You may never have eaten sumac, but it's sneaking up on you. Somewhat uncommon in American cuisine, the citrusy, berry-like, bracingly tart flower is an old hand with Middle Eastern flavors, and more and more cooks and restaurants are embracing it with gusto. (You can buy it at Middle Eastern groceries or online.)
Sumac's bright acidity complements a wide variety of cuisines and flavors. To get some inspiration on ways to bring it into our kitchens, we polled the pros on their favorite ways to use it, from snacks to main dishes to sweets.
An All-Around Mediterranean Dish Topper
At Moderne Barn in Armonk, NY, Chef Ethan Kostbar cooks new American cuisine with influences from his travels through the Middle East and Europe.
I grew up in Israel for five years and have done a lot of traveling in Europe and the Middle East, so sumac brings up childhood memories from when I lived in the West Bank. (It's often used in Mediterranean, Israeli, and Moroccan food.) I dust it on top of everything—feta cheese with olive oil, baba ganoush, hummus. I put it on roasted chicken and fish. It has a lemony flavor to it, and I love the color. It's essentially a dried flower, and just like with any spice, the fresher you can get the better.
Chef Levon Wallace has worked at Proof on Main in the 21c Museum Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky, and Cochon Butcher in Nashville, Tennessee. He is the owner of FatBelly Pretzel in Nashville.
In my house we are popcorn freaks—we're always eating popcorn and putting whatever we can on it. I love the tart, almost sour element that you get from sumac. So I toss it all over popcorn with salt, and it makes it almost like you're eating salt-and-vinegar popcorn, but with more complexity to it.
Amanda Cohen has received numerous accolades for her vegetarian cooking at New York's Dirt Candy, including a glowing two-star review in the New York Times, a Michelin Bib Gourmand nod, and a Top 10 Best Vegetarian Restaurants in America award from Food & Wine. Cohen is also author of the award-winning Dirt Candy: A Cookbook.
I really like sumac, and I think it's a very underrated spice—it's citrusy, but it's also a flavor enhancer, like salt, since it highlights what's already in a dish. I wish people used it more like salt; you have your salt and you have your sumac.
It's the first thing people eat when they come into the restaurant, because it's part of our oil blend for our bread. We use a regular extra-virgin olive oil, which is funny because people think we use something fancy, so we're all embarrassed if someone sees the tin. We add some za'atar and extra salt as well, and together they elevate plain olive oil to something extraordinary.
Chef Annie Pettry grew up gardening, foraging, and fishing in her hometown of Asheville, North Carolina, and made some serious cooking stops before landing at Decca Restaurant in Louisville. A 2014 StarChefs Rising Star, Pettry created a menu that relied on the diverse products of Kentucky agriculture.
One of my favorite things to do with sumac is season fried food. The sumac brightens everything up with citrus tones, but it's also earthy, so I feel like it makes fried food pop. I love it on corn fritters, fried Brussels sprouts, and fried garbanzo beans especially.
For the garbanzo beans, cover chickpeas with a ton of water and overcook them, to where the skins look like they're popping off, the beans are breaking in half, and they're almost mushy. Add salt to the water so that it absorbs as the beans sit, then strain and fry the beans in oil at 350°F (180°C). They almost hollow out, and their skins turn crunchy. Then toss them with salt, sumac, and a chiffonade of mint.
Like Citrus, But Without That Pesky Liquid
Originally from Missouri, executive chef Rachel Dow, formerly of Chicago's The Betty, has lived and worked in Chicago for over a decade. She honed her skills at now-classic restaurants like Perennial, Blackbird, Maude's Liquor Bar, and Avec.
Because it has that neutral, earthy kind of sour note, sumac goes great in places where you might not want the liquid from citrus juice. Sprinkle it directly on melons, or use it in a dry marinade where you don't want direct acid to "pre-cook" the proteins, but still want the sourness, like with fish dishes.
Middle Eastern Meat Loaf Spice
With the Greenmarket at the doorstep of New York City's Union Square Café, executive chef and partner Carmen Quagliata explores and develops his passion for his native Italian cuisine in one of the city's most beloved, iconic restaurants.
Meat loaf! It's really good! Sumac brightens it up and gives it a little something lemony. Use it with whatever meat you got, even turkey.
Carla Pallotta is the chef and co-owner of Nebo Cucina & Enoteca in Boston's North End with her sister, Christine. Together, they focus on classic Italian recipes inspired by their mother, grandmother, and their travels home.
Everyone thinks of sumac as Middle Eastern, but in Italy and Sicily, it's a spice that's grown easily and used often. We make a marinade for pork with it. For two full racks of pork ribs, I'd say we use three blood oranges, three-quarters of a cup of olive oil, a tablespoon of honey, a little chopped garlic, and then maybe two teaspoons of soy sauce and two full tablespoons of sumac. We let the ribs marinate for 24 hours and then sit at room temperature before cooking. Between the blood oranges and sumac, you get a citrusy, bright flavor that's divine.
Jeff Mahin is a chef/partner at Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises and the creative force behind Stella Barra Pizzeria (Santa Monica, Hollywood, Chicago, DC opening winter 2014); Summer House Santa Monica (Chicago, DC opening winter 2014); and M Street Kitchen (Santa Monica). Mahin has accumulated several industry accolades, including Zagat's "30 under 30," Forbes' "30 under 30" list of hospitality-industry up-and-comers, and Restaurant Hospitality's "13 to Watch in 2013."
We do a chef challenge where one chef challenges another chef with a secret ingredient, and once it was sumac. I'm a big fan of pairing healthy with unhealthy, and since sumac is kind of flavorless but has a citric tang to it, I made a sumac doughnut. We made a brioche dough and then folded the sumac into it by making a rectangle, sprinkling sumac and brown sugar into it, folding it like a letter, spreading the dough out, and then repeating until we had about 20 layers of sumac before cutting the doughnuts and letting them rise. Then we glazed them with vanilla bean and sumac icing. It was this cool doughnut with strings of red in it.
Chef Richard Capizzi comes from a traditional Italian family, and as pastry chef of New York's Lincoln Ristorante, his heritage serves him well. There he combines his family's knowledge of Italian sweets with classic pastry technique.
If I'm going to use sumac, it's going to be in a ganache, not an ice cream. At Per Se, sumac ganache was my go-to ganache. It goes so well with dairy, balancing bitter chocolate with dairy notes from the cream, rounding everything out. It complements all the flavors and gets the other aromatics going without overpowering anything.