Foraging smooth sumac, and a sumac soda recipe

After the dry, seemingly endless Texas summer, signs of edible life reappear gradually. One of the first harbingers of the harvest season that begins in late summer is the sumac fruit clusters. The dense, prominent clusters on these small to medium sized shrubs ripen to a bright red color, so are easily noticed against the straw-colored backdrop of summer in Texas.

The most common sumac species in North Texas is smooth sumac, Rhus glabra. This species grows as a large shrub up to 7-8 feet tall, but usually shorter, with pinnately compound, shiny leaves. The compact clusters of bright red fruit grow erect at the top of the shrubs, and if you look closely at the ripe fruits, they look hairy or almost sparkly or “crystalline”. If you taste the outside of the fruit at this point, it is intensely tart with a pleasant hint of sweetness! This coating is considered the main edible part of sumac. That tart flavor is mostly malic acid, which is what gives apples and apple cider vinegar their tartness, and is considered a beneficial substance for liver and kidney health, to prevent and dissolve gallstones and kidney stones.

There are other edible sumac species in Texas, including fragrant or three-leaf sumac, also known as lemonade berry: Rhus aromatica is more common in the Eastern parts of our range, and Rhus trilobata more common in the Western parts. These are much smaller shrubs with trifoliate (three-part) leaves, and smaller fruit clusters. Another species with a similar shrub-like growth pattern as R. glabra (with pinnately compound leaves) that grows in Texas is winged sumac (Rhus coppalina), but this species doesn’t seem nearly as widespread in N. Texas as R. glabra.

Sumac (Rhus) is part of the Anacardiaceae family, the same family as some delicious cultivated edible plants: mango, cashew and pistachio. It is also related to poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac. Due to the similarity of their common names, edible sumacs of the Rhus genus are often assumed to be poisonous, mistaken with the distantly related poison sumac (Toxicodendron vernix). Besides being part of the same plant family, and both having pinnately compound leaves, they are easy to tell apart. The fruit clusters of Rhus are bright red and erect, whereas T. vernix fruits ripen to a waxy whitish color, and the clusters are drooping instead of erect. Also, poison sumac grows much further east, rarely in Texas, and in wetland habitats like swamps and marshes. All members of the Toxicodendron genus are coated with a dermatoxin called urushiol, which can cause a blistery rash on the skin.

Caution: although most people can consume edible sumacs and feel great, if you happen to be allergic to other members of this family that are normally considered edible, like mango and cashew, you may react to sumac, as well.

Now let’s talk about the harvest, and making sumac lemonade and sumac soda!

Sumac fruit clusters are ideally harvested right after they ripen to fully red, and before any rain. This is because rain will wash off the tart crystals on the outside of the fruits a little bit, and every subsequent rain will wash off more until they have no more flavor at all. The clusters in the photo above were harvested a little while after the ideal stage, after one or two small rains, and you can see that the outside of the some of the fruits look older and paler. However, the parts of the fruit inside the clusters, which are more protected from the elements, still contain plenty of the tart flavor we’re going for! If you aren’t sure, just pick off a fruit from the outside and suck on it. It should be intensely tart. If it’s just mildly tart, or has no flavor at all, taste one of the fruits inside the cluster, to see if it’s still worth harvesting.

To increase the surface area of the fruits when soaking in water, I pulled all the fruits off the clusters by hand, which was a time consuming process, but there were lots of kids around who were happy to help at our local forest school! To soak the fruits, I put about 1 cup of fruits into a half gallon mason jar, filled it to the top with high quality drinking water, then gave it a good shake. If you’re using 1-quart jars, use 1/2 cup of fruits. If your clusters are very fresh and tart, you may be able to use a lesser quantity of fruit and still get a very tart sumac-ade!

I kept these jars of sumac-ade in the fridge for a few days, shaking the jars a couple times a day. At the same time, I started my homemade ginger culture (often called a ‘ginger bug’), to use in the soda creation process. It basically entails adding two cups of pure water to a jar, plus 1 tablespoon of sugar and 1 tablespoon of chopped fresh ginger. Leave this on your counter (not in the fridge), and feed it daily with an additional 1 Tbs sugar and 1 Tbs ginger. What happens is the sugar will begin ‘eating’ the naturally occurring yeast on the ginger skin, as well as any wild yeasts floating around in the air. This is a form of wild fermentation, where you’re utilizing the yeasts and bacteria naturally occurring in your environment, which is how humans always fermented food and drinks until the very recent advent of pure strains of packaged yeast.

You will know your ginger bug is ready when you open the jar and hear an obvious fizzing sound when you put it up to your ear! It can then be used to make a wide variety of soda-type drinks.

When it was time to make the batch of soda, I strained half a gallon of the sumac liquid through a fine mesh strainer (a nut milk bag works great), into a larger pot. You can taste a little bit to make sure it’s appropriately tart, like an unsweetened lemonade! Heat up the liquid on the stove until it’s lukewarm to warm, but not hot, then stir in 1.75 cups of sugar until fully dissolved. Then strain an additional half gallon of sumac-ade into the pot, along with one cup of the strained liquid from the mature ginger culture. If you don’t have any more plans for the ginger bug, you can use all two cups of the liquid, and the extra yeast may cause it to carbonate a little faster.

After everything is well mixed, pour the liquid into flip top bottles (or just regular jars), using a funnel and a measuring cup to get it in. Fill the bottles mostly full, but not completely, and close the caps. Keep the bottles at room temperature for several days, opening them to check on the carbonation status after 2-3 days. The warmer the ambient temperature, the faster they will ferment and carbonate, and the process will go slower if it’s colder.

Be aware that if you totally forget about these and let them sit for way too long, there’s a chance that a bottle will explode, which can be very dangerous. I’ve been making wild fermented sodas for about 13 years, and this has never happened to me using wild cultures (although I had some close calls using packaged yeast, which is much more aggressive!)

When you pop a bottle open and it begins to fizz a little, it’s ready, and you can chill it in the fridge until you’re ready to drink it! If a bottle gets a little too fizzy and threatens to erupt out of the bottle, you might have to let it “fizz out” for a bit, or drink the foam quickly to get it to calm down. I’ve also found that putting it directly into the fridge and chilling it for a while calms it down enough to drink it.

These wild sodas, including this delicious sumac flavor, are a healthful and almost addictive drink that costs literally pennies to make! I would estimate this particular batch, with the tiny amount of organic ginger from Costco and the organic sugar I buy in bulk, as well as the free sumac clusters, cost maybe 10 cents per bottle, if that. Compare that to high quality organic sodas and kombuchas at the store, at $3 to $4 each, and these savings really add up over time, especially when you have a family that loves sweet and hydrating drinks!

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