Ripe for the Sipping: Ideas for Using Wild Sumac

The plants grow wild in all 48 states and their tight, purple clusters can season everything from vodka to lamb.

Soon we’ll be gnawing on roots and memories, but there’s still time to feast before the frost. One wild ingredient in the not-yet-gone group: sumac. The beautiful native bush grows everywhere, bearing burgundy fruits that foragers gather each autumn for their prized sourness.

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Sumac awaits a soak. W @jacqateen @ediblemanhattan #foraging

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I asked Nan Chase, author of Drink the Harvest, about it. “Sumac, beautiful and dramatic,” she enthused. “Various named sumacs grow wild throughout different parts of North America, from the hot, dry west to the cool, moist eastern forests: staghorn sumac, sugar sumac, prairie sumac, shining sumac and even lemonade sumac. The smooth sumac is reportedly the only tree or shrub growing naturally in all lower 48 states. I love the open up-reaching branch structure, and the fringy leaves excite me. There are many accounts of the tightly clustered small sumac fruits being used to make food and drink.”

I went with the latter — namely a riff on lemonade. Simply snap off the unmistakable, dark purple seed clusters, which might be a foot tall, and soak them for a few hours until the water is as tart a you like; sweeten to taste. Refreshing!

Chef Matt Weingarten, whose gingko-foraging and pemmican-making adventures you may recall, had bigger plans. “Strong sumac syrup mixed in with yogurt and rubbed on lamb is close to heaven,” he told me. His syrup method: Simply combine one part sumac berry with ½ part sugar, throw in blender to whack up a bit, cover with tepid water and soak overnight. Strain.”

September rains lessen its sourness, so make a mental note and come back to your sumac spot in 11 months for an even tarter ingredient. But until then, you can sip sumac slowly — if you make Marie Viljoen’s simple infused vodka now.

Or just wait to buy the local harvest. Wall-Street-lawyer-turned-pro-forager Tama Matsuoka Wong is so taken with sumac, she recently ran a successful kickstarter to fund a farm of it.

“Sumac is popular now,” she wrote. “But the fruit clusters have also been enjoyed by Native Americans to make refreshing drinks. Sumac, as a spice, is prized around the world for its fresh lemony flavor and also as the primary ingredient in za’atar, a great Middle Eastern spice. Sumac fruit and seed are incredibly high in antioxidants, vitamins A and C.

“Although the sumac in the grocery store is imported, staghorn sumac grows wild in North America. Local sumac that I forage today from my own property is in high demand by chefs and the public, because it is superior in freshness,  color, and flavor brightness. Sumac spice is also highly versatile and can be used in savory and sweet dishes or incorporated in za’atar spice to add flavor on top eggs, potatoes, meat, fish and pasta. “

She’s leased two acres of preserved farmland where she’s planting 500 sumac trees.

Featured photo credit: Instagram/glangholtz

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Gabrielle Langholtz is the former editor of Edible Brooklyn and Edible Manhattan.