In the test kitchen, we most often reach for a lemon when we want to brighten a dish’s flavor, but there’s another way: Simply add some of the lemony spice known as sumac.
The dried berries harvested from a shrub grown in southern Europe and in the Middle East ground into a purplish-red powder, sumac is an essential seasoning in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines. It is an essential component in the Middle Eastern spice blend za’atar, but it can be also be used as an ingredient in spice rubs or sprinkled over foods as a finishing touch. Our tasters described sumac as “bright, with a clean, citrusy flavor” and a “slight raisiny sweetness”—both more balanced and more complex-tasting than lemon juice.
While ground sumac will liven up everything from dry rubs to dressings, we like it best sprinkled over vegetables, grilled meats, stews, eggs, hummus, and even popcorn, so as not to mute its bright flavor. You can find ground sumac and sumac berries, which you can grind yourself, at some supermarkets, Middle Eastern markets, and online sources such as Penzeys Spices.