Tahini 101: How to Buy, Store, and Eat Tahini
Tahini is a simple ingredient that goes a long way. Here's everything you want to know about tahini, including where to find it, how to make it, and what to use if you need a substitute.
Certain flavors are so distinctive, they never fail to evoke a region or cuisine. The southern United States use smoked ham hocks to flavor everything from beans to soups to greens. Italians are known for their love of basil — Caprese salad and thick pestos are immediately identifiable as coming from Italy. And in the Middle East, we find tahini.
Tahini has been made around the Mediterranean, Middle East, and North Africa for centuries, and many cultures and countries in the Middle East use it as we do salt and pepper — it is a flavoring agent found on the table for every meal.
What Is Tahini and What Is It Made From?
Tahini is a thick paste made from ground sesame seeds. Sesame seeds are very high in oil — it makes up about half their weight. Some brands contain additional oil, salt, or other ingredients.
A primary ingredient in traditional Middle Eastern hummus, tahini is used as a flavoring agent and thickener for sauces and dressings. It can even be baked into desserts. Basically, it's the Middle Eastern answer to peanut butter.
What Are the Different Types of Tahini?
Tahini comes in two types: hulled and unhulled. In hulled tahini, the outer shells of the sesame seeds have been removed so the tahini paste is paler and creamier than unhulled tahini. Hulled tahini contains less fiber and is less nutrient-rich. Unhulled tahini contains the whole sesame seeds, and it has a slightly more bitter taste.
In addition, tahini paste is either raw or roasted. Raw tahini is lighter in color and less strong in flavor, and it has a higher nutrient content than roasted tahini.
Tahini ranges in color from lightly sandy to deep brown. The lighter styles are made from hull-less sesame seeds that are crushed and may be roasted or raw. Roasted versions are a bit darker and stronger in flavor than those made with unroasted seeds. Very dark varieties, often found sold in blocks, incorporate sesame seeds with the hull on. These can be quite textured and gritty, and have a strong, toasted flavor that some people find a bit bitter.
Tahini has many of sesame's nutritional values intact. Because it's made from a seed that is high in oil, it offers essential fatty acids and is high in calcium, making it an excellent nutritional source for anyone avoiding dairy. Although tahini provides a good amount of protein and minerals and it is high in unsaturated fat, it is also high in calories so it should be enjoyed in moderation. A tablespoon of tahini goes a long way.
How to Buy and Store Tahini
Yottam Ottolenghi, the popular UK Chef and advocate for Israeli cuisine, prefers Lebanese, Palestinian, or Israeli brands of tahini, which he feels are lighter and flavorsome, and avoids pastes that are made from more northern regions like Greece and Cyrus. Once opened, you may have to vigorously stir the oil back into the sesame paste. Store the can in your fridge to prevent spoiling. Tahini keeps for many months, but the oils will go rancid over time. As with all food, the nose knows –- taste and see if it's to your liking before incorporating it into a recipe.
Stir your tahini well before using, as the oil separates during storage.
Where Is Tahini in the Grocery Store?
In most grocery stores, tahini is in the aisle with the condiments or oils, or in the aisle with ethnic foods.
How to Make Tahini
If you're looking to make your own tahini, the good news is that the process is super simple. Ingredient-wise, you'll only need sesame seeds, oil, and some salt if you prefer it. Spread 1 cup of sesame seeds onto a baking sheet and bake at 350 degrees F, stirring every few minutes, for 10 to 12 minutes, until fragrant.
Once cooled, transfer toasted sesame seeds to a blender or food processor and add 1/4 cup oil (we prefer olive oil or sesame oil). Blend until completely smooth, adding salt to taste, and adding additional oil if necessary. Store in the fridge in a sealed container.
Get the Recipe: Tahini
How to Use Tahini
Tahini originates in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cooking, where it's used to flavor appetizers and spreads such as Hummus and Baba Ghanoush, salad dressings, and sauces for Falafel. Tahini is most widely used as the main ingredient (behind chickpeas) in traditional hummus, giving a notable and appealing nutty flavor to this Middle Eastern staple. You can also add a spoonful to pureed carrots or beets for a vegetable hummus that is lovely to look at and tastes great — an excellent option for a party appetizer.
You may also use tahini as a savory sauce by thinning with water and adding lemon juice and chopped garlic for flavor. This condiment can be used on anything from roasted vegetables to grilled meats.
Tahini also makes an excellent vinaigrette ingredient — its thick texture gives the illusion of a cream-based dressing for salads and dipping vegetables. Try adding some to your favorite dressing recipe, or add some soy sauce or vinegar to tahini as a vinaigrette base. You can even use it to make barbecue sauce.
For a healthy sweet ending to meals, sweetened tahini can also be drizzled over a fresh fruit platter. Blend it with a spoonful of honey or maple syrup and thin with water until the consistency is to your liking. In cakes and cookies, it can also be used in place of peanut butter or any other nut butter. Swirl some into your brownies or try making cookies. Tahini has even found its way into Ice Cream!
Get the Recipe: Chef John's Tahini
Chef John's tahini is delicious on its own as a dip for veggies and pita, or as a necessary component to hummus and baba ghanoush. "The technique is very simple, and every ingredient is to taste," says Chef John. "So please use the ingredient amounts as a guide, and then add more of whatever until you have it exactly how you want it."
Have a recipe that calls for tahini, but none in the fridge? No worry. Since it is essentially a paste made from seeds, most nut butters can be used in a pinch — just make sure you are opting for an unsweetened jar. Try a spoon of smooth peanut butter, cashew butter, or sunflower seed butter, which closely mimics the flavor found in tahini. You can also add a few drops of sesame oil, which will add a similar flavor but won't help with consistency and texture, so it's best when used in conjunction with a mild nut butter such as cashew butter.
"This hummus is a family recipe passed down from many generations," says ROYHOBBS. "Eat with warm pita bread."
"Amazing taste and quick to make," says Jerryfish. "I serve these on an open toasted wholemeal bun with guacamole on top."
"No matter what you're grilling this summer, chances are good you're going to have more hot coals than food to cook on it, which makes baba ghanoush the perfect post-barbecue recipe," says Chef John. "This is a wonderfully savory yet refreshing vegetable dip."
"A little sweet, a little creamy, a little nutty," says France C. "Combine that with a variety of spices and you have a flavorful carrot soup! Garnish with shelled pumpkin seeds if desired."
"Falafel has such a prominent taste, but the tahini and freshness of the vegetables really complement it nicely," says cpchef.
"This traditional sauce is served as a condiment in most restaurants making pita sandwiches," says Lobbylady. "Try with grilled souvlaki or falafel. Spread generously on your pita before stuffing with grilled meat, lettuce, tomatoes, onion... roll up and enjoy. Keeps in the fridge for up to 10 days."
"These amazing tahini cookies are chewy and delightful without any dairy or eggs," says Diana Moutsopoulos. "Using spelt flour, sesame seeds, and no refined sugar makes them a virtuous treat with a cup of coffee or tea."
"The addition of roasted garlic and cilantro really makes this dish shine," says Zhora Autumn. "Serve with baked pita chips."