What Is Tzatziki and What Should You Do With It?
The classic Greek condiment plays well with so much more than kebabs and gyros.
I was first introduced to tzatziki sauce as a very young child, with the opening in my neighborhood of a new restaurant, The Athenian Room. This small cozy place specialized in savory grilled Greek chicken, marinated skirt steaks and kabobs, wide steak fries soaked in a red wine vinaigrette, salads with slabs of salty feta on top, and gyros. It quickly became a family staple, and to this day, some 45-plus years later, it remains a stalwart for everything from lazy Tuesday takeout to family birthday celebrations.
I crave their avgolemono soup all winter long. I think the skirt steak may be the best one in Chicago. And the Greek fries are totally my kryptonite. But it is their tzatziki that is the one thing I make at home.
WATCH: How to Make Classic Tzatziki Sauce
What is Tzatziki?
Tzatziki, while being a ridiculously fun word to say and a very good name for a dog if you are in need of one, is a classic Greek condiment made of thick yogurt, grated cucumber, garlic, lemon or vinegar, and fresh herbs like dill or mint or thyme, and sometimes olive oil. While the recipe can vary from region to region in Greece, it is served with the mezes, or small plates appetizer portion of the meal, and can remain on the table as a condiment with roasted meats and vegetables. Street foods like gyros or kabobs are always garnished with tzatziki. It also shines in this Chicken Souvlaki.
Traditionally, this dish was set out during the early part of the meal to anoint the fresh salads and small richly flavored bites that comprise mezes, or to balance spiced meats. A platter of salted raw tomatoes and cucumbers becomes an instant salad when topped with tzatziki as a dressing. Bread is smeared with tzatziki and topped with grilled meats or vegetables for a crostini or bruschetta style snack that pairs well with Greek wines, like these Artichoke and Eggplant skewers. Much like a raita in Indian cookery, the cold yogurt sauce helps to cool spicy foods, add a creamy element to round out flavors, and maybe most importantly, the fat in the sauce carries flavor to every part of your tongue.
How to make tzatziki
Tzatziki is one of the easiest things to make, especially now, when thick Greek yogurt is so easy to find. If you have Middle Eastern or Greek markets where you live, it is worth seeking out to see if they carry some of the traditional brands, which can be even thicker and richer and more delicious than the brands that are found in large chain grocery stores. Here is a great basic recipe to begin with. Some tips before you start:
- Always use full fat Greek yogurt if you can find it. It is the primary ingredient, so you want it to be really beautiful on its own. Remember that fat carries flavor, so using fat free yogurt diminishes the purpose of the dish.
- If you can find English or Persian or seedless cucumbers, they will be sweeter and less watery than their regular counterparts.
- If you aren’t a fan of raw garlic, you can use minced fresh shallot or scallion as a great substitute.
- If I have time, I grate my cucumber about 20-30 minutes ahead of time, salt it lightly, and then let it rest in a colander over the sink to let the excess water drain away, and then give it a good squeeze before stirring it into the tzatziki. This is less important if you are going to eat the tzatziki right away, but if you plan to make it ahead, or want to make a large batch to have around all week, it is a good way to prevent it getting watered down as it sits.
What to do with tzatziki?
Obviously, if you are setting out a Greek feast, this is a natural. Just put it out in a bowl and let everyone slather it on whatever you are serving. But what to do when the meatballs are gone and you still have a bowlful of tzatziki? Luckily, this condiment is a powerhouse of flavor and a terrific ingredient. Try it instead of mayo on a sandwich or burger, or in potato salad or chicken salad. Fold in some crumbled feta and serve it instead of blue cheese dressing with your buffalo wings. Whip it in your food processor with softened cream cheese and goat cheese for a decadent dip. Stir it into cooked rice for an exciting side dish, or into mashed potatoes instead of sour cream. Stir in some olive oil and an extra splash of lemon juice or red wine vinegar for a creamy salad dressing that is so much more interesting than your usual ranch. Add some vegetable stock and extra cucumber for a chilled soup that will cool you off on a hot summer day or use it as a lighter substitute for sour cream on your next baked potato. Going to a barbecue or potluck? Try this crowd-pleasing recipe for Tzatziki Pasta Salad. Once you jump on the tzatziki train, you’ll find endless uses for it all year long.