Some caveats: There is a plant known as poison sumac. It bears little resemblance to Staghorn sumac, in my mind, principally because poison sumac has white berries. So simply remember: red berries good, white berries bad. Also, people who are sensitive or allergic to mangoes, pistachios, and cashews are best advised to avoid sumac due to the fact that they are all related.
How to make sumac lemonade:
- Beginning in mid- to late-summer, go on a sumac hunt. This may be the most difficult part. Sumac grows along roadsides and fencerows, so country backroads are the best places to look. If it is a particularly well-traveled and dusty road, you will want to keep looking, because gritty sumac is not ideal. Naturally, get permission if you are on private land or anywhere else you shouldn’t be without an official okay. Once you have found your sumac, do a ripeness test: take your finger and rub it across the red berries. Lick your finger. If the red comes off on your finger in a sort of waxy powder and tastes good and tart, it is READY. If nothing comes off and there isn’t much tang, but the berries are young and fresh-looking, you are too early. Go home and wait another week or two or three. If the berries are kind of dry and yield little or no sourness, you are too late. Go home and make plans for next year.
- Pick your sumac. The bright red panicles are easy to snap off with your hand, or take along pruners or a knife to help. Fill a grocery bag for one good batch, more if you want enough to make a concentrate to freeze for later.
- When you get the sumac home. lay out a clean cloth or butcher paper on a flat surface outside where you can spread out the panicles and examine them for hitchhikers. Gently tap them and check them out for stink bugs, spiders, etc., which might be hiding. Don’t wash them, because doing so will wash off all the flavor. If one or more are dirty for some reason, discard the dirty one(s).
- In the kitchen, fill your largest bowl about halfway with several quarts of fresh water. Submerge one or two of the sumac panicles in the water at a time and rub the berries between your hands and fingers under the water. You are trying to rub off the red, velvety powder into the water. Once you have done this, the white surface of the berries will be revealed and the water will become more and more pink. As you finish processing each panicle, remove it from the water and set it aside for your compost pile.
- Once all the berries have been rubbed, cover the top of a large pitcher with two to four layers of cheesecloth. Secure with a rubber band. Adjust cloth so a well is formed over the pitcher for the strained material to accumulate.
- Carefully pour the sumac water into the pitcher, straining out the loose berries and little hairlike particles and any other impurities. Depending on the amount of loose material in the water, you may have to dump out and rinse your cloth and resume straining one or more times.
- Depending on the amount and potency of the sumac you used for the amount of water necessary to process the lemonade, you may need to dilute it. Sweeten the resulting beverage to taste with honey, raw organic sugar, or the sweetener of your choice and chill or serve over ice.
If you like, make a concentrate by using the same water for processing additional quantities of sumac berries. (Reduction by boiling will alter the taste). Sumac concentrate can be frozen for later lemonade use or used to make jelly.