Sumac lemonade isn’t made with the sumac flowers, but rather those torch-like bundles of red fuzzy berries. I’m most used to making sumac lemonade with the berries of the smooth sumac trees (Rhus glabra), but I see no reason why staghorn or fragant sumacs wouldn’t work just as well.
The one to avoid is the poison sumac, but identification of poison sumac berries is wildly easy: poison sumac berries are white (as a general rule, foragers should never eat white berries as quite a few are poisonous) and the berry clusters of the poison sumac droop. All the other sumacs hold their berries up rather proudly.
Sumac berries will achieve a robust red rather uniformly across most of the torch-shaped cluster and this is when they are ripest. I also check for ripeness by rubbing my finger on the berries and then tasting my finger; I’m looking for a nice sharp tartness.
To make sumac lemonade, gather several “torches” and clean them without washing them. Break up the bundles and clear out any spiders or other freeloaders who’ve gotten a free ride your kitchen. You are thinking “ack!”? Just do the cleaning on the back porch where you shuck your corn. Same idea.
Add the clean sumac torches to a large pot of water or your biggest bowl. Because this recipe does not require hot water, it can be a good activity to include your kids in.
Let them steep for anywhere from 20 minutes to two hours; you can taste test along the way to see when sufficient lemony-ness has been achieved. Stirring or mixing it around with your hands will speed it up. Your goal is to remove the fuzzy pink from the berries. The remaining pale berries can be added to your compost.
Now comes the “work” portion: you have to strain those little hairs that were all over the berries out of your lemonade.
I do two strainings: once through a common sieve to pull out all the berries and the larger hairs, and then once through a more finely woven mesh bag or two layers of cheesecloth. I’ve been known to use an old, worn, clean pillowcase too.
Stir in raw sugar or honey to taste. I find about a half cup of raw sugar per torch to be where I like it, but not only are each person’s taste buds different, each sumac tree will be responding to different environmental stimuli each year. On good years, you may even need to dilute your sumac juice!
This isn’t something I do all summer, but it is a lovely treat and an easy way to have a little wild luxury if I find myself on a fortuitously timed camping trip.
Side note: there is another variety of sumac that gets ground up as a spice in a lot of Persian dishes. Super tasty, but because that variety doesn’t grow near me, I’m unfamiliar with how to process it or identify it. Anybody who does know, please feel free to either leave a note below or contact me about the possibility of a guest blog article.