What is Sumac Spice? (The Complete Guide)

Sumac spice is common in Middle Eastern cooking, but what exactly is it? Let me show you how to use this delicious flavor in your cooking.
what is sumac

Sumac spice is a common flavoring used in a lot of Middle Eastern countries.

People are often not familiar with sumac, but have heard of poison sumac, which this is definitely not!

A versatile spice, sumac can be used in a range of dishes.

The tart acidic taste goes incredibly well with rice dishes, salad dressings and in a meat rub.

Cooking in the Middle East utilizes different spices in popular recipes helping create layers of tastes which ultimately adds a richness to many dishes. 

This particular spice adds a bit of a sour flavor that is not exactly lemony, but compliments lemon juice to give a deep zest of sourness. 

Perfect as an ingredient in a fattoush salad

What is Sumac Spice?

what is sumac

The sumac we use is generally a coarse powder vibrantly red in color.

This spice is derived from the dried and ground red berries, otherwise known as sumac berries.

These are found on a shrub that is related to cashews, mangos, and even poison ivy! 

Most people will be familiar with poison sumac and it’s important to note that this is not that.

If you want to harvest your own sumac, do your research first.

Just be sure that you are harvesting the red berries.

Other color varieties can be poisonous therefore it’s a good idea to know exactly what you are looking for if you are harvesting the berries yourself.

What Does Sumac Taste Like?

Sour is the best way to describe the taste of this red powder spice. 

It is tart but does not exactly taste of lemon.

This adds to its characteristic ability to add sourness without making things too acidic. 

It has a tangy twist to it that adds that tart acidic elements to dishes.

Where Does Sumac Come From?

sumac plant

This plant grows wild in many parts of the Middle East and the Mediteranean.

It is used in cuisines ranging from Africa to North America

The berries of a wild bush are harvested and crushed to make ground sumac.

In America, you’ll mostly be familiar with staghorn sumac, littleleaf sumac or smooth sumac.

These bushes grow throughout the States.

If you want to harvest your own sumac, please do your research first.

I recommend following this foraging guide from Practical Self Reliance.

Sumac Spice Benefits

There are so many health benefits that you can get from eating sumac.

For starters, it’s a big anti-inflammatory.

It’s packed with antioxidants that allows it to help immobilize free radicals that can cause cancer and heart disease. 

This plant has been used to treat cardiovascular diseases, as well as helping to lower blood pressure. 

It has also been found to be beneficial to people with type two diabetes where it helps limit cardiovascular issues. 

It fights germs, and fungal infections, and can help with menstrual disorders, and cramps. 

There are plenty of reasons to add more sumac to your diet!

Sumac Substitute

what is sumac

Sumac can be hard to find sometimes in local supermarkets.

When this happens, there are a couple of easy substitutes you can use instead.

The thing that is most commonly used as a substitute for this flavor is probably lemon juice.

Since a sour flavor is needed, and this is a relatively easy substitute. 

A better option I have found is actually lemon zest with a little yuzu salt.

Or regular salt if you don’t have the yuzu. 

Where to Buy Sumac

I always try to buy my ingredients locally.

But with sumac spice, it can be a little difficult to find.

My go to spice shop online has to The Spice House.

the spice house sumac

Their spices are always super fragrant, vibrant and tasty.

You can get a ½ cup of sumac from The Spice House for $8.99.

If you choose a flatpack package instead of a jar, you’ll also get free shipping!

Cooking with Sumac

There are so many great ways to use sumac in your cooking.

Use this spice as a way to enhance the sourness of a dish.

This will give it a more complex flavor that will round out a dish. 

It is also a good addition to fatty meat recipes (i.e. lamb chop). 


It helps cut what can otherwise be an overwhelming fatty taste. 

Use it to season and garnish food.

Sprinkle over hummus with olive oil, roasted eggplant, boiled or scrambled eggs

Not only does it add a delicious flavor to your dish, the vibrance of the red powder will add to its look and presentation.

Add it to salads, or fish dishes, it is a very versatile spice, and perfect for creative uses.

You can also create your own Middle Eastern spice blend with sumac to make za’atar.

Sumac Spice Recipes


Hello! I'm Chef Tariq.

I’m a food, travel & lifestyle blogger who is passionate about creating recipes from my Arab American background. I love to travel and share my experiences and top tips along the way.

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Dino Carlucci
Dino Carlucci
4 months ago

There are salt free versions of sumac available online which suggests salt is added in other versions. I am a salt free zone so naturally I reach for the salt free version. Is salt added as a formality in general and not added as an option.

Chef Tariq
Chef Tariq
3 months ago
Reply to  Dino Carlucci

I’ve never come across sumac with salt in, but I can see why this would happen. Sumac is generally used as a sumac substitute, so I can imagine lower quality versions of Sumac could have salt in them. Just make sure to always buy good quality Sumac and you will avoid this! I always recommend The Spice House.

Hello! I’m Chef Tariq.

I’m a food, travel & lifestyle blogger who is passionate about creating recipes from my Arab American background. I love to travel and share my experiences and top tips along the way.


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