You may remember, one of the things I brought back from my 2010 Food Journey was a half brown paper grocery bag full of Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina) that I collected–along with about fifteen chiggers and a bad case of poison ivy–beside a tiny country road near Laurens, SC.
Well … today’s the day I decided to start experimenting it
Staghorn Sumac is mostly a weed, and–despite the recent trend toward using the new and unique–it’s not very well-known in most modern culinary circles. I only heard of it recently myself through one of my canning discussion groups, and–like most other people–the mere word sumac kinda made me start itching pretty instantly
Yes, Staghorn Sumac is related to poison sumac–and poison ivy, too … which I’m very allergic to–but it’s also related to food items like mangoes, cashews, and pistachios. Certain varieties of sumac been used as a flavoring in this country since the pioneer days, and in other countries–such as Iran–since long before that. Some people dry the seeds and then grind them, creating a spice similar to lemon pepper. If you’ve ever eaten Persian food, you’ve probably eaten the Middle Eastern spice-version of sumac. Others soak the drupes (the little tart red berries) in cold or warm water, then they strain the liquid and sweeten it to make sumac-ade or Pioneer Lemonade. Others use it solo or in combination with various fruits for canning … which is where most of my sumac is headed!
The day my friends and I gathered it, we first put the bag into the freezer for about 24 hours. I wanted to kill any wildlife that might be lurking inside the clusters of dark red drupes before I put that bag in my car. We saw several spiders in residence when we were picking them, and I didn’t want to carry SC critters across country with me … for my own comfort, as well as for the safety of the ecosystems between there and here. Once they were sufficiently frozen, I left the paper bag open and in my trunk for my entire trip home–and then for a few weeks since I got here–so my sumac is completely dried at this point. And–I will note–it was gathered in late September/early October in the Southeast US … so the sumac you find in your area may taste different if picked earlier (mine was pretty much late/mid- to late-season) or later. The stuff I read said that it got more sour the later you picked it … and mine is pretty sour, so I’m excited about the experiment
I started out by putting about half of my clusters into a big strainer pot. I covered them with cold water, put them on the heat, and basically stirred and agitated them to encourage the drupes to give up their flavor. I stirred them until the water got very warm–almost … but not quite to where it started to boil–then I turned the heat off and let it soak for about 20 minutes.
I used the strainer basket to pull the first load of clusters out, allowing them to drain completely before throwing them away. Then I added the second half of my clusters (reserving a few to try planting some, and to try using some as a dry spice) to my still-warm water … and spent about 15 minutes agitating and stirring the second set through the same water, basically making a double-strength staghorn sumac tea. From what I read about this process, you don’t really want to boil the sticks in the clusters or get them too hot because they release tannins that could make your jelly less tasty … so that’s why I’m using hot but not boiling water and a lot of physical action to get as much flavor out of my drupes as I can manage.
Once I pulled out the second set of clusters, I strained my sumac concentrate through a tea towel to remove all the particles. I ended up with a beautiful garnet-colored juice, one that’s amazingly sour … but–at the same time–amazingly interesting in flavor. I can’t wait to try the jelly already!
Isn’t that a beautiful color?
I ended up with way (WAY!) more sumac extract than I need for just a batch or two of spread, so I decided to start out by making a batch of full-sugar sumac jelly first–just a plain pectin-based spread so that I could get a real taste of the real flavor of sweetened sumac spread–and then to can the rest of the sumac extract to keep it fresh for future canning projects.
I looked around the web at recipes where other people use sumac in jelly, and found that most people use sumac as an add-on to a fruit … but there were a couple that basically gave me an idea of how I wanted to try crafting my own plain sumac jelly.
Into my big jelly pot, I measured:
- four cups of room temperature sumac extract
- five cups of sugar
Yes, that’s a lot of sugar … but think about it this way. I can’t tell you for sure, but I’d bet my best stainless steel pot that there’s pretty much no sugar in the sumac itself. The flesh was too sparse–it mostly just imparted flavoring, not bulk–and it’s amazingly sour. If you were adding sugar to, say, peaches … you’d only be supplementing the natural sugar in the peaches themselves. Needless to say, to have the same amount of sugar in sumac jelly in order to make the pectin gel properly … you have to replace the missing fruit sugar … and the add-on sugar, too. This is also why I started with a full-sugar jelly. I wanted to see how it acted/reacted first … before I decided how I wanted to approach making it sugar-free.
I grabbed my stick blender and started mixing the extract and sugar together. Once they’d gone liquid–and with the stick blender still running–I added:
- one box of regular pectin
- two added heaping teaspoons of Dutch Gel, because I want a nice firm set on my jelly
I let the stick blender run until everything blended together nicely, then I turned the heat on HIGH under my pot.
They say sumac gets more bitter the longer you cook it, so my plan was to hit it with blazing heat, keep stirring it, and let all that sugar and pectin do its job! Once it reached a solid rolling boil, I set my timer for three minutes, and stirred it the entire time!
I jarred my jelly from there, then processed it in a BWB for 10 minutes! My four cups of juice and five cups of sugar yielded eight beautiful garnet-colored half pints and a couple of tablespoons full in a jar for the fridge.
I also jarred up my remaining sumac extract and processed it in the same batch, just to keep it fresh until I decide what I’m going to use it with. After making the jelly, I still have not quite a gallon to experiment with from here, saved in quarts, pints, and even one lonely half pint. I want to eat on the plain sumac jelly first to see what I think would pair nicely with it
And how pretty is that?
I’ve been trying to decide how I can describe the flavor to you. It’s definitely tart–I can see why people say it’s high in vitamin C–but it doesn’t really taste citrusy like most people say it does. To me, it’s got the same sort of tartness you find in rhubarb … which is a totally different flavor profile than any of the classic citrus sources. It’s a lot stronger/more tart than most citrus … probably because most citrus has a certain amount of sugar in it, in addition to the tartness. In fact, you can still eat most commercial lemons plain–despite the fact that they’re tart … but you can’t really eat rhubarb and sumac without adding sugar, not unless you REALLY like things that are exceptionally sour. With the sugar added to them, however, they become this bright flavor wrapped in velvety sweetness. It’s calmed enough to be deliciously palatable, but you can definitely tell it’s still sour around the edges!
The rest of the flavor is unique, and basically indescribable. It reminds me in a way of hibiscus–which is also a sour flavoring–but it’s not nearly as flowery and/or perfumed as hibiscus. I also say it reminds me of hibiscus because there’s a certain peppery element to it, too. Beyond that, however, I’m clueless on how to describe the taste. It’s one of a kind. All I can say is … I like it!
So maybe if you spot some growing along the side of the road near your house one day, you’ll decide to try it yourself like I did. And who knows … maybe you’ll discover that you like it, too