Sumac is a lemon-flavored spice easily recognizable by its distinctive red color. It’s used to enhance the flavor of vegetable dishes, stews, and salad dressing, but mainly meat-based dishes.
Since sumac can usually be found only in supermarkets with a large stock of spices, there may be times when a recipe calls for sumac but you cannot get your hands on it. In that case, you can use a sumac substitute among the ones we selected for you.
The best substitutes for sumac
Ground sumac comes from the berries that grow on the shrub of the same name, and although there’s a variety of this plant that is poisonous (white sumac), the tree that produces these red berries is non-poisonous and the berries are completely safe to eat.
Sumac is widely used in Middle East recipes, but even without being a fan of foreign cuisine, you can find many uses for sumac in your cooking, because this spice has a very distinctive taste that can surely turn some of your favorite recipes into a blast of flavors.
Unlike many other spices, it’s not that hard to define the flavor of sumac. In fact, this spice tastes a lot like fresh lemon juice. This means that the sumac taste is both sweet and bitter, but mostly it gives quite the punch to your papillae.
This stark flavor profile marries quite well with spices that taste completely different. Some of the best combinations you can create with sumac include chili, thyme, and cumin.
Sumac can be used in its powder form or as a whole berry, however, it’s not common to find sumac berries in stores, so ground sumac is definitely the most famous version of this spice.
Specialized stores might have whole sumac berries in stock; in that case, it’s better to buy whole berries to grind at home. Sumac berries have a much longer shelf life than ground sumac, which usually lasts just a few months when properly stored in an airtight container and away from light and heat.
If you need a replacement for sumac, you’re probably interested in the bittersweet flavor profile more than anything else. Luckily, there are several other spices and seasonings that are close to the typical sumac flavor.
Za’atar shares the same Middle East origins as sumac. This spice mix actually includes sumac among other spices like oregano, marjoram, salt, thyme, and sesame seeds.
Since sumac is an important ingredient of za’atar, it goes without saying that this spice mix makes for the perfect sumac replacement. In Middle East cuisine, this spice blend is as common as salt.
Truth be told, za’atar is used exactly like we would use salt: to bring out the taste and enhance the flavor of any dish. Being a mix of different spices, you cannot expect a perfect sumac taste, but rather something more layered and savory.
The best thing about za’atar is that you can make it at home. It’s enough to have all the necessary spices, and you can also make your own version by balancing different proportions for each ingredient.
Of course, you can also find ready-to-cook za’atar in stores, and in that case, all you have to do is to sprinkle some of this flavorful spice blend on your meat dishes, rice, vegetables, pasta, soups, dips, and more.
Basically, once you get a taste of za’atar it will be very hard not to add it to your every recipe.
2. Lemon juice
We started this list with za’atar because sumac is an important ingredient in that spice blend, but since sumac has a lemon-like flavor, one of the first options that probably comes to mind when you need a substitute for sumac is anything related to lemons.
Using lemon juice as a sumac alternative has many advantages, starting from how easy it is to find in comparison with sumac.
Even if you cannot buy premade lemon juice (and we do not recommend buying it), you can make it at home for cheap, and it only takes a few minutes of your time for a natural and additive-free fruit juice.
Squeeze some fresh lemons and add some sugar (if you like) to get your perfect sumac substitute. However, make sure to use it immediately, because the taste of fresh lemon juice doesn’t last long.
Proceed carefully when adding lemon juice to your dish, because the first time it might be hard to know how much juice it’s needed to replace sumac seasoning.
Tamarind is a Mexican fruit that is used to add a sour note to dishes, just like sumac. It can be used as fresh fruit, dried fruit, or found in the form of Tamarind paste.
To cook with tamarind, you first have to extract the juice. In order to do that, the fruit is usually boiled in a small pot of water until the inside of the fruit becomes mushy and the skin bursts. Then, the fruit is passed through the strainer to separate skin and seeds from the pulp.
Tamarind paste is the most convenient form of this ground sumac substitute, and it’s easily available in any Indian, Latin, or Asian grocery store. However, we do not recommend choosing the paste over the fresh fruit, because tamarind paste has a really mild flavor in comparison.
Vinegar is probably the easiest and most popular sumac substitute, simply because we usually already have it in our kitchen, and even if we didn’t we can easily find it in any grocery store in our area.
Vinegar has been used in cooking for thousands of years and even though it’s most famous as a table condiment, it’s often used as a key element in many recipes.
