What Is Sumac?

Sumac is one of the most popular spices in many parts of the world. Derived from the sumac plant (not be confused with poison sumac, poison ivy, or poison oak), this spice brings a tangy lemony flavor to dishes that also adds a pop of red color to anything it's cooked with.

The sumac plant is found in subtropical and temperate regions throughout the world, including East Africa, North America, Australia, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean Basin.

What Do You Use Sumac For?

Sumac is an essential ingredient in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine, where it's used in everything from dry rubs, marinades, and dressings. With it's ability to pair well with vegetables, grilled lamb, chicken, and fish, sumac is a versatile spice that can bring life to just about any type of dish.

The spice can be used as a replacement for lemon juice or lemon zest (or vice versa) due to its tartness, which makes it an ideal souring agent for those who don't want to add too much liquids to a dish or want to add a bit of sourness to a dry rub. This is true for Middle Eastern countries such as Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Lebanon, who all use sumac instead of lemon, tamarind, or even vinegar

Popular Dishes

It would be impossible to include every popular dish that incorporates the flavor and color of sumac, but here are a few of the dishes that looked the most appetizing to us:

How Long Does It Last?

Like many other spices, sumac doesn't spoil in the traditional sense. Over time, however, sumac will begin to lose its potency and won't have the desired effect when incorporated into dishes.

With that being said, if properly stored in a cool, dry place, sumac has a shelf life of about two years. It won't taste worse after that point, but the sumac will certainly lack the bold and powerful flavor that it once possessed.

What Are Substitutes For Sumac?

There are quite a few substitutes for sumac that doe a great job of replicating the citrusy tartness of the iconic spice, with each one offering something a little different to any dish in which they are used.

Lemon Pepper Seasoning

Lemon pepper seasoning is going to be your best bet when substituting for sumac. Most people will probably already have this spice in their cabinet, but if not, it's fairly simple to make on your own by combining the two key ingredients - dried lemon zest and cracked black pepper. The flavors complement each other and do a remarkable job of mimicking sumac's acidity.

To best replicate the flavor of sumac with lemon pepper, add about one and a half times the amount required for the recipe. You could also try adding a pinch of salt to the mixture for an extra boost of flavor.


Sumac is already prominently featured in this spice blend, which also contains a mixture of salt, sesame seeds, and assorted dried herbs. With that being said, you'll be safe using za'atar in place of sumac, but you will need to make an adjustment to the amounts to best meet the needs of the dish.

To substitute for sumac, start with the amount noted by the recipe and slowly increase based on taste. It might take some extra time to get this sorted out, but it will be worth it in the end.


Vinegar is a decent enough substitute for sumac, but you'll need to be careful as vinegar is more tart than its counterpart. When taking this route, it is best to start with a small amount and then work your way up from there. Remember, you don't want to overpower the dish.

On the bright side, vinegar is found in most, if not all, kitchens, so at least you won't have to run to the store and find sumac at the last minute.

Lemon Juice

Lemon juice is an alright substitute if you are trying to replicate the tartness of sumac, but you will want to wait until the final minutes of the cooking process before you add a squeeze of this liquid.

Are There Any Health Benefits?

In addition to adding a lot of flavor and excitement to any dish where it's incorporated, sumac also boasts several health benefits.

  • Anti-Cancer - Sumac is a "super antioxidant," meaning that it's full of vitamin C, which can fight off everything from diabetes to cancer.
  • Anti-Inflammatory - The spice also plays a role in fighting off common ailments caused by inflammation, so it can be used as a remedy for things like the cold and even the flu.
  • Anti-Fungal - Sumac can also be used to treat skin inflammation and other disorders. It can even be used to disinfect fruits and vegetables to kill bacteria, like Salmonella.
  • Breast Milk Supply - The spice can even help increase the flow of breast milk for new mothers.
  • Cholesterol Regulation - Sumac can lower cholesterol as highlighted by more than a few different studies on the effect of the spice on lab rats.

Most importantly, eating sumac spice will not end in disaster as it is not poisonous. Unlike its close relatives - poison sumac, ivy, and oak - landscape sumacs do not cause rashes, hives, or other conditions, and neither does the spice derived from the plant.

To tell the difference between the sumac we cook with and the sumac that causes itchy and sometimes painful rashes, pay attention to the color of the berries. Landscape sumacs have red berries (the source of the spice) while poison sumac has white berries (the source of the rash).

Plus, if it were poisonous, why would so many people use it every day?

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