Sumac is a popular Middle Eastern spice made from the dried and ground berries of certain shrub species in the Rhus genus.
It has a tangy, lemony flavor that works well in marinades, salads, hummus, and more.
What is Sumac?
Sumac comes from the dried berries of shrubs in the Anacardiaceae family, including species like staghorn sumac and smooth sumac. They grow wild across parts of Africa, the Middle East, and Southern Europe. Sumac berries are deep red in color and have an astringent, lemony taste.
Once the berries are dried and ground down into a coarse powder, we get the deep burgundy-colored spice known as sumac powder. It has a tangy, slightly fruity flavor profile and works well when sprinkled on hummus, salads, meat dishes, breads, and more.
In Middle Eastern cuisine, sumac often seasons grilled meats, rice pilafs, dips, and vegetable dishes. It provides a pleasant sourness that balances out the other flavors. The vibrant red color also makes it popular as a finishing touch.
Why Find a Substitute?
There are a few reasons you may need to find a handy sumac powder substitute:
- Sumac can be difficult to find. Since it's not a common spice outside Middle Eastern cuisine, many regular grocery stores don't carry ground sumac powder. You usually have to visit a specialty market to find it.
- You ran out of your supply. If you use up your sumac powder and forget to restock, you'll need something else to stand in for that lemony punch.
- Dietary restrictions. Sumac is not vegetarian, vegan, or kosher. The berries are picked by workers who often handle shellfish and pork. Substitutes can help restrict prohibited foods.
- Cost. Sumac powder can be pricier than other spices. Finding an economical stand-in helps when you're pinching pennies.
- You don't like the taste. While many people enjoy sumac's zing, some find it too overpowering. Substitutes let you modify the flavor.
Best Sumac Powder Substitutes
Fortunately, there are plenty of ingredients that can mimic that tart, slightly fruity taste when you're out of sumac powder. Here are some of the best options:
1. Lemon Juice
Freshly squeezed lemon juice is an ideal replacement thanks to its bright, citrusy flavor. Lemon juice contains malic acid, one of the main souring components in sumac.
When substituting, use the same amount of lemon juice as you would sumac powder. For example, if a recipe calls for 1 teaspoon sumac, use 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice.
Lemon juice works well drizzled over cooked vegetables, whisked into vinaigrettes, or splashed into marinades. For extra tang, add a touch of lemon zest too.
Za'atar is a spice blend that traditionally contains sumac as one of the main ingredients. It also includes sesame seeds, dried thyme or oregano, salt, and sometimes other herbs.
You can swap an equal amount of za'atar in place of sumac powder. The blend mimics the lemony flavor while adding nuttiness from the sesame seeds and earthiness from the dried herbs.
Use za'atar to season meat, fish, chicken, and vegetables. It's great when sprinkled onto dips like hummus too. You can even mix za'atar with olive oil for a tasty bread dip.
Amchoor, also called dried mango powder, is an Indian spice made from unripe green mangoes. It has a distinctly sour taste that works perfectly in place of sumac powder.
When using amchoor as a sumac substitute, start with about half the amount of amchoor as you would sumac, then adjust to taste. You only need a little bit to impart intense sourness.
Amchoor shines in chutneys, curries, rice dishes, lentil dals, and vegetable curries. Add it anytime you want to balance out richer, heavier flavors.
4. Lemon Pepper Seasoning
Lemon and pepper seasonings provide two components that mimic sumac's flavor: lemony tartness and subtle pepperiness. The mixture of lemon zest and cracked black pepper approximates the tangy yet earthy notes in sumac.
Use about 1 1⁄2 times as much lemon pepper seasoning as the sumac powder called for. For instance, for 1 teaspoon sumac, use around 1 1⁄2 teaspoons lemon pepper.
Lemon pepper seasoning works well on poultry, seafood, roasted vegetables, pasta salads, and more. Make your own by combining dried lemon zest and coarsely cracked black pepper.
Plain distilled white vinegar or rice vinegar can also substitute for sumac powder in a pinch. Vinegar offers a sharp, acidic taste similar to the malic and citric acids in sumac berries.
When using vinegar, start with about 1⁄2 to 1 teaspoon for every 1 teaspoon of sumac powder. Vinegar is much more potent, so a little goes a long way.
White vinegar shines in salad dressings, marinades, and drizzled over cooked vegetables. Rice vinegar works well in stir fries, poke bowls, and Asian-style salads. Add other seasonings too to round out the flavor.
The pulp of the tamarind fruit pod has a sweet yet sour taste that works beautifully in place of sumac powder. It's popular in Indian and Southeast Asian cuisines.
Use about 1⁄4 to 1⁄2 teaspoon of tamarind pulp per 1 teaspoon sumac powder. Start on the lower end, adding more tamarind as needed to achieve the desired sourness.
Try tamarind in chutneys, curries, marinades, salad dressings, soups, and dipping sauces. Soak the pods first to soften the pulp before use. Tamarind paste also works as a substitute.
