Harvesting and Processing Staghorn Sumac for Spice

August 24, 2014 · 25 comments

harvesting and processing wild staghorn sumac // Wayward Spark

Over the winter, I blended up a batch of za’atar (this recipe from 101 Cookbooks) for the first time, and both Henry and I loved it. The bright, lemony flavor of sumac is a perfect match for the earthy, herby flavor of dried thyme. We sprinkled the heck out of everything with it: eggs, buttered naan, bean-grain salads, etc.. When I saw that the recipe called for sumac, I simply went to the local health food store and bought a little baggie.

I’ve always know in the back of my head that the patch of spindly trees with resinous, fuzzy stems in front of my parents’ house was sumac, but I literally never thought about it or gave it a second glance in 31 years with the exception of noticing its flaming foliage in the fall. That’s why I was completely caught off guard a couple weeks ago when Henry casually asked if that sumac was ready to harvest. I had never connected the trees with the reddish, powdery stuff I bought at the store. The day Henry brought it up, however, I did a little googling and taste testing and realized that indeed the fruit from my parents’ trees was not only edible but delicious.

The trees in my parents’ yard are staghorn sumac, Rhus typhina, not to be confused with poison sumac, a rare shrub that grows in wet, boggy areas and produces white berries. In the summer, staghorn sumac trees have mature, showing, conical fruit clusters that are bright red to red-brown in color. If you want to harvest sumac, it’s best to do it sooner rather than later because heavy rains can wash out the flavor potency out of the fruits.

Tama Matsuaka Wong has a good write up of how to harvest and process sumac here, and since I had no idea what I was doing, I mostly followed her advice. 

harvesting and processing wild staghorn sumac // Wayward Sparkharvesting and processing wild staghorn sumac // Wayward Sparkharvesting and processing wild staghorn sumac // Wayward Spark

First I got up on a ladder and clipped a bunch of sumac cones, avoiding ones that were already brown and funky looking. The branches of the trees and the cones of staghorn sumac are both sticky to the touch, and if you lick your fingers after squeezing the fruit, you’ll get an über lemony shock to the tongue.

harvesting and processing wild staghorn sumac // Wayward Sparkharvesting and processing wild staghorn sumac // Wayward Sparkharvesting and processing wild staghorn sumac // Wayward Spark

The flavorful part of the sumac fruit is the hairy covering on the seeds.

harvesting and processing wild staghorn sumac // Wayward Spark

Whole sumac cones can be used fresh in a refreshing beverage referred to as “sumacade“, but I was more interested in processing the fruits for spice, so I broke up the clusters and put them on trays in a food dehydrator for about 48 hours until the individual drupes were no longer very sticky and were easy to pick off the little stems.

harvesting and processing wild staghorn sumac // Wayward Spark

I spent a meditative hour or so cleaning my stash of stems. I’m not sure this step was totally necessary, but I did it anyway. Then i processed small batches of the drupes in a blender(Did I ever tell y’all I got a blender?), checking their progress often, until many of the seeds were bald but not too many of them were crushed. (I don’t think a food processor would be the right tool for this job because it would likely just pulverize the seeds instead of separating the fruit from the seeds.)

harvesting and processing wild staghorn sumac // Wayward Spark

After that, Henry’s awesome aunt who was visiting stirred and pressed the sumac business in a NOT-superfine mesh strainer.

harvesting and processing wild staghorn sumac // Wayward Sparkharvesting and processing wild staghorn sumac // Wayward Spark

My resulting sumac spice does not really look like the pure red powdery stuff from the store. It does include crushed bits of seed, but I don’t mind because it tastes just like the stuff from the store, and the added debris doesn’t add too much unpleasant texture to the spice. harvesting and processing wild staghorn sumac // Wayward Sparkharvesting and processing wild staghorn sumac // Wayward Sparkharvesting and processing wild staghorn sumac // Wayward SparkBecause I didn’t struggle forever to clean the seeds of every speck of fruit, I decided to save them and the adhering sumac bits for a couple batches of sumacade. I’ll probably have to use a high sumac-to-water ratio because a good amount of the flavoring has been removed, but that doesn’t really matter if I’m just using up a byproduct of my spice-harvesting experiment.

So, have any of you tried this before? Are there any great sumac-centric recipes that I must try? If so, please share your experiences and/or suggestions!


{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

Tess August 25, 2014 at 6:18 am

Wonderful! I really like this simple spinach dish with sumac: http://www.designsponge.com/2010/05/in-the-kitchen-with-yotam-ottolenghis-spinach-dish.html


Kerry August 10, 2016 at 8:07 am

I also harvested sumac the same way. I found that after you strain it, put it in a coffee grinder for a few second’s! It will give you a fine powdery spice and the debris won’t be noticeable at all!!


Jon September 8, 2018 at 11:17 pm

I let the berrys sit a while after seperating them. Then i use a strainer and shake them to get rid of all the debri. It works great. Also i use a food processor the seeds are hard they dont break unless u use a ninja that things strong lol. However a regular processor works well. Straining it before blending is key. Mine come out beautifully fully red in color, no extra debri


Laura August 25, 2014 at 6:43 am

What a beautiful post. I so enjoy doing this kind of industrious wild crafting-reminds me of being a kid and making potions! I’ve been watching the grove of sumac outside my window to harvest it for the first time, but it isn’t quite ripe yet. My sister made this amazing salad for a family dinner recently, and I can’t stop thinking about it: http://www.nytimes.com/recipes/1014942/baby-spinach-salad-with-dates-and-almonds.html


Laura Bassett April 25, 2017 at 8:44 pm

That sounds like a delicious salad thank you for sharing the recipe!


