Deep red and bursting with tangy zest, sumac has been an essential element of Middle Eastern cooking for centuries. But more recently the citrusy spice has been getting the global attention it deserves.
Here at Milk Street, we use the spice in all kinds of recipes, whether it’s Sumac-Spiked Chicken (Musakhan) or Tomato Herb Salad with Sumac. Here’s everything you need to know about this deep, red spice, plus a list of some of our favorite ways to cook with it.
What It Is
Sumac is made from the berries of the sumac bush and usually is sold ground. (Though they are related, this is not the poison sumac you've been warned to stay away from in the wild.)
What It Tastes Like
Sumac has a sour, lemony flavor, lending the tart notes of citrus without any liquid. (It also adds a bright pop of color.)
How to Use It
We think of sumac as a dry acid. It’s an easy way to brighten and sharpen a dish without adding citrus juice or vinegar. It works well as a condiment and can be dusted over just about anything – hummus and baba ghanoush are traditional, but it makes a good popcorn topper, too.
A tangy popcorn topping
In a small bowl, stir 4 tablespoons melted salted butter, 2½ teaspoons sumac, ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper and 1 teaspoon kosher salt. Drizzle over hot popcorn.
In cooking, sumac works well in dry rubs for chicken and fish. We like it on tomato salad as much as dusted on avocado toast with extra-virgin olive oil, salt and ground black pepper. We also like it infused into a simple syrup to sweeten lemonade, spritzes and cocktails, or mixed with salt to create a zest cocktail rim. (See more ways to cook with sumac below.)
To make sumac salt, combine 2 tablespoons ground sumac and 1 tablespoon kosher salt in a spice grinder and pulse until finely ground. Stir the mixture into ¼ cup salt and use to rim cocktail glasses. To make black pepper-sugar, combine 1 tablespoon black peppercorns and ¼ cup sugar in a spice grinder and grind until powdery.
Where to Buy It
You can find it online and in Middle Eastern markets. It also is beginning to show up in better-stocked spice aisles everywhere. We also sell our own sumac in our Milk Street Store.
The easiest substitute is lemon zest with a little salt and pepper, which will give you some of the bite that sumac imparts. You also could try tamarind, which has a similarly citrusy taste, or za'atar—sumac is one of the key ingredients in this Middle Eastern spice blend.
More specifically, try a blend of 2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest, 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice and 1 teaspoon minced dried cranberry.