If you’ve been walking by the woodlands this past month, you’ve likely spotted a bright red, fuzzy cone sprouting from the flora. Attached to branches with thin, fern-like leaves, that red jumble is the fruit of the sumac tree, and it’s delicious.
Now, the word sumac may have negative connotations. These sumacs are not related to poison sumac (though they are related to poison ivy, mangoes and cashews. Do with that what you will). This sumac is Rhus typhina, or staghorn sumac—it gets its name from the fruit clusters, which to someone at some point in history resembled a deer’s antlers.
Best of all, turning the fruits of staghorn sumac into something edible is remarkably easy. In fact, it takes no effort at all—you can pluck the fuzzy little berries off the cluster and pop ‘em in your mouth to get a taste. It’s a lot of tart sweetness and acid, like a lemon, and in other parts of the world, sumac is dried and ground into spice to be used as a citrus replacement or, generally, a flavor enhancer.
Now’s the time to pick sumac, too. If you’ve had your eye on them, you’ll notice their color has started to fade; some of the flavor has faded with it. But they’ll be all but useless in a couple weeks after more rain and cold moves through the area. So, if you have access to sumac, pick it now and make something with it.
You can forage for these delicious fruits on your property or with the express consent of another landowner. Foraging is technically illegal in New Jersey, even though we have an abundance of wild food to enjoy. Still, best to get permission before lopping off sumac berries.
I’m fortunate enough to have access to sumac, so I harvested six clusters recently. They break off easily, but it’s better to bring some hand shears to the job. You can crush the berries up in your hand and smell it to get a sense of the flavor and freshness, but popping a little berry in your mouth will do a much better job of showing you how bright the flavor is.
To get the most satisfying edible experience, make some sumac sun tea, which’ll taste like pink lemonade. Break off the berries from the branch (which does indeed look like a stag’s horns when naked), into a plastic bag. It’s easiest to break the clusters along the branches and work with smaller pieces, but that’s your call. Check for any stray branches or insects, and remove them (obviously). Then pour the bag of berries into a pitcher, cover with cold water and let it sit in direct sunlight, where it’ll steep, for anywhere from an hour to eight. Strain the tea with a cheesecloth or something similar (I used a coffee filter in a strainer) to get rid of all the fuzzies, seeds, and extraneous things, then cool, add ice and sweetener (if you choose) and enjoy. It’s as simple as that.
To make sumac into a spice, just put the whole clusters on a baking sheet, pop them in the oven at a low temperature for an afternoon (until they’re completely dry), then remove the berries from the branches and crush. That’ll stay for a year or so, and goes great on hummus, eggs and avocado toast, and in chili, meat-spice rubs and pasta dishes.