7. Lime Juice
Like lemons, the juice from fresh limes makes an excellent stand-in for ground sumac thanks to its bright, citrusy acidity. Lime juice and zest complement the same types of dishes.
Replace sumac powder with an equal amount of fresh lime juice. Add lime zest for extra flavor. Start with a small amount of juice first to ensure it's not too overpowering.
Use lime juice and zest to season fish tacos, fresh salsas, marinated chicken dishes, rice pilafs, chilled soups like gazpacho, and more. The possibilities are endless!
Sorrel is a leafy green herb with a pleasantly tart, lemony flavor that works beautifully when you need a sumac substitute. It has a tangy sourness thanks to oxalic acid, similar to sumac's malic acid.
When using fresh sorrel leaves in place of sumac powder, use about half as much chopped sorrel as you would sumac powder. Adjust amounts as needed.
Try chopped sorrel in brothy soups, savory pastries, omelets, fish sauces, grains, and potato dishes. Its bright green color livens up any plate. Dried sorrel can also substitute but has a more potent flavor.
Verjuice refers to the sour juice extracted from unripe grapes, crabapples, or other tart fruits. It provides a nice acidic tang that stands in nicely for the zing of sumac powder.
When substituting verjuice for sumac, start with about half the amount of verjuice as you would sumac powder. Add more verjuice to taste as needed to achieve the right acidity level.
Use verjuice in salad dressings, meat marinades, bean dishes, and anywhere else you want a pleasant sour flavor. Different verjuice varieties like crabapple impart slightly different flavors.
10. Dried Apricots
Chopped dried apricots deliver a sweet-tart punch that makes them an unexpected but tasty stand-in for sumac powder. Apricots are rich in malic acid, which provides that mouthwatering sourness.
For every 1 teaspoon of sumac powder, use about 2 teaspoons of finely minced dried apricots. Adjust amounts as needed. Add them anytime you want fruity tartness.
Dried apricots shine blended into salsas, sprinkled onto rice or quinoa dishes, mixed into grain salads such as tabbouleh, or spooned into chicken or fish tagines. The options are endless!
How to Use Sumac Powder Substitutes
Finding a good sumac powder substitute is only half the battle. You also need to know how to use it properly in your cooking to achieve delicious results. Here are some helpful tips:
- Start with small amounts and adjust upwards. It's easy to add more lemon juice or vinegar, but you can't take it away once it's added. Gradually increase amounts until the flavor balances out.
- Add acid components near the end. Ingredients like lemon juice and vinegars are volatile compounds that lose potency the longer they cook. Add them at the end to preserve that zing.
- Use citrus zest too. Zest boosts lemon and lime flavors with aromatic citrus oils. It approximates the subtle fruitiness in sumac powder.
- Combine substitutes for a more layered flavor. For instance, lemon pepper and a splash of vinegar can closely mimic sumac's flavor profile.
- Consider visual appeal. Substitutes like lemon won't provide the vibrant red hue of sumac. Add a pinch of paprika or cayenne if color is important.
With so many tasty ingredients that can pinch hit for sumac powder, you can easily season up sumac-inspired dishes even when you don't have this specialty spice on hand. A touch of lemon juice, zesty vinegar, or tart lime brings comparable tang and acidity.
What does sumac powder taste like?
Sumac powder has a tangy, lemony taste with a subtle fruity undertone. It provides a pleasant sourness and acidity along with a slightly salty, earthy flavor.
Is ground sumac the same as za'atar?
No, sumac is just one spice while za'atar is a spice blend. That said, ground sumac is traditionally one of the main components of za'atar along with sesame seeds, herbs like thyme and oregano, and salt.
Can I use paprika instead of sumac powder?
Paprika will provide a similar ruby red color but the flavor is very different from sumac's lemony tartness. Small amounts of paprika can be added along with another sumac substitute like lemon juice to achieve both the appearance and taste.
What's a quick sumac substitute for salad dressing?
An easy way to mimic sumac's tangy flavor in vinaigrettes and salad dressings is to use lemon juice or lime juice. Start with about the same amount of citrus juice as you would ground sumac, then tweak amounts to your taste preference.
Is tamarind a good substitute for sumac seasoning?
Yes, tamarind can stand in for sumac thanks to its sweet yet sour taste. Use about 1⁄4 to 1⁄2 teaspoon of tamarind pulp per 1 teaspoon sumac powder called for. It works well in chutneys, curries, rice, lentils, and more.
Sumac powder is an essential spice in Middle Eastern cooking, but it can be swapped out with other tangy ingredients like lemon juice, vinegars, lime, za'atar, and more. When searching for a sumac substitute, look for options that provide sourness, acidity, and subtle fruity notes similar to sumac.
To use a sumac powder substitute in a recipe, start by adding small amounts and adjusting upwards to the desired flavor intensity. Add bright, fresh alternatives like citrus juices at the end to preserve their zing. Combining lemon pepper, lime zest, or vinegars can closely mimic sumac's multilayered flavor.