sumac grounds on a wooden spoon sumac grounds on a wooden spoon There are many creative and delicious ways to use sumac in your cooking. (Photo: Nedim Bajramovic/Shutterstock)

What is sumac, and how do I cook with it?

This versatile spice, originating in Mediterranean cuisine, has a number of uses and benefits.

It’s sumac, but it’s not going to give you a rash like the one you got on a camping trip in seventh grade. In fact, there are many creative and delicious ways to use this fragrant spice in your cooking. Here’s your introduction, as well as some neat ways to cook with it.

What is sumac?

Sumac is a tangy spice that’s essential in Mediterranean cuisine. Its lemony flavor adds a tartness to many dishes. In its natural form, it’s a red berry, but it’s usually sold in ground form. It’s also one of the main ingredients in za'atar, a spice blend used in chicken, fish, lamb and other Mediterranean street foods (best served in a pita).

jar of za'atar spice blend with a scooper Za'atar is a Mediterranean spice blend derived from the plant of the same name. It usually contains sumac. (Photo: Viktory Panchenko/Shutterstock)

How is it different from the poisonous kind?

Some sumac species are poisonous and can cause skin rashes. Those are found in remote wetland areas in the southern United States. They resemble a woody shrub or a small tree with white bulbs. Culinary sumac is not poisonous and is distinguishable by its dark red color.

How is it made?

Sumac spice is made by drying and grinding the berries of the wild sumac flower. The result is a coarse grind, not a fine powder, with a deep red tone. It’s very hard to find and purchase the whole berries outside of the region where they’re grown.

Where does it grow?

Spices and teas in the Egyptian market in Istanbul. Spices stall in the Spice Market, Istanbul, Turkey. Paprika, chicken, curry, potato, salad, sumac, chilly, vegetable, fish, cumin, paprikaSumac is on display along with other vegetables at a spice market in Istanbul, Turkey. (Photo: Cristina.A/Shutterstock)

The wild sumac plant grows most commonly in high-plateau areas between Italy and Lebanon, and other nearby subtropical areas. It has also been spotted in Africa and North America.

Fun fact: Before lemons were readily available in the Roman Empire, sumac was used to lend acidity to meals.

How do I use it?

Use it to brighten up dry rubs, spice blends like za’atar and dressings. Sumac is also commonly used as a garnish, to add a pop of bold color or slight acidity to a dish before serving. Add it to your homemade hummus for tangy flair, or sprinkle it atop your spicy nut mix at parties. It’s also excellent when cooked with eggplant.

Recipes we recommend

Za’atar roasted chicken over sumac potatoes Adeena Sussman's za'atar roasted chicken with sumac potatoes recipe from her cookbook, 'Sababa.' (Photo: Dan Perez)

In Arabic, Lebanese and Mediterranean cooking, you’ll find sumac in generous proportions. We’ve cooked with it frequently in the Israeli Kitchen. These three recipes are a great starting point:

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What is sumac, and how do I cook with it?
The tangy spice is essential in Mediterranean cuisine, but many people don't know about sumac. Learn more about the versatile spice and how to cook with it.