Condiments/ Food Writing

Foraging and Preparing Staghorn Sumac as a Spice

I first noticed sumac on that trail in the hydro corridor near my house. It spread down each side of the path, arcing over the top in a canopy that reminded me of pathways from picture books or from the movies, where only dappled sunlight pierces the dense, umbrella-like foliage. With its long, glossy dark leaves and bright clusters of scarlet drupes, paired with the abiding humidity of Toronto’s summers, when you were walking the path you could almost pretend you were somewhere tropical. It felt lush. The sounds of the city disappeared and the sumac transported me somewhere magical. It was a special pathway for me, and I walked it frequently.

Later, as I began to extensively cook Middle Eastern food, sumac entered my life in a new way. It was the purplish hued spice that brought a pleasant tanginess to dishes like mussakhan and fattoush, as well as bringing its tart drumline to that Middle Eastern big band spice blend, za’atar. It is almost lemony in its tartness, but with a pleasant earthiness that hummed in the background. I began to use it in almost everything.

And it wasn’t until months later that I made the connection: the sumac I was using in my cooking was the same sumac as what studded the trees in my tropical pathway.

Well, almost the same.

The sumac that is used in the spice blend is one member of the sumac family (genus, rhus), rhus coriraria or more commonly called European Sumac. What most commonly grows across North America is a close cousin in the sumac family, rhus typhina or more commonly called Staghorn Sumac.

Both grow similar stacks of closely clustered, fuzzy red drupes and, as I began to learn about the Staghorn Sumac that grew around me, I began to learn that it also has a long culinary usage. It grows across most of eastern North America (map below) and Indigenous peoples across those territories have used it in various ways. The fuzzy red drupes and their tangy tartness have been used to make a drink not dissimilar to lemonade and drank for medicinal purposes, as sumac is high in Vitamin C and antioxidants, as well as having antifungal, anti inflammatory, and antiviral properties. The leaves are used as part of a blend of botanicals that included tobacco and were often smoked for ceremonial uses, and the roots and bark have been used as a dye.

Areas where Staghorn Sumac grows (Source)

As I began to search around, I found a few good sources that had successfully used Staghorn Sumac in place of European Sumac as a spice and I knew I had to try it.

August and September are the prime harvesting months for Staghorn Sumac (though you can continue to harvest as long as the drupes are looking fresh and red), as they are across the ocean around the Mediterranean where European Sumac flourishes. Then, according the book Mouneh: Preserving Foods for the Lebanese Pantry, the drupes are harvested and dried in the sun, once dried they’re put into a large burlap bag or a large mortar called a jurn and beaten with a wooden pestle to beat the ‘fuzz’ from the seeds, and then – using a sieve – the seeds are removed, leaving the ‘fuzz’ which is the part of the sumac that is used as a spice. This is done each year, making enough to last until the next harvest.

It’s best to harvest during a dry spell as the rain washes some of the flavor away, but we’ve had a wet summer and I chose a period of a few dry days strung together to harvest my sumac. I walked along my path, selecting the brightest, fullest looking clusters, clipping them just below the drupe clusters. Back at home, I put them into the dehydrator on a medium heat (135F) for 12 hours or until the drupes could be easily broken off from the main stems. A couple of the clusters looked like they had ‘worm poop’ in the inside, something I learned might be a possibility if the sumac is past its prime, so I only used the clusters without those to avoid that nastiness in my spices.

Once I had removed the individual drupes, I put them in my blender and gave them a gentle blend until the red ‘fuzz’ was removed from the seeds. The seeds are hard enough that they will stay whole even in a high-powered blender like a Vitamix. Then, I used a sieve to separate the ‘fuzz’ from the seeds and little bits of twigs, leaving the ‘fuzz’.

Dried individual drupes into the blender
Just the seeds and twigs remaining after separating the ‘fuzz’ from the seeds with a sieve

What’s left is a tangy, slightly sticky spice that is a local version of what I have only ever bought in the supermarket. It’s an ingredient that’s indigenous to this place, but also one that’s essential to Middle Eastern cuisine and peoples who now live here. It’s also a memory, for me, of that magical pathway that introduced me to sumac, a particular memory of place and of my time in Toronto.

