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.
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.
The flavorful part of the sumac fruit is the hairy covering on the seeds.
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.
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.)
After that, Henry’s awesome aunt who was visiting stirred and pressed the sumac business in a NOT-superfine mesh strainer.
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. Because 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!