Sumac is a crucial spice for various Middle Eastern dishes. It provides a tart, astringent note that complements fish and chicken. In the west, it is considered an excellent souring agent that can provide acidity in salad dressings and marinades without the use of vinegar. Sumac is essential if you want to give your Arabic, Turkish and Levantine dishes an authentic flavor; however, it might not be the easiest to spice to find if you are outside of the Middle East.
If you are having a hard time getting hold of sumac, you may want to use one of the several substitutes we have listed below. Most of them are easy to find; in fact, you may already have some of them in your spice cabinet.
Your best bet: Lemon pepper seasoning
Lemon pepper seasoning consists of dried lemon zest and cracked black pepper. This spice blend is available everywhere and if you are out of it, you can easily combine the two ingredients yourself. The flavors complement each other perfectly and make an excellent replacement for sumac’s acidity. Sumac was used before lemons were brought to the Middle East by the Romans. Lemon has become a very popular way to provide sourness in Middle Eastern dishes, so food flavored with this substitute will still taste authentic.
Lemon pepper is great for grilled poultry, but its most popular application is as a seasoning for seafood. In some cases, lemon pepper blends will include garlic so look at the listed ingredients when buying to avoid surprises. Some experts recommend adding a little salt to the lemon pepper when using it as a sumac substitute. When using lemon pepper in place of sumac, use about one and a half times the amount that your recipe requires for sumac.
A decent second choice: Za’atar
Za’atar is a spice blend that contains sumac, which means that it will provide exactly the flavor that you want. Bear in mind that sumac is not merely one of the ingredients in za’atar, it’s actually the most prominent flavor. The other spices in most za’atar blends are usually salt, sesame seeds and dried herbs. These spices will work well in most dishes that require sumac. Note that there are many different za’atar blends, so you will want to use one that fits the overall flavor profile that you want for your dish. When using this spice blend as a sumac substitute, start with the amount that your recipe requires for sumac and increase to taste.
In a pinch: Tamarind
Tamarind is a tropical fruit that is known for its extreme tartness. It is widely used in Indian and Thai cooking and West Indians use it to make drinks. You can purchase tamarind in several forms, including as whole dried pods and as tamarind paste; you can also purchase the frozen tamarind pulp. Tamarind is highly concentrated, which means that you only need a little to replicate the tartness of sumac. Add it to your dish in small amounts until you get the desired flavor profile.
Vinegar is a decent sumac alternative. Sumac’s flavor is mainly tart and tartness is what vinegar provides. Vinegar is considerably more tart than sumac so you will want to use it with caution. When using vinegar to replace sumac, start by adding a small amount and increase to taste.
If you want tartness similar to that of sumac but enhanced with citrus, consider adding lemon juice at the end of cooking. As with most of the other alternatives, add a little and adjust to taste.