Tahini 101: A Crash Course on the Paste We Can’t Get Enough Of
If it seems as if tahini is consistently making an appearance on food blogs and the pages of magazines every which way you look—well, that’s because it is. Tahini is a paste made from hulled sesame seeds that are extremely finely ground. It’s rich, nutty, toasty, delicately bitter (in a good way) and creates an incredible backbone for a wide array of recipes. Tahini’s popularity spiked as hummus became more mainstream and widely available in U.S. grocery stores. Beyond hummus, we find tahini in our cakes, dressings, snacks, and popsicles. And if you blend it with fresh herbs and lemon juice, you’ll find yourself with a beautifully vibrant green tahini sauce that can be used as a spread, dip, or served with pan-seared fish. Tahini is also the base of Baba Ghanoush, a classic dip made with cooked eggplant. Not to mention, it’s an essential ingredient in the dessert, halva. In other words, tahini is about as versatile and delightful as it gets.
Once considered a “specialty” food item, this magical paste has is now a staple for enthusiastic home cooks and chefs. In 2016, The New York Times declared tahini one of 5 sauces for the modern cook to master. Claiming that if you know and understand the simplicity of how a sauce like tahini can deliver your dish to new heights, you open the gateway unlimited variations within a meal. However, the paste’s recent acclaim in Western culture is nothing new to Eastern cultures. Tahini has been a staple for centuries in Middle Eastern, Indian, Mediterranean, and North African cuisines. According to food writer Adeena Sussman in an interview with The Splendid Table, tahini has “a lot of history.” She explains, “It’s been cultivated in India since 5000 BC, and there are references to it found on cuneiforms from 3500 BC.” She also mentioned that Ethiopia has the best sesame seeds, and if you can find tahini made with Ethiopian seeds, you are in good shape.
Michael Solomonov, the James Beard Award winning chef behind Zahav in Philadelphia, is widely regarded for his inspired Israeli cooking and thus, no stranger to masterfully utilizing tahini. In his 2015 cookbook, also titled Zahav, he refers to tahini as “tehina”—which is the Israeli spelling. For those unfamiliar with tahini, the paste’s slightly bitter flavor qualities can be a bit off-putting—particularly in the U.S., as many of our foods skew more towards sweet than bitter. However, Solomonov explains that, “Bitterness is an underappreciated but powerful tool in developing flavor.” Tahini’s bitter notes can often serve as the perfect balance to other flavors in a dish.
Though tahini was not always easily accessible for U.S. cooks, there are now numerous small-batch makers, as well as various larger tahini producing brands, that average consumers can access. For example, Soom, the brand Solomonov uses in his restaurant, produces a single-origin tahini using Ethiopian White Humera sesame seeds. The company is run by sisters who process their product in Israel. Pepperwood is another notable tahini producer, and also uses Ethiopian seeds.
When you purchase tahini in the grocery store, there is a chance that the oil may have separated from the rest of the paste. Don’t panic! This is a natural separation and does not mean the tahini has gone bad. You often see this separation with high-quality, natural nut butters. Once you open a container of tahini, store it in the refrigerator to prevent it from going rancid quickly. It’s best to keep your tahini for no longer than 6 months. If you notice any discoloration or foul smell, that’s your indication that it’s time to toss it.