The flavor of vinegar closely resembles that of sumac because of its tartness. It’s quite sour, although there are so many varieties of vinegar nowadays that it’s hard to pinpoint the exact taste. The good news is that, with this sumac alternative, you have a wide choice and you can pick the one that works best for you.
Although vinegar is often added as a topping to dishes, it’s mostly used in salads, sauces, and fatty creams like mayonnaise, because its acidic profile brings out a brighter flavor and also helps make dishes tasteless heavy.
You can use vinegar as a substitute for ground sumac, but you can also use lemon juice or lime juice as a substitute for vinegar. So as you can see, you can play around with the many substitutes on this list because they’re all interchangeable.
5. Lemon zest with black pepper and salt
You can use lemon zest to add that je ne sais quoi to dishes, from frittata to baked goods, and you can even add a small piece of zest to boiling water while cooking rice to create a more interesting flavor profile.
Lemon zest alone is not enough to perfectly recreate the typical sumac taste, but it’s enough to add a bit of salt and you get a perfect sumac substitute.
This combination is one of the most popular replacements for the Middle East spice because it’s easy to make at home and it saves you time and money since salt is a staple ingredient and lemons are quite cheap.
This substitute for sumac goes well with most recipes, including meat dishes and seafood. If you wish for a more complex flavor, add some ground black pepper to the mix and you’ll probably get something even better than sumac.
However, this mix shouldn’t be used often because it contains quite a good amount of salt, so make sure to stock your shelf with sumac or choose a different substitute the next time.
Despite its name, amchoor is just the powder made from the flesh of the mango fruit. You could call it dry mango powder, or raw mango powder. Mangos are cut into slices, and these slices are left to dry for a few days before being ground into powder.
Amchoor has a sour but slightly sweet flavor, so it’s not the most suitable sumac substitute if you’re looking for something that tastes as close as possible to the original. However, due to its sour profile, it marries well with fish and white meat dishes.
On top of that, this is a good substitute for ground sumac because it’s found in powder form, so it’s perfect for those dishes that wouldn’t work with a liquid substitute like lemon juice.
The downside of amchoor is that it’s not as common as other spices, but it’s often used in vegetarian cooking, if you don’t know where to find it near you, you can check vegan or specialized stores.
Lime might seem an obvious substitute since sumac tastes like lemon juice, however, it’s probably easier to get your hands on lemons than limes, that’s why this substitute didn’t make the top of our list.
Just like lemons, you can use limes in two ways to replace sumac in your recipe: lime juice and lime zest.
It’s true that lemon zest is the best when it comes to replacing sumac, but when you’re in a pinch lime zest can work just as well, with the addition of salt.
Lime juice is easy to make at home and it has the perfect tartness that resembles sumac, but it also has a subtle sweet note, so it’s ideal if you’re looking for something new for your recipe.
8. Lemon pepper
This is another successful combination that starts from lemons. When you mix the bitterness of lemon zest with the saltiness of pepper, you get a Big Bang of flavors in the form of seasoning.
Lemon pepper can be found in stores among the spices, but it’s so easy to make at home than buying the premade version is really not worth the time and money.
To make lemon pepper it’s enough to have the fruit and the spice, but some people would also add salt to the mix. However, since pepper already has a salty taste, you can also skip this step.
This is actually a healthier alternative than the lemon zest plus salt combination, as pepper is certainly less harmful to the body when consumed in moderation. Lemon pepper is still a salty spice, so don’t exaggerate with it.
How to choose a sumac substitute
Sumac is one of those spices that make everything better, and once you start using it in your cooking, you can hardly live without it. However, it’s not always easy to find sumac in stores nearby and so, the search for a good sumac substitute begins.
The easiest and cheapest way to replace sumac in a recipe is to use lemons. Sumac has a flavor profile that closely resembles this fruit, so you can use lemons in every form: juice, zest, or in combination with salt or pepper to make a more complex seasoning.
Other fruits you can use to substitute sumac include lime, tamarind, and amchoor, which is a powder that comes from dried mango slices. These fruits won’t give you a perfect sumac taste, but they get close enough and can be used in different forms, including juice and paste.
Sumac is also part of a famous blend of spices called za’atar, so you could use this blend to replace the single ingredient of sumac in your recipe.
While za’atar is one of the best substitutes for sumac, it’s also a mix of different spices, so rather than giving your dish a sumac-like flavor, the taste will become more complex and interesting.
When in doubt, if you go with vinegar you cannot go wrong. Vinegar is versatile, easily available, and has a sour profile that works well as a sumac alternative, so when everything else fails, vinegar is the answer.