Sumac Lemonade

by Daisy on 08/15/2008

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When I was small my mother taught me to make what we called “Sumac Juice”. Since, I have learned it is more commonly referred to as “Sumac Lemonade” or “Indian Lemonade”. While most roadside recipes tend to be in the “acquired taste” category, the beverage made from Staghorn Sumac (rhus hirta) berries is just plain good. It has a beautiful pale pink color and a tart, refreshing flavor that is not quite like anything else. While not difficult to make, it is a bit messy. The only special equipment you need is cheesecloth, although a teacloth may suffice if you have a little extra time and patience.

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.



{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Melodi September 8, 2009 at 3:34 pm

I’m trying this now. It will funny to give to people then tell them it’s sumac.

jayne bouder July 8, 2010 at 6:22 pm

Hello, A friend read to from a book over the phone to me about how to make sumac tea. The article ended with a warning that the sumac fruits might be so grubby that they might now be worth bothering with, so I checked a dozen spikes that I’d gathered. Nothing was moving, but some had a lot of black, crumbly stuff against the stalks inside of the berry clusters, while others were just green, white and pink. Do you have any idea what the black stuff might be, and if it’s o.k. to make tea with it? Thank-you, Jayne

Tomato Lady July 9, 2010 at 8:03 am

Jayne bouder–Hi Jayne. Is it possible that the ones with the black were last year’s fruit? Probably not. Anyway, to me, black crumbly often sounds like bug excrement, but it could also be pollution, road grime, etc. I would go with the cleaner fruit because by the time you washed off the black, the tasty part of the fruit would probably have washed off as well. Hope this helps. Good luck!

Donna August 25, 2010 at 8:50 am

Hi, glad to find this; one of the things I’ve loved about our place is all the sumac on it, so much we were just overgrown with it, would have given it away had I known there might have those who were interested. Anyway, as I was out gathering yesterday evening found some with what appeared to be large (larger than berries) white pod type things on them; never run across that before. Just wondered if you might have any idea what that might be. Thanks, Donna

Tomato Lady August 25, 2010 at 12:35 pm
Macy H. August 27, 2010 at 3:58 pm

Great stuff! I had heard about making sumac lemonade, but I could never find any sumac fruit that I could reach… saw some on roads with big ditches on the sides, but I couldn’t get to it. Then I looked out my window a few minutes ago and saw some in the woods behind my house! Lol I was so excited, I think I scared my chickens (NOT that that is hard to do…) :P

Cheryl February 9, 2011 at 7:47 pm

I have to say it. . . Stevia is absolutely the most awful tasting stuff I have ever used. I have tried all the brands because I had much rather use it than any of the other sweeteners. I have had to throw out everything that I have made. At first I thought that I was using too much. But even a small amount just really gags me.
I am wondering. . . is it just me. . . or does anyone else get that licorice taste? It is really strong to me. My husband just says that it tastes “funky”

Brandon August 20, 2012 at 3:06 pm

I noticed that the rain does wash off the taste from the panicles. Does the powder grow back, or are they forever useless after the rain hits them?

Daisy August 20, 2012 at 3:08 pm

Brandon–I know they can stand some rain, but how much I don’t know.

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