Before I begin telling you about the wonderful things you can do with the staghorn sumac let me be clear; there is a poisonous sumac but this is not the variety I’m suggesting you eat. The sumac you need to avoid has white berries while the staghorn sumac has red berries. There are other differences as well.Staghorn sumac grows in dry areas. I was told a long time ago if your feet aren’t in water, it’s not poison sumac. The leaves are also different in shape. If you are unsure of the plant do not eat it! The staghorn sumac has been used to make teas, a drink similar to lemonade, spice, and for medicinal uses for hundreds, if not thousands of years. There are other varieties of edible sumac but this post is about the staghorn sumac exclusively.
The staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) is found primarily in southeastern Canada, the northeastern and Midwestern United States and the Appalachian Mountains. The “berries” are actually drupes and the collective berries that form the distinctive red cone are called “bobs.”
Staghorn sumac bobs
Staghorn sumac has many medicinal uses which I’ll list in an upcoming post. For now I’m going to teach you how to use this prolific plant as food.
Sumac drupes can be eaten as berries. Just wash the bob and munch on the drupes. They can be a little acidic so you may want to make a tea or sumacade. It’s a tangy cold drink like lemonade.
To choose the best bobs to use for the drink simply give them a good squeeze then lick your fingers. If there’s a tart taste, pick that bob. If it’s not tart try another one. Be sure to use different fingers as you test various bobs or you may get the tart taste from one thinking it’s from another.
Take several bobs and place them in cold water. Let the bobs steep for at least several hours up to overnight. You’ll end up with a slightly pink colored liquid.
These bobs will steep overnight.
The sumacade can be sweetened with sugar or maple sugar and enjoyed just as it is or you can make a warm drink.
To make a tea you can add a little fresh orange juice, nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves to the sumacade and gently simmer it. Boiling staghorn sumac brings out the bitter tannin so I don’t recommend it.
Another great way to use the staghorn sumac is making spice. Cut the bobs as you would for any other use and then gently separate the clusters of drupes. Putting the clusters through a blender will separate the fruit from the seeds. Then push the fruit through a fine mesh strainer to complete separating the seeds from the fruit. This will also separate any sticks. Put the fruit in a dehydrator at about 125°F for 10 – 12 hours. Powder the dried drupes in a spice grinder or coffee grinder. You’ll be left with a lovely colored, tangy spice that can be used on chicken, fish, and pork.
Sumac spice is a notable ingredient in za’atar which is a spice blend featuring the sumac, sesame seed, and dried herbs. The most common herbs are thyme and oregano, and they make up the bulk of the blend. Marjoram, mint, sage, or savory are also common. Salt is often used. The recipes for this spice blend are usually heavily guarded and the variations are a source of national pride.
You can experiment with different herbs to create your own version of za’atar. Recently dried, homegrown herbs are best for making this spice. You may also want to add some dried orange zest.
Save some of the bobs to use in winter. Cut the bobs leaving several inches of stem attached. Tie several stems together, hanging them upside down in a cool spot. Cover the bobs with a paper bag to discourage insects from taking up residence.
In the spring you can find the tender new shoots of the staghorn sumac growing from the stumps of old trees. These are also edible. You want to find a shoot that is green all the way through. Peel the shoot and eat it raw or cooked.
I’m always awestruck at the bounty of food that surrounds us. If you’re in the habit of only eating food you can buy at the store I urge you to try this wonderful wild edible plant.