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What Is Tahini (And Why Is It All the Rage)?

a jar of fresh tahini next to a wooden spoon laden with sesame seeds
etorres/Shutterstock

Move over peanut butter; this sesame spread swings savory to sweet in ways other nut-butters can only dream of. Whether it’s dinner or dessert, Tahini’s probably the answer.

Nut-butters are the epitome of trendy right now. Everything from pistachios to sunflower seeds can be ground down and spread across your morning toast. But almond butter is played out, and cashews are so 2018. So, what’s the latest and greatest fashionable spread?

Enter, the sesame seed. These little guys may not look like much. In fact, you may mistake one of them for a small bug or speck of dirt that’s inched its way onto your plate. But grind them up into a paste, and you’ve got a mildly nutty, slightly sweet, and delightfully smooth butter that you’ll want to put on everything.

What is Tahini?

Tahini is a paste made up of ground, toasted sesame seeds. These little guys have been around a long time. Ancient texts reference sesame seeds as the “queen of oilseeds.”   It’s thought that sesame seeds were favored for oil because their high antioxidant properties naturally resist spoilage.

Tahini doesn’t technically need refrigeration (although it is recommended for longer shelf life). We can assume that it didn’t take early humans long to go from eating theses seeds in oil form to making and enjoying tahini. It is, after all, a versatile ingredient that lends a soft, nutty flavor, and creamy mouth feel to everything it touches.

How to Make Tahini

man making tahini with a large mortar and pestle
FrauTori/Shutterstock

Traditionally, tahini is made with a mortar and pestle, but there’s no need for that. In today’s world, we’ll let technology do the work. All you need is a food processor, sesame seeds, and neutral-flavored oil.

Any health food store with a bulk grains section will likely have white hulled sesame seeds. They should be relatively inexpensive, but there’s a catch. First-rate tahini, the kind that we want as a star in our salad dressings, is made with a particular type of sesame seed: Humera seeds. These little guys from Ethiopia are known for making the best tahini on the planet, but they can be hard to find. In a pinch, any white, hulled sesame seed will do.

Once you’ve got the seeds, spread them out on a cookie sheet and toast at 350 F for about ten minutes until they’re golden brown. Let them cool off, and then throw them in a food processor with just a little bit of olive oil, no more than a tablespoon per cup of seeds. Blend it all together, and that’s it! You’ve got tahini!

Where to Buy Tahini, What to Look for, and What to Avoid

Of course, if sourcing an impeccable sesame seed seems just too big a task, you can always buy tahini ready-made.  We like Soom tahini the best. It’s available on Amazon, which is convenient, but it is pricey. Consider it the luxury car of the tahini world, smooth, mild, and made for the true tahini connoisseur. If that’s a bit out of your price range, Whole 365’s tahini at Whole Foods is a good bet as well.

Regardless, you want tahini that is light in color. There are darker tahinis made by roasting the seeds longer, but for most applications, light and mild is the way to go. It’s also a good sign if the label states in some way that the seeds were soaked, hulled and roasted. Soaking and hulling will ensure the resulting spread is velvety and smooth. It also helps ensure the tahini isn’t too harsh. While sesame seeds always have a touch of background bitterness, it should never take center stage.

What to Make with Tahini

Many Americans hear the word tahini and instantly think hummus. While tahini does hail from the Eastern Mediterranean, it’s certainly not restricted to dishes of that origin. Lately, we’ve seen tahini take the starring role in brownies, salad dressings, and even milkshakes!

delicious tahini milkeshakes garnished with cinnamon sticks
Molly Yeh

The best tahini will work in sweet applications just as well as savory ones. When it comes to the sugary side of the spectrum, we recommend trying Molly Yeh’s tahini milkshakes. They’re easy to throw together and, by the time you’ve slurped up that last creamy drop, we think you’ll find yourself contemplating whether any other nutty spread deserves a place in your heart (or pantry).

For a savory application that goes beyond hummus, we recommend trying tahini in a salad dressing. The creamy mouthfeel and nutty flavor will complement most greens. A maple tahini dressing like this one, from the MinimalistBaker, is a sure bet.  Of course, if you’re not big on full-blown recipes, a simple tahini sandwich with date syrup will give you an extra hip take on the classic PB&J—no recipe required.

Tahini has become a well-loved condiment for a good reason. It may not have the excessive sweetness it’s legume loaded cousin, peanut butter, is apt to contain. And, it may not be the first thing you turn to when seeking a partner for jelly.  But it’s applications are just as varied and, we’d argue, slightly more sophisticated. So, what are you waiting for? Go buy a jar. Whether you make traditional hummus or all-out tahini swirl brownies, this sesame spread is sure to keep you coming back for more.

Lauren Sakiyama Lauren Sakiyama
Lauren Sakiyama is a freelance writer with over a decade of experience in the hospitality industry. She has managed restaurants, country clubs, and large-scale event operations, but her passion has always been about the food. Read Full Bio »

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