Ingredient TM_IN_SUMAC_AP_001_004

Well Red

Sweet and tart, bitter and fruity, once-obscure sumac is appearing on more and more menus. But how do you bring it home?


If I told you that a spice often used to season grilled meats can also brighten up a delicate dessert, would you believe me? What if I told you that spice was sumac? Would you even have a jar of it to go home and taste?

Perhaps you’ve seen the plant’s bright red berries growing wild in your backyard before. Or maybe you’ve only heard about the poisonous variety, a relative of poison ivy and poison oak. If you’ve really been paying attention, you might recognize it as one of the primary components of za’atar, the increasingly popular Middle Eastern spice blend. But you’ve probably never tried sumac by itself, let alone cooked with it.

Sweet and tart, bitter and fruity, sumac has an unusual flavor profile for a spice. Imagine eating freshly picked raspberries, followed by a juicy tomato, topped off with a pleasantly savory finish. Made from a berry that is dried and ground into a bright burgundy powder, sumac is easily one of the most interesting — and certainly prettiest — spices you could have in your pantry. It has long been a saving grace spice in Middle Eastern cuisines, where it was traditionally used to brighten up dishes when lemons weren’t available or affordable.

Like citrus, sumac adds a quick splash of acidity to a range of dishes, but it’s more complex. “Sumac is tangy and sour,” said Rawia Bishara, chef and co-owner of Tanoreen in Brooklyn, and author of the new Middle Eastern cookbook, Olives, Lemons, and Za’atar. “At the same time though, it is heartier than the taste of lemon — it’s more earthy, more robust.”

“It’s super bright and pink lemonade-y without adding any acid,” said Mike Solomonov, who frequently cooks with sumac at his Israeli restaurant, Zahav, in Philadelphia. “You can finish a dish with it because it doesn’t have to be cooked and it’s not straight raw acid so it works better with a wine pairing.”

It’s surprising sumac hasn’t joined the wave of other Middle Eastern ingredients like tahini or cumin as a staple in the American kitchen yet. It’s easy to find in stores and easy to integrate into dishes you already cook — a versatile spice that is capable of both contrasting and complementing the flavors it’s paired with.

Sumac’s tartness cuts through rich meats like goat or lamb and brightens up any roasted and grilled vegetables. A quick sprinkle can liven up a flatbread or season an otherwise bland salad. Sumac’s a beautiful match with bread, so using it to spice up panzanella is a no-brainer. And it may be one of the only savory spices that pairs well with dairy — feta, yogurt, and yes, even creamy desserts. Instead of using lemons or limes to balance a dessert’s sweetness, try adding a bit of sumac, like in the cheesecake recipe below. It’ll bring the same freshness, but add a floral note as well.

Though it may not yet be trendy, there’s no spice as friendly as sumac. The next time you need to brighten a dish, reach for sumac instead of lemon. Add a sprinkle, a dash, or just a small dusting. It’s a spice that invites experimentation.

Sumac Panzanella



1 loaf of focaccia or other stale bread, diced
½ cup olive oil
1 tablespoon sumac
1 red pepper, diced small
1 pint cherry tomatoes, chopped
½ cup parsley, chopped

Red wine vinaigrette:
½ cup red wine vinegar
1 garlic clove, minced
1 small shallot, peeled and minced
1 tablespoon sumac
1 tablespoon dried oregano
2 cups canola oil


Place diced bread in a bowl. Season with olive oil, sumac, salt and pepper. Place on a sheet tray and bake in a preheated 350°F oven for about 15 minutes or until the bread is dry. Remove bread and place in a large bowl. Add red pepper, tomato, and parsley to the bowl with the bread. Season with salt, pepper, and a teaspoon of sumac. Toss to combine.

To make the vinaigrette, whisk together red wine vinegar, shallot, garlic, sumac, and oregano. Slowly drizzle in canola oil and whisk to emulsify the oil with the vinegar and seasonings. Season with salt and pepper.

Pour the vinaigrette over the bread and toss to combine. Refrigerate for at least one hour so flavors can combine.

