Dried Sumac Berries
Dried Sumac Berries, Rhus coraria, are small, tart, brilliantly red-to-burgundy berries. This variety of Sumac is also called Sicilian Sumac, Lebanese Sumac, Syrian Sumac, soumak, sumaq, or velvet sumac, because of the fuzzy coating that grows on the berries. In French and German culture, the sumac tree is called the sumac vinaigrier or the Essigbaum, respectively; this translates in both instances as the “vinegar tree”.
Sumac delivers a powerful, pungent fruit; whole Sumac Berries contain up to 13.5% essential oil by weight.
What Are Dried Sumac Berries?
Edible sumac berries are the fruits of a flowering bush or small tree, varieties of which are found around the world. They are at their biggest 1/4 inch long, about the same width as a small English pea, but with a flatter middle, more oval than round. They belong to the biological family Anacardiaceae, so they are related to cashews, mangoes, and pink peppercorns . Depending on what you consider to be edible—as in, non-poisonous—there are 250 varieties of sumac around the world, but only about 35 of those are flavorful enough to be used to season food.
Sumac can be found in all 48 of the contiguous United States; while Sumac is commonly used in Middle Eastern food and is a relative newcomer to many North American kitchens, it’s been an important part of the Native American diet for hundreds of years. Native Americans have used Sumac Berries to season Wild Rice and have muddled them with sugar and left them to steep in water for a refreshingly tart “sumac-ade” that is still being made today.
Our whole Sumac Berries are the fruits of the R. coraria, a Mediterranean varietal of Sumac. Sumac Berries are classified as “drupes”, meaning they contain one seed at the center of their flesh, much like plums and peaches. Once the berries are dried, they’re commonly ground and used as either a sweet or savory flavoring for food, perking up a main dinner dishes or adding a tart, lively burst to desserts.
History of Sumac Berries
It’s difficult to pinpoint where Sumac Berries originated; different varieties of flowering, edible sumac can be found all over the world. Because Sumac is invasive and grows quickly, once it’s in a new place it doesn’t take long to establish itself as a local plant. It does seem likely that Sumac began its journey around the world somewhere amid the subtropical regions of North America and northern Africa, relying on migratory birds for dispersal. The seeds are small stones inside the berries and they travel easily in a bird’s belly, taking root along annual migration patterns thanks to their droppings. Once the plant was established in North Africa, it was easy for Sumac to make its way around the Mediterranean via trade. Ancient Greeks were writing about Sumac’s flavor and properties 2,000 years ago, as the Greek doctor Pedanius Dioscorides recommended using sumac as a tonic to break a fever and as a way to soothe an upset belly, particularly when it was mixed with a sauce. Romans used Sumac Berries to infuse a citrusy tartness into their food, before lemons came to Italy in 200 A.D.. They would also extract the essential oils to mix into olive oil or vinegar so they could enhance their sauces. When Sumac made its way to the eastern shores of the Mediterranean it came into its own as an integral ingredient of the various cuisines of the Middle East. It’s a common rub for meats and fish and is perhaps most notably a key ingredient in Za’atar, a seasoning blend that’s ubiquitous to Middle Eastern, all along the Levant and up into the western regions of Asia.
While this plant is indigenous to the United States and has been in use as a flavoring agent for as long as we can see in the history of Native Americans, it hasn’t held particular interest in most US kitchens until relatively recently. The interest in Sumac has grown along with our expanding interest in global foods.
Sumac can thrive in a wide range of soils and climates. It prefers dry soils with good drainage, even if the soil is rocky and inhospitable to other hardy plants. Trees can be found occupying marginal spaces—along fences, climbing the hills along the sides of the road, at the edges of a field. Sumac has a significant preference for full sun and does not grow successfully even in partial shade. The trees can grow up to 35 feet tall, depending on the variety of sumac and the growing conditions, but it’s also common to see sumac that are three or four feet tall.
