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What Does Sumac Taste Like?

Not everyone is familiar with sumac spice, let alone know about sumac taste. With its beautiful red color and nice citrusy flavor, more people should be using it for cooking.

Sumac is a versatile, deep red spice that can complement a variety of dishes. It’s what gives traditional Middle Eastern cooking its flavor and depth.

Keep reading and you will learn what sumac spice is, about its taste, what type you should use for cooking, and how to use it in recipes for the best flavors. 

Wooden spoon filled with ground sumac spice.

What is Sumac Spice?

Sumac is a versatile spice with a dark red-burgundy color and a texture similar to ground nuts.

This spice is popular in Middle Eastern cuisine and has been used in cooking for centuries. 

When you add it to the dish, it adds a bright red color and a tart taste similar to lemon juice. It also smells like lemon, although not as sour. 

Sumac is also a great base, garnish, and finisher. Just a little sumac, and you can enjoy lots of flavors! 

Aside from its role as a flavoring agent, it can also be a natural meat tenderizer because of the active enzymes that break down tough connective tissues. 

Not the Poisonous Type

When they hear the word sumac, some may immediately think of the poisonous shrub. But there is no need to panic―the sumac for cooking is safe and easily identifiable with its red berries. 

When sumac berries are ripe, they are harvested and soaked in water or undergo a drying and grinding process, depending on the use. 

Although you can buy whole sumac berries, they’re less common than the dried sumac spice in ground powder form, so it may be challenging to find sumac. 

Sumac berries grow from the Rhus coriaria plant, meaning “drying” or “red” because of its deep red hue.

The sumac plant belongs to the Anacardiaceae family, like mango, Peruvian pepper, and poison ivy. 

In Lebanese and Arabic cooking, sumac is widely used as an acidulant because it brings out the natural flavors of a dish. 

You can buy sumac at most grocery stores, supermarkets, and health food stores. Middle Eastern markets carry this spice in the spice aisle or section. 

What Does Sumac Taste Like?

Sumac taste depends on how ripe it is and on the sumac variety.

The first thing you’ll notice is its tangy flavor. 

Sumac mainly has a sour taste and gives an acidic flavor to a dish. The tart flavor will remind you of the taste of lime or lemon.  

If you like the tangy flavor of balsamic vinaigrette or the tart flavor of lemonade, you’ll enjoy the acidic flavor of sumac. 

Some people may find the peppery and citrusy flavor too strong, though. 

This tangy, sweet, peppery, or earthy flavor complements many vegetable or meat-based dishes and works well with different ingredients and spices, like turmeric and cumin.  

black dish filled with sumac spice

Origins of Sumac

Sumac is abundant in temperate and subtropical regions, near rivers, on steep hillsides, and in high plateau areas of the Middle East and Eastern Europe because of the wild and rocky lands there. 

Wild sumac plants also grow in some parts of Iran, Turkey, Lebanon, Greece, and Italy. 

This ancient spice has been around for centuries―even the ancient Greeks and Romans used it for cooking and medicinal purposes. 

Types of Sumac Spice 

Also known as Sicilian sumac, Rhus coriaria is grown for the edible sumac berries. The dried berries are then processed to be ground sumac powder. 

Rhus typhina, the staghorn sumac, is another edible variety you can find in North America and has berry juices that taste like vinegar and fresh lemon juice. 

Another type, Rhus glabra, or the smooth sumac, has hairless fruits and twigs; people use it to make sumac-ades. 

Rhus copallina, also known as the shining sumac or the winged sumac, is a species in the cashew family. The fruits are like small peas with hair and have malic acid, giving them tartness.

The rarest type is Rhus aromatica, or the fragrant sumac, an orange-brown powder with a fruity aroma. Its tart berries are often used in making beverages and release a strong lemon scent. 

You can cook all these types of sumac or eat them raw. Aside from cooking, it’s also used for ceremonial purposes and to create healing beverages worldwide.

Avoid the Poison Sumac

While sumac spice, which you can buy in stores, is safe for consumption, know there is a poisonous variety of this wild plant.  

This type of sumac plant is more allergenic than poison oak or poison ivy. 

Poison sumac usually grows in hardwood forests, pinewoods, wetlands, and swamps in the southeast areas of the U.S. and is also abundant along the Mississippi River. 

The clearest indications of poisonous sumac are the reddish stems, loosely packed ivory white berries (or even gray), and small, yellow-green sumac flower clusters.

