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Martha Stewart Magazine: Why Sumac Deserves a Place in Your Spice Rack


Chef Erin was asked to contribute to an article in Martha Stewart Magazine about the uses of one of our favorite locally foraged ingredient: sumac.



If sumac isn't already a staple in your pantry, you should consider adding it. This Middle Eastern spice will elevate your seasoning game, thanks to its earthy-tart flavor and deep red hue. But as with all flavoring ingredients, it's worth learning how to use sumac properly to get the most out of it. We spoke to chefs to learn what sumac is, what it tastes like, and its most common culinary uses.

  • Stephanie Michalak White, EdD, chef instructor and director of education at Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts

  • Erin Miller, executive chef and owner of Urban Hearth, a farm-to-table restaurant in Cambridge, Mass.


What Is Sumac?

Sumac is a spice harvested from the berries of the sumac shrub (which is different from its relative, poison sumac), says Stephanie Michalak White, EdD, chef instructor and director of education at Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts. Specifically, the term sumac comes fromthe word summaq, which means dark red in Arabic, says Erin Miller, executive chef and owner of Urban Hearth, a farm-to-table restaurant in Cambridge, Mass. The shrub is native to the Middle East, Mediterranean, and parts of southern Europe, says Miller. However, it naturally grows around the world, including North America, says White.

The Flavor

Sumac spice is made from the dark red outer coating of sumac berries. The berries themselves are quite tasteless, but the coating is astringent, and the spice has a similar flavor profile. It's tangy and tart with lemon-like notes, says White. Sumac can also be described as floral and earthy, according to Miller.

How Sumac Is Used

"Sumac is an essential spice in Middle Eastern and North African cookery," says Miller. It's a staple component of za'atar, a versatile Middle Eastern spice blend that might include za'atar itself, a green herb, along with sumac, oregano, thyme, sesame seeds, cumin, and/or coriander. And, says Miller, sumac is also the primary flavoring ingredient in fattoush salad (a pita bread salad).

Beyond specific preparations, sumac is used in marinades, vinaigrettes, and rubs for meat and vegetables, says Miller. "It also provides a bright lift in dishes with fats like olive oil, Greek yogurt, and tahini," notes White. The spice can even be infused in hot water to make tea, she adds.

What Is Dukkah? Here's How to Make and Use This Fragrant Middle Eastern Spice Blend

Sumac in Your Cooking

If you're unsure how to use sumac in your cooking, consider dishes that can benefit from citrus ingredients, such as lemon zest, suggests White. The sumac won't replace citrus perfectly, as it's a unique spice, but it does have similar flavor profiles to lemon juice and vinegar. With that in mind, "if you're making a dish with sumac, adjust the level of acidity from other ingredients," recommends White.

Where to Buy

Sumac is available at specialty stores and gourmet groceries, says Miller. "If you live in a community with a Middle Easter, Armenian, or Turkish grocery store, you [can] find it by the kilo and at a much better price," she adds. Another option is to harvest sumac if you live in an area where it grows—but be sure to do this with a seasoned forager to avoid misidentifying the plant, says White.

Sumac Substitutes

If a recipe calls for sumac but you don't have the spice on hand, lemon zest is the best alternative, says White. You can also use za'atar seasoning, as it includes sumac in the blend. Other options include hibiscus leaf tea, lemon juice, and pomegranate sauce (which might work best for liquid preparations, like marinades), though they still aren't one-to-one substitutions, notes Miller.

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