Sumac Is the Spice You’re Not Baking With But Absolutely Should Be
A dried spice that can deliver the vibrancy of fresh citrus? It’s not too good to be true—it’s sumac.
In baking, a few dried spices garner most of the glory. Cinnamon, allspice, ginger—you know the lot. And while many of us who find solace in the hum of a stand mixer have expanded our reach to include the likes of cardamom, saffron, etc. in our dessert-ing, when you think about what the contents of your spice cabinet can bring to the sweet bowl of batter in front of you, what honestly comes to mind?
The list is generally going to look something like: nuttiness, toastiness, earthiness, warming vibes, perhaps some florality. But brightness? Tang? Those are flavors we seek from fresh ingredients like citrus. Right?
So this is the part where we talk about sumac. A coarse, ruby red powder ground from the dried berries of the sumac bush, sumac is a staple seasoning in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines. It has a uniquely tart flavor that’s comparable to lemon’s bright tang, but is slightly more nuanced and well rounded. (Nothing against fresh lemon juice and zest, of course; the two ingredients can actually be great pals in a recipe.) Sumac is most commonly used in savory dishes—such as Sumac Chicken with Cauliflower and Carrots or Grilled Lamb Kufta Kebabs—because, much like lemon, it pairs well with everything from poultry and fish to red meat and earthy roasted vegetables.
However, sumac also shines beautifully in desserts. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it’s destined for the sweet life. See, sumac is one of those spices that’s arguably best added toward the end of the cooking process or sprinkled right over top of salads or dips for a pop of vivid flavor and color—a finishing spice. Exposure to intensive heat doesn’t unlock any profound new layers of flavor in this gentle spice. But cushioned in the buttery folds of a sweet batter or whisked into a simple glaze, the conveniently lemon-like powder is right at home.
I was first introduced to the idea of bringing sumac to the dessert table by Nicole Callioux, the talent behind the serenely mouthwatering Instagram account @butter.and.botanicals, who incorporates the spice into her blondies alongside strawberries and ruby chocolate.
“I love the sharpness sumac has beside the jammie strawberries and sweet ruby chocolate,” Callioux says. “Adding lemon zest helps further brighten the sourness of the sumac, which I think works perfectly when you’re baking with summer fruits."
Inspired by Callioux, I went into the test kitchen, and came out with two Raspberry, Sumac, and Almond Cakes. Why two? Because my intention of trying the flavor profile onto two cake formats and landing on a clear and obvious winner did not pan out as planned. At which point I realized, there’s really no need to choose.
If you’re looking for a simple cake that offers anything-but-simple flavor personality, I think you’ll find yourself very pleased with this Raspberry, Sumac, and Almond Snack Cake. This is the sort of recipe you can lazily whip up on a Sunday afternoon when you want something sweet around, but with a glittering (and delightfully crunchy) sugared almond topping, it's appropriately dressed for more momentous responsibilities—like celebrating a birthday. In short, this tender almond cake laced with sunny sumac and studded with sweet-tart raspberries is effortlessly impressive.
Get the Recipe: Raspberry, Sumac, and Almond Snack Cake
If you fancy yourself a pound cake person, you absolutely need this one in your repertoire. Between the batter and the ruby raspberry-sumac glaze that tops the baked cake, it may seem like a lot of sumac going in—especially if this is a new-to-you spice. However, it’s important to keep in mind that sumac’s flavor, though sour, is soft. Thus, it isn’t a spice you need to be particularly dainty with in baking. Especially in a situation where it has four sticks of butter to cut through.
Get the Recipe: Raspberry, Sumac, and Almond Pound Cake
Ready to begin your own sumac journey? The spice is becoming more readily available at supermarkets and can typically be found at grocery stores such as Whole Foods and The Fresh Market, or specialty spice stores like Penzeys. You can also order it online. Like other dried spices, sumac should be stored in an airtight container, away from direct light or heat (i.e. in your spice cabinet). Try one of the cake recipes above, substituting whatever berries you like, or try adding a spoonful to your own favorite recipes that could use a lively punch of pucker; shortbread cookies, muffins, or a chess pie would all be great places to start.