Sumac does well commercially when it’s not too crowded; it’s recommended that no more than 200 Sumac bushes are planted per quarter acre, to allow for plants to receive maximum sunlight and drainage. Plants reach full maturity after 3 years; when it’s ready to start fruiting, a sumac will grow tiny flowers that emerge at the ends of its branches in tight, spiky clusters called “panicles”. Sumac bushes are allowed to reach a maximum height of 10 feet before they are cropped back. Because Sumac reproduces either by seed or rhizomatically, sending out horizontal shoots underground if they are left untended, they have to be monitored regularly to make sure they aren’t forming thickets and crowding themselves out.
To harvest sumac berries simply cut the panicle—also called a “bob”—from the tree. Pull the berries off the sticks that make up the panicle and spread the berries in the sun to dry. The whole process takes about a week. Berries are often covered with a cloth with an open weave that will allow for drying and protect the berries from bleaching in the sun. Each quarter acre can produce 1100 pounds of fruit annually, and start fruiting in late June or early July.
While wild Sumac Berries can be foraged for, it’s strongly recommended that people do not harvest berries that grow along the sides of the roads. Those berries may be contaminated by car exhaust or roadway pesticides and treatments.
Where Are Our Sumac Berries From?
What Do Sumac Berries Taste Like?
Sumac Berries don’t have a strong fragrance, so their bright, perky flavor comes as a little bit of a surprise. They are powered by malic acid, not citric acid, so they taste more like green apples or rhubarb with a bit of berry sweetness to counter the sour, than lemon. Their flavor jumps out at the first taste without a lot of nuance; they exist to be tart, though they are not quite as tart as vinegar.
If you chew a whole Sumac Berry, please do so carefully. The seed in the middle is tiny, but very hard.
Are Sumac Berries Poisonous?
One of the questions people want to know about Sumac is, “Isn’t Sumac poisonous?” Some of it is. The kind we offer is not.
There are some telltale characteristics that can help you differentiate poison sumac from the edible kind. Poison sumac grows in swampy, wet regions; it loves the Mississippi River Delta, and the low country in the American southeast. Edible sumac prefers dry, well-drained soil and full sun. The stems that support poison sumac berries are red, while edible sumac berries are supported by woodsy-brown stems. And most importantly, all varieties of edible sumac produce red berries, while all poison sumac berries are ivory or pale grey.
How to Use Sumac Berries
Crack Sumac Berries, add sugar to taste, top with water and let it steep to make the sweet-tart drink that was mentioned earlier. Drink that as-is, or add some lime juice to make a sour mix for a fresh take on a margarita. You can also steep Sumac Berries to make jelly, either on its own or mixed with strawberries. Steep cracked Sumac Berries in milk and cream as a base for ice cream. Grind Sumac Berries so you can blend their bright flavor into a Homemade Barbecue Sauce or into a DIY Rib Rub. Sumac is commonly found in Middle Eastern food, so grind it to toss over kebabs or stir into the dressing for a fattoush salad or a Persian cucumber salad. Scatter across baba ghanoush or hummus for color and to allow their tart flavor to cut through the richness of the dips. Or, take your freshly ground Sumac Berries in a new whole new direction and use it to season ricotta cheese for a creamy and bright pizza topping.
Sumac Berries are not as sour as lemons or vinegar, so if you use one of these items instead of Sumac, start with half of the amount of Sumac you would use and taste to check if you need more.
|Also Called||Sicilian Sumac, Lebanese Sumac, Syrian Sumac, soumak, sumaq, or velvet sumac|
|Recommended Uses||Use to make sweet-tart beverages, as a rub over meats, to garnish dips|
|Flavor Profile||Tart, green-apple-meets-rhubarb flavor with a touch of sweetness|
|Botanical Name||Rhus coraria|
|Cuisine||Middle Eastern, Mediterranean|
|How To Store||Airtight container in a cool, dark place|
|Shelf Life||1-2 Years|
|Country of Origin||Turkey|
|Dietary Preferences||Gluten Free, Non-GMO|
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Serving Size1 tsp
Amount Per Serving
% Daily Value*