I’m not usually a big fan of fuzzy food. But by the time I’ve turned sumac’s hairy berries into a lemony, pale pink liquid, the fuzz factor is gone and the result is one of my favorite wild edible plant products.
The tart flavor of sumac comes from tannins and from acids on the hairs that cover the fruit. I don’t actually eat the berries. Instead, I extract their tasty sourness in water and then use that liquid in both savory and sweet preparations.
When I did a year-long local foods challenge (I ate almost exclusively foods grown within 250 miles of Brooklyn), I obsessed about the lack of citrus, especially lemons. Our BK winters are too cold for citrus trees to survive here. A whole year without a lemon in my kitchen? Yikes.
Sumac was one of the foods I relied on to take the place of lemons in my cooking. Taking a tip from Wildman Steve Brill, I froze sumac extract (see recipe below) in ice cube trays so that I could have it on hand year round.
You’ve already tasted sumac if you’ve ever eaten at a restaurant that serves Middle-eastern style food. It is one of the ingredients in the ubiquitous Middle-eastern seasoning blend za’atar, and it is the reddish powder sprinkled on your plate in Egyptian restaurants.
“Red za’atar,” as it is sometimes called, comes from Rhus coriaria, a sumac native to southern Europe. Here in Brooklyn, we have other sumac species. One of the most common is staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina), a shrub native to eastern North America. You’ve seen this plant growing alongside highways: It’s the shrub with pointy, compound leaves and upright rust-colored berry clusters that have a cone-like shape.
Another sumac we have in BK is squawbush (Rhus trilobata). It has three-parted leaves and small clusters of hairy berries that are the same rust-red as staghorn sumac’s larger upright clusters. It is native to the west coast of North America and has been planted in New York City by landscapers. Sumac berries can be harvested without harming the shrubs, as is true of all fruit harvests. The young growth at the tips of the branches is also edible, but I don’t enjoy it as much as the berry extract.
There is a plant called poison sumac (Toxicodendron vernix) that can give you a wicked rash. You really can’t confuse it with the edible sumacs because its berries are white, not rust colored. Also, they hang down rather than perching above the leaves.
Never harvest sumac berries immediately after a rainy day. The rain washes away the acids that give the edible sumacs their refreshing flavor. Wait several sunny days after a rainfall before collecting sumac. I like to give the berries a lick right there in the field to see if they are sour enough to bother harvesting. Sumac berries are in season from late summer through fall.
How to Make Sumac Berry Extract and What to Do With It
Place sumac berries in a bowl of room temperature water. Swish them around vigorously with your clean fingers. Let them soak in the water for 15 minutes. Strain through a very fine sieve, paper or cloth coffee filter, or several layers of cheesecloth.
Sweeten the extract to taste. Serve chilled. This is one of my favorite late summer drinks!
Sumac in Savory Dishes
Use unsweetened sumac extract in any sauce or marinade that would work well with lemon juice. To preserve the extract, freeze it in ice cube trays and then transfer the cubes of frozen extract to freezer containers.
Prepare the sweetened sumac-ade above. Combine two parts chilled sumac-ade with one part vodka and serve.
Leda Meredith is the author of The Locavore’s Handbook: The Busy Person’s Guide to Eating Local on a Budget. She is the Gardening Program Coordinator for Adult Education at the New York Botanical Garden and an instructor specializing in edible and medicinal plants at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Info on her many upcoming classes and events can be found on her blog at www.ledameredith.com.