Harvesting and drying my own sumac is part of embracing the processes and cultures behind the foods I eat and, through this process, I gained a newfound appreciation for the amount of time and work that goes into making a small amount of spice. I also gained an appreciation for both the Indigenous and Middle Eastern elders who passed down their knowledge of the plants around them, their techniques, and the uses they have, because I’m not that kind of person to randomly stick my tongue onto some fuzzy red plants to see if it tastes any good or if it makes me sick or not!

Through this passed down knowledge, and from learning from those willing to share their knowledge with me, I now have a jar of sumac, grown from a magical pathway a few hundred meters from my house, with which to cook delicious food with throughout the year. From a time perspective, it’s much easier and efficient to just buy sumac from the grocery store, but what harvesting your own sumac does is force you to pay attention to the places you’re in, to pay attention to the rhythm of the seasons, and to appreciate the processes and labor behind our food. It’s a small taste of a different economy of food that doesn’t rely on quickness, ease, and cost.

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  • Reply
    September 17, 2020 at 1:51 PM

    Thanks! This was very helpful. I just harvested some and didn’t quite know what to do with them.😊

  • Reply
    Cécile B Stelzer-Johnson
    November 26, 2020 at 4:04 PM

    The other day [mid November] here in zone 4 Wisconsin, I harvested almost a full homer bucket of staghorn Sumac. I started processing it, first rolling the staghorn between my fingers to remove the worst of the twigs.
    Then I put them in my blender [a Ninja] but only a cupful at a time, so they more or less stay in the air and yes the seeds separate [somewhat] from the fuzz I was after. That beautiful red fuzz tends to stick a bit to my fingers, the spoon…
    I first passed it through a screen that was just a bit too big. The result is that many seeds were still passing through, resulting a delicious -but somewhat gritty- lemon spice. So I gave it a second pass in a screen that is just a tad tighter than mosquito netting.
    That was the ticket. And I was happy that I first passed it through a screen that was too big because it might have clogged the small screen had I gone directly to the small screen.
    So far, I filled 3 spice jars. I am far from done. From a 4/5th full homer bucket, I will have more than enough to fill maybe a dozen such spice jars. It has a very velvety consistency. I may never buy these expensive lemons at the store. Mixed with white pepper, it will make wonderful lemon pepper spice. And what a color!
    It will give an almost paprika color to rice, orzo, fish… I’m so glad I tried.
    And because I didn’t make lemonade, I have all these seeds to toss on my berm along the road. Really looking forward to harvesting more next year.

    • Reply
      December 2, 2020 at 11:47 AM

      So glad you tried this and loved it!

  • Reply
    How sustainable are the spices in our spice rack? | The Mindful Fork
    August 7, 2021 at 12:32 PM

    […] on sumac. Doing my research, I was fascinated by an article I stumbled upon by a blogger in Canada who harvested his own sumac for culinary use. This got me thinking, should our approach to be more sustainable when sourcing our herbs and […]

  • Reply
    October 2, 2021 at 8:29 AM

    I love your positivity and wonderful perspective on life and this tasty spice! Thanks for sharing, I will forage as well!

  • Reply
    W. McGowan
    October 3, 2021 at 2:30 PM

    Thanks. Glad I came upon this article, as I though the fuzz was what was to be discarded (as when you make sumac-ade). Cut a few heads today, but looks like I made need to cut a bunch more to have enough fuzz.

  • Reply
    Staghorn Sumac - Rhus Typhina: Edible & Medicinal Uses of the Lemonade Tree of Wild Plants - Song of the Woods
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    […] you have smooth (rhus glabra) or shining sumac (rhus copallinum) they may be preferable for this. (But people use staghorn too..) You have to sift out the seeds from the ground berries and discard the seeds. You’re left […]

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