My relationship with sumac began before I even knew its name. Each day on the way to school, the bus would zip past stands of fuzzy red cones, poking up from the brush like a fleet of felted gnome hats. As a botanically illiterate child, I was curious, but completely mystified. Adults warned me away with tales of illicit, poisonous plants.
Decades later, I was carelessly flipping through a book I had mistakenly ordered online. A set of fuzzy red cones flashed across the page; I recognized them instantly. It was the wild red gnome hats of my youth!
After steadying my nerves with a cup of tea, I delved in and absorbed all I could about this mysterious plant called sumac. The author, Sam Thayer, recommended making a drink called sumacade by steeping the berries in cold water. The acidic coating on the berries dissolves in the water, creating a refreshing, tangy drink. Some folks even hypothesize that sumacade was the original pink lemonade!
A year after that chance literary encounter, I found myself in a foraging apprenticeship in North Carolina. One of my fellow students shared her secret to the ultimate sumacade - freshly crushed mountain mint leaves (Pycnanthemum spp.) .
The cooling mint and tart sumac pair up to create a refreshing and restorative summer drink. It feels like a soothing balm for the soul on oppressively hot days.
Harvesting tip: Due to the water-soluble nature of malic acid (pictured above, coating the berries), the tart flavor of sumac can wash away in the summer rains. Before each harvest, sample a few berries to make sure they still pack their punch.
I like to set my clusters outside in a bowl for a few hours to let any resident bugs evacuate.
You can use whole clusters or just the berries for your infusion. On hot summer days, I tend towards sloth, so I just plop the whole clusters in a mason jar. However, some folks like to remove the berries from their stalks for a more efficient infusion. The choice is yours.
You can use any mint you like - the recipe calls for apple mint, since that is what was growing in my garden. If you are using a stronger mint like peppermint or mountain mint, start with 2 leaves and work your way up.
This recipe is inspired by Sam Thayer’s book The Forager's Harvest. Big thanks to Rachel for sharing her minty sumacade secret!
If your sumacade isn’t tart and refreshing: you have a couple of options. First, let it sit for another day or two in the fridge. Be aware that this will also intensify the mint flavor, so if you want to avoid that, remove the mint leaves before you set the jar back in the fridge.
Second, you can swap out the untart sumac clusters for a set of fresh, tart clusters. Infuse them in the original liquid for another night in the fridge. If you’ve swapped out the clusters and the sumacade still isn't tangy, double check that the clusters you picked are tart. Two-to-three berries plucked off of a cluster should be enough to pucker your lips.
If your sumacade is too tart: just dilute it with some water.
If there are bugs: it's probably nothing to worry about. A cold infusion isn't going to extract the bug flavors. Just strain them out! To avoid bugs, be sure to set your clusters outside in a bowl for a few hours before steeping.
Storage: sumacade should keep for at least a week in the fridge. I like to store mine as ice cubes in the freezer. They are perfect for perking up and cooling down any light summer drink.
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