All tahini isn't created equal
My desert island pantry item is tahini. I'm operating under the assumption that I could perhaps take some type of bread, fruit, or vegetable to this place as well; still, the tahini is non-negotiable. Over the past few years I’ve been thrilled to see my favorite ingredient grow in popularity in the United States—you can not only find tahini in most grocery stores these days, you may even see more than one brand on the shelf. Yet as tahini becomes more mainstream, the door opens to becoming more choosy when it comes to selecting your preferred flavor profile (and likely, brand). Do you like a strong, almost bitter tahini that can stand up to being swirled into your double-chocolate pancakes? Or do you want a light, toasty tahini, perfect for slathering on toast (or eating straight from the jar), peanut butter-style? After trying several brands of the spread and noticing a stark difference in flavor as well as price point, it’s only natural to have questions. But tasting is certainly the first step.
“I don’t think you can tell [how you’ll like a brand of tahini] until you open up and try it,” Shelby Zitelman, CEO and Co-Founder of Soom Foods, told me over the phone. Soom, a premium tahini company based in Philadelphia that does most of its business wholesale with restaurants, began selling their tahini online after developing a cult-like following. Zitelman also mentioned that a preference for a certain brand of tahini will likely depend on what you want to use it for. “I love the fact that we can eat our tahini with a spoon and it’s great on its own as a drizzle on top of roasted vegetables or rice bowl, but some people are just buying tahini to mask it in something else.”
Richard Radutzky, President of Joyva Corporation (his grandfather founded the company in 1907), agrees. “Depending on what kind of flavor you’re after in the finished product, some people prefer something a bit more mellow, less bitter. Other people want something a nuttier, more roasted,” he told me over the phone. Explaining that their customer base was rooted in those using tahini for dips like hummus and baba ghanoush, Joyva landed on a robust tahini, which Radutzky describes as dark in color with a nutty flavor profile. “We can make a sweeter, more mellow tahini, but at this point we think it might throw off our consumer,” he noted.
So, why is there so much variation among brands? The recipe for tahini is simple—it’s just sesame seeds ground into a buttery paste—but that’s typically the only thing brands have in common when it comes to production. Seed selection and roasting time typically end up being the main contributor to the difference in tahini flavor and texture. Zitelman told me that Soom sources sesame seeds from the Humera region of Ethiopia, then utilizes a contracted manufacturer in Israel to make tahini according to Sooms specifications, among them milder roast and a finer grind, which yield a super-smooth, light product. Joyva, on the other hand, manufactures their tahini at their factory in Brooklyn. According to Radutzky, after their sesame seeds are hulled in a brine solution, they’re roasted, then ground through two stone mills. Joyva’s process yields a dark, thick tahini. “Indian and Sudanese seeds tend to be a bit more bitter than South American and Ethiopian seeds,” he mentioned.
Both Zitelman and Radutzky told me that the discrepancy in price of tahini jars has more to do with the business side of things. For example, a 15-ounce can of Joyva tahini tends to run between $5 and $8 depending on the store, while a 16-ounce jar of Soom tahini is $12.95. But these price differences don’t mean that one brand is making a lower-quality product, nor does it mean that one is pocketing more profit. “It’s a lot about packaging and marketing and reaching specific consumers,” said Radutzky. He explained that while Organic seeds or seeds that are in high demand might be higher in price, “there’s not really anything in [tahini] that can make one astronomically more expensive than the other.” Zitelman echoed the fact that price comes from the business end. She mentioned she’s seen many brands of tahini that, like hers, are manufactured abroad, yet the companies don’t care to connect with their customers, so they charge less for the final product. Soom, on the other hand, is a “small business that does dedicate the time and attention to educating and connecting with the consumer.”
Zitelman and Radutzky both mentioned there are benefits to paying on the high and low end for tahini—ultimately, they’re excited to see the growing demand. “We think that the more people that are are talking about tahini the better, because it just helps educate the market about what it is,” said Zitelman. “I’m really amazed to see where we’ve come as a category in five years.” Says Radutzky: “I think the world is ready for tahini to take its place.”