Sumac: To Poison or Not to Poison

Sumac is a red burgundy berry that grows all over the world, but it is especially popular in Middle Eastern cuisines. It smells and taste a bit sour and tart but also has a citrus lemon flavor with a bitter finish. In Lebanon, sumac is used as a souring agent much in the same way lemons are used.

You might remember as a kid, your parents telling you to stay away from the poison sumac. Yes, that’s right! Some species of sumac are poisonous but not the culinary sumac. There are two varieties that are used in cooking; Rhus coriaria , the Middle Eastern variety (known as Sicilian Sumac) and Rhus aromatica, the North American variety.

The difference between the culinary sumac and the poison sumac is in the color of the berry. The culinary sumac has red berries while the poison sumac has white berries. So, stay away from those white berries! The only other time you want to avoid sumac is if you are allergic to cashews, mangoes and pistachios because they are in the same plant family. It best to harvest fresh sumac for culinary use before the rain because the malic acid that forms on the outside of the berry gives it that sour citrus flavor. Dried sumac is best if you buy it grounded, the seeds can be hard to consume and do not have the same potent flavors.

Sumac is exclusively used in savory dishes or as a decorative like to sprinle on hummus, but I also like to use it in my cookie recipes. I use it in my spice blend, za’atar.

To check out my spice blends and recipes with sumac go to


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