Recipe by Ally Zeitz

Marinated Feta Flatbread



For flatbread:
1 package active dry yeast (about 2¼ teaspoons)
1½ cups very warm water (about 110°F)
18 ounces all-purpose flour (4 cups)
1½ teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons olive oil

1 pound feta, crumbled
3 tablespoons sumac
1 tablespoon lemon juice
½ cup olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
4 lemons, thinly sliced and grilled
1 bunch asparagus, woody bottom removed, thinly sliced and blanched


Dissolve the yeast in warm water. Put the flour and salt in the food processor and process briefly to mix. With the machine running, add the yeast and water mixture in a slow, steady stream. Turn off the machine, add the oil, and pulse just enough to mix.

Scrape dough on to a floured surface and knead. It should be smooth and soft. Form into a ball and place in an oiled bowl. Allow to proof for 45 minutes at room temperature. Once proofed, turn out onto a floured surface. Scale and portion the dough into two-ounce portions. Roll into tight balls; knead to push the air out, place onto an oiled sheet tray, coat with olive oil and cover with plastic wrap. Proof at room temperature for about 45 minutes. Preheat oven to 400°F.

Shape flatbreads on olive oil lined pan. Pull and stretch the dough until it is thin in the middle with a slightly thicker crust. Bake in the oven for 10 minutes so the dough sets. Remove from the oven and finish cooking on a hot grill until the crust has grill marks and is golden brown, about 5 minutes.

Mix together the feta, sumac, lemon juice and olive oil in a small bowl. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Preheat oven to 350°F. To assemble, drizzle each of the flatbreads with 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Divide the asparagus and grilled lemons and arrange them on the flatbread. Top with sumac feta. Place the oven until the feta starts to melt (about 10 minutes). Cut into slices and serve.

Yields 12-14 finished flatbreads

Recipe by Ally Zeitz

Sumac-Marinated Lamb Chops with Pomegranate and Mint Yogurt



1 rack of lamb, cut into chops
½ cup olive oil
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 tablespoon dried oregano
3 tablespoons sumac
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper
4 cups pomegranate juice
1 teaspoon sugar
1 cup plain yogurt
½ cup mint, chopped
½ cup olive oil
1 tablespoon sumac
Salt and pepper to taste


In a small bowl combine olive oil, coriander, oregano, sumac, lemon juice, salt and pepper. Coat lamb evenly with the marinade and place in a bowl. Cover with plastic and refrigerate for at least one hour.

Place the pomegranate juice in a small saucepan and reduce until the sauce is thick and reduced by more than half. Season with salt and sugar to taste.

In a small bowl whisk together yogurt, mint, sumac and olive oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

When ready to serve grill the lamb until desired doneness. About 10 minutes for medium doneness at medium high heat.

Recipe by Ally Zeitz

Sumac Cheesecake



21 ounces cream cheese
4 ounces sugar
.4 ounces flour
2 eggs
1½ teaspoon vanilla extract
½ cup sour cream
½ cup sumac

Graham cracker crust:
16 ounces graham cracker crumbs
8 ounces sugar
Melted butter, enough to make graham and sugar hold its shape

Pomegranate syrup:
16 ounces pomegranate juice


Preheat oven to 350°F

For crust:
In a medium bowl, mix all three ingredients together until it holds its shape. Measure out two tablespoons into a 3-inch round metal mold (or muffin tins lined with cupcake liners), pound down graham crust until flat. Bake crust for 10 minutes or until golden brown. Lower oven temperature to 200°F and put a water bath on the bottom rack of the oven.

For cheesecake:
With a stand mixer, cream together sugar, cream cheese, and flour until extremely smooth. Mix in eggs one at a time. Once eggs are incorporated, add the sour cream and sumac. Mix for 30 seconds, then scrape the bowl with a spatula, making sure all ingredients are completely mixed together.

Using a piping bag, fill each mold or cupcake tin up to the top. Rest in the water bath and bake for 25 minutes, then flip the pan around and bake for another 20 minutes or until cheesecake is firm. Remove cheesecakes from water bath and put directly into the refrigerator. Once they are completely cool, use a torch to heat up each 3-inch mold, making it easier to slide the cheesecake out. Drizzle with pomegranate syrup and serve.

Pomegranate syrup:
Reduce juice about ¾ of the way down, until it becomes a thick syrup.

Recipe by Marie Whitehead

Photos by Julia Silva

Shelby Vittek is an award-winning food, wine, and travel writer. Her food writing has twice won awards from the Association of Food Journalists. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Post, The Smart Set, the Philadelphia Daily News, The Triangle and on and She is currently an MFA candidate at Rutgers. Follow her on Twitter: @bigboldreds.


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