How to Use Sumac in Recipes

Like any spice, the zesty flavor of sumac can make or break a dish. 

But one thing you should know about sumac is that its distinct flavor goes well with any drink or dish that needs some acidity. So, it’s what you can consider a fail-proof spice! 

Instead of using lemon zest or lime juice, try using sumac for a nice and different twist.

The best way to enjoy sumac is in its freshly crushed form. Use it as a garnish and sprinkle it over warm labneh (cheese made from strained yogurt) or flatbread. 

Add it to tahini sauce or hummus for a pleasant and sour taste. It will also give it a colorful garnish or topping.

In the Middle East, one of its most common uses is as a seasoning for grilled chicken, grilled meats, and vegetables. 

Use it on duck or lamb because its tangy flavor can also help reduce the fattiness of the meat.

It’s a key ingredient in musakhan, a Palestinian roasted chicken baked with onions, saffron, allspice, and pine nuts and then served over taboon bread. It’s what gives onions their appetizing colors. 

Za’atar, a Middle Eastern spice mixture, has dried sumac spices, toasted sesame seeds, and other spices. 

Sumac also spices dishes and adds a kick to raki, a refreshing Turkish alcoholic drink.

You can also incorporate it in your meatballs, marinades, and salad dressings. It makes a mean and tasty meat rub, too. 

Add fresh sumac berries to your meat dishes, stews, sauces, or salads. 

Of course, it can make your fried fish, rice, and even sandwich spread taste great, too! 

How to Buy and Store Sumac

Sumac is not just available in Middle Eastern markets and specialty stores. It’s now widely available in your local supermarket or grocery store. 

To get the best sumac, you may still have to visit a Middle Eastern market or spice store. 

Meanwhile, whole sumac or fresh sumac may be more challenging to find. But you can always check online to save time. 

Check for a bright crimson color, a sign that the sumac berries were harvested recently and at peak ripeness. 

Do a taste test, too. It should taste bright and tangy, with a little floral aroma. If it’s not, don’t buy it.

Sumac ground to coarse powder is also nice to have because it releases more flavors when you chew it. 

To keep the quality of your sumac, store it in an airtight container in a dark and cool place. Keep it away from heat or cold. 

It doesn’t need to be frozen or stored inside the fridge.

If stored properly, sumac can last six months to more than a year.

To avoid wastage, buy it in small quantities, enough to last a few months. 

Ground sumac vs. whole sumac difference?

Ground sumac and whole sumac are different. Although they come from the same sumac plants, whole sumac has a citrus and tangy flavor, perfect for marinades and sauces. 

Ground sumac taste, on the other hand, is more subtle. This is why it’s best used as dry rubs for meat or fish or as garnish on hummus, dips, or spreads. 

Is sumac spicy?

It may look like a spicy herb because of its red color. But sumac isn’t spicy like paprika, chili powder, or other hot spice blends. 

Sumac is sour with a floral tang that tastes a lot like lime or lemon. 

What does Sumac go well with?

Sumac is a versatile spice that goes well with almost anything! If you’ve never used it in your cooking, just remember it can be a suitable replacement for lemon or lime. 

So, if the recipe requires some lemon juice or lemon zest, try to sprinkle some sumac instead! 

Does Sumac taste like cinnamon?

No. While cinnamon has a sweet, woody, and spicy flavor, sumac is tangy, tart, and lemony. Some people even describe it as tasting like vinegar. 

What spice is similar to sumac?

Aside from lemon juice or lemon zest, sumac is similar in taste to ground coriander. It’s less vibrant but more earthy and has that same lemony hint. 

It’s also similar to za’atar since it’s a spice blend that contains sumac. 

It can also be likened to smoked paprika, although less intense in tartness. It will give the same vibrant red color to your dish.


It’s hard to go wrong with something as versatile and universally appealing as sumac. Not only does it add color to your dish, but it also brings tartness without adding citrus juices or zesty seasoning. 

It’s a mystery why it’s not more popular or a staple in everyone’s spice cabinets. But now that you know more about sumac taste and uses, let it take center stage more often in your dishes. 

The flavors that this ancient spice brings to any dish are undeniable, even in small quantities. So experiment more with sumac and see how its rich flavor can elevate your dish! 

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Natalia | Flavorful home
Natalia is a recipe developer, food photographer, and home cook. She started Flavorful Home to document her recipes and share home cooking tips. She loves creating flavorful and nutritious meals while keeping the cooking process simple and joyful!
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