Brie August 25, 2014 at 11:01 am

How neat!! We have a LARGE patch of sumacs that we viewed as a weed and are constantly cutting back, now you’ve completely changed my perspective and I just found my self looking out at my sumacs adoringly now that I know they can give us such yumminess! I showed your post to my 8 year old son who is a forager and hunter at heart, and he went running for his pocket knife and out to the patch to see if they are ripe! THANK YOU for posting this, my 5 boys and I will have fun harvesting our sumac very soon!


canadiyank August 26, 2014 at 10:13 am

Sumacs grow wonderfully in our area, and I, too, have always admired their foliage in the fall (some are starting to turn here even now!). Interesting to know they are edible, too. Thanks!


Amanda Paa August 28, 2014 at 9:36 am

This is such a beautiful post and wonderful to see how sumac is harvested. I’m so intrigued!


Maryanne July 6, 2015 at 6:06 pm

When your aunt pressed the powder through the sieve, did you keep the stuff in the sieve or the stuff in the bowl?


shawn July 7, 2015 at 4:17 pm

Maryanne, She said she saved the stuff in the sieve for sumac-ade. The stuff in the bowl is powdered sumac, ready for za’atar or whatever


John Farrell September 13, 2015 at 2:05 pm

My family enjoys getting together and deciding what the 84 year old Great Grandpa should bring to add to the meal. I have the handle Forager among the group. Last evening I made a hit with grape vine smoked roasted chicken. The buzz went around about no one ever heard of using grape vines for smoking meat. Now, the addition of sumac seasoning on the future roasted chicken will be a new subject for consideration.

I’m intrigued enough to consider adding the sumac leavings in the fine mesh sieve to my bread dough this week when I bake.


Loretta September 25, 2015 at 6:13 pm

It’s late September & has been hot & humid all summer, even into this month. A friend & I just picked four huge seed bags full of sumac heads two days before they were bushhogged down. Some still have red berries, but others have a lot of dried berries. Can you tell me if the red berries are still good to process into spice or other uses?


Teddy June 30, 2016 at 8:45 pm

Try Turkish onion salad. It sounds crazy, but actually is very good. You can eat it straight or use it as a garnish for burgers, kabab or sandwiches. Slice a few onions into rings and cut the rings in half. Soak them for a while in cold water and then drain them and give them a little squeeze and shake. This process gets rid of the strong onion flavor. Then add lemon juice, dried sumac and a little chopped parsley. Even though it is mostly onion (and Im not a fan of onion) it is actually realy good and goes great on anything.


Travis September 4, 2016 at 8:11 am

Might I recommend using a foley food mill with the scre loosened slightly. You get clean seeds and clean seasoning with very little effort and no grinding.


Laura Bassett April 25, 2017 at 8:42 pm

Great article, thank you for sharing your experience. Recently I’ve started cooking more with sumac and have run across it in up on Oregon. Looking at adding it to my home garden and was researching more about it when I stumbled across your blog.
How many seed heads did you process at once?


Kat August 13, 2017 at 10:52 am

I am in the process of drying my first collection of sumac, I think I should have followed your page for drying time. So I will be restarting the dehydrator, which is one of those fancy ones with a temperature and timer setting. I will be grounding it and using it at some point in some gruit ale. :)


NS September 17, 2017 at 8:35 pm

Actually, your photos and descriptions are far more informative than Tama Wong’s suggestions.
Thank you for posting all of this information. My new property has a small forest of Sumac’s growing!!!!


Jayney May 13, 2018 at 9:45 am

Daddy–and I am verrrry old taught me Sumac=poison. Wise Women in my life taught me better, but subconsciously, I stll believed Daddy. Love seeing the step by step. I’m bless with tons of prolific sumac. I’ll be making good use of it, now and even gifting some. Thanks


Raymond July 21, 2018 at 5:50 pm

i make simacade all the time and love it. what i do i soak a batch then add another batch of clusters until i acheive the colour i like which is a dark colour similar to ice tea colour. I also have batches where i kep ot lighter and more tangy tasting . All is good. But i hsve never really thougjt about it as a spice until now . I liked what i read here and will try this as a spice too. I have so much sumac around where i live. I freeze for later use. As long as the sumacade is in a cool place for storage it seems to last awhile , unlike the tea which can become bitter from sitting too long .


Heidi August 2, 2018 at 7:45 pm

Thanks so much for this post!
I was having a hard time finding the info I needed on sumac spice until I found your article.



Robb Luther September 23, 2018 at 4:58 am

Yes! We just got turned on to Sumac this year. We live in Western, PA.
First, its amazing on Popcorn. It gives it a great little twist in flavor.
Also, in the website link, I linked to my Chantelle Cream of Mushroom soup recipe. I put staghorn sumac on the top. It adds a nice look to a pretty bland looking soup and adds a subtle flavor as well.

Thanks for posting this!


Michelle Perkins September 28, 2018 at 11:38 am

My husband and I just learned about sumac. We have 3 wild trees in the back yard with clusters. It’s the end of Sept and I was wondering if they are still good to harvest. There are some red berries still but the majority are gone dark. Can they still be used?


Masha Sanders October 4, 2018 at 9:16 pm

I find removing the fuzzy bits from the stem structures can hurt my fingers a lot. Do you recommend gloves while working the cones?


Lee July 10, 2019 at 5:27 am

I grind seeds and all up, there are nutrients in the seeds that promote health.


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