Sumac is a sour, tangy spice with an acidic undertone that is similar to lemon juice. It is made from wild sumac flower berries which are first dried and then ground. The spice is an essential ingredient in Middle Eastern cuisine, used in everyday spice blends like za’atar. It also adds astringency to dressings and dry rubs for fish, chicken, and meat.
Although sumac is an everyday spice found in most spice stores throughout the world, it is harder to find in many supermarkets. You also may not want to buy a whole container of the spice for one recipe. If you need a sumac substitute, then keep reading; we are about to provide you with six excellent options that will provide a similar flavor without spoiling the dish. They are also common ingredients that may already be in the pantry at home.
What can I use as a sumac substitute?
To replace sumac in cooking then the best options are lemon pepper seasoning, za’atar, or lemon juice. Other alternatives include amchoor, tamarind paste, or vinegar which all bring a sour, citrusy flavor to food. Although sumac is a vibrant red shade, it doesn’t color the food the way that turmeric does – this makes substituting ingredients much easier.
1. Lemon Pepper Seasoning
Lemon pepper seasoning is a common spice blend that you will easily find in the spice section of your local supermarket. It is made from a combination of cracked black pepper and dried lemon zest. This substitute will bring a similar acidic, sour taste to the dish that you would get from sumac. Use it in dressings or on meat for an authentic tasting meal that any Middle Eastern local will appreciate.
Lemon pepper seasoning contains high levels of sodium, so it isn’t recommended for those on a low-salt diet. For a similar flavor without the salt, combine lemon zest with cracked pepper to make a homemade version.
As we mentioned above, sumac is one of the main ingredients in za’atar, so it is a useful substitute. This seasoning is a dry powdered spice blend that can be used in the same applications as sumac, perfect for bringing intense flavor to chickpeas, roast vegetables, chicken, and meat.
Although commercial brands of za’atar will vary, it will often contain other ingredients like oregano, sesame seeds, cilantro seeds, or thyme. This means the flavor profile of your dish won’t be the same as using sumac on its own. But this fact shouldn’t stop you using za’atar as a replacement. Sure, the flavor will be different, but it won’t be out of place or unpleasant used in most savory dishes.
3. Lemon Juice
Lemon juice is another good option for replacing sumac in your cooking. Although you won’t get the same spicy complexity from lemon juice, the sour and tangy notes will be prominent. Squeeze fresh juice into a flavor-packed Moroccan tagine or add to lamb kofta kabobs for delicious authentic flavor.
When using lemon juice, add a small amount to start and wherever possible, taste test first. Too much juice will quickly put the dish out of balance with an unpleasant sour taste.
Amchoor, or amchur, is a popular ingredient used in Indian cooking and is made from dried, unripe mangoes. Its dominant flavor is citrusy and sour, and it adds a lovely hint of flavor to chicken and fish. The biggest challenge with this substitute is that it can be difficult to find in mainstream stores. Visit a local Indian specialty grocer if there’s one nearby as it will almost certainly be stocked there.
5. Tamarind paste
Those who enjoy Thai cuisine are likely to have stumbled across tamarind paste already. It provides an interesting combination of sour and sweet which is fairly unique. Tamarind paste is useful for adding to dishes like Pad Thai as well as Indian curries and for seasoning meat and seafood.
When using this paste, add it in moderation as it is highly concentrated in tartness. Can’t find this substitute in the supermarket? Try an Asian grocer if there is one in your area.
If you are in a pinch then vinegar can be used in some cooking applications. It will provide an intensely sour flavor to your meal that would work best in recipes where the sumac is used with many other ingredients. Go easy on the quantity used – vinegar will quickly spoil your dish if too much is added.
Tips for using sumac substitutes
- When using a sumac replacement, it is essential to get the ratios right and to avoid overpowering the dish. If in doubt, use conservative amounts to avoid disappointment.
- Remember that substitutes like lemon juice or vinegar will add additional liquid to the recipe. This may not always be the best option and a dry powder such as za’atar or lemon pepper seasoning may be more suitable.
- Keep a flexible, open mind when it comes to your cooking. Sumac is a unique spice and no substitute will perfectly mimic its flavor profile. However, most people won’t know you’ve replaced the sumac unless they cook with it regularly.
Sumac is a useful spice for adding sourness and acidity to any recipe. Although it isn’t a mainstream ingredient in western cooking, you may be surprised how much you’ll use it once you buy a jar. It has plenty of uses and if you enjoy grilling meat then you may find this becomes your best friend in the spice rack.
To replace sumac in cooking your best options are lemon pepper seasoning, za’atar, lemon juice, amchoor, tamarind paste, or vinegar. Naturally, these won’t perfectly mimic the original ingredient, but they’ll allow you to finish a recipe without it. Use substitutes in moderation and you will be quite happy with the end result.
Have you tasted sumac before? What did you think of this spice?