that on hand. It’ll taste great, especially in this za’atar chicken recipe.

James Schend
Formerly Taste of Home’s Deputy Editor, Culinary, James oversaw the Food Editor team, recipe contests and Bakeable, and managed all food content for Trusted Media Brands. He has also worked in the kitchen of Williams-Sonoma and at Southern Living. An honor graduate of The Culinary Institute of America, James has traveled the world searching for great food in all corners of life.