Secret Ingredient

Open Sesame

Silky, sophisticated tahini is your pantry's new best friend

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Homemade hummus is pretty easy to pull together from your cabinets – a can of chickpeas, olive oil, garlic, salt, maybe some lemon juice – except for one key ingredient. Tahini may not have made it on your grocery list yet, but I’m here to tell you that one of the most intriguing (and surprisingly versatile) ingredients that will ever grace your pantry. If tahini were a Pokémon, it would be Ditto, taking on the powers and properties of other Pokémon – or in this case, ingredients. It can be anything, anywhere, and can be incorporated into a wide gamut of recipes without sticking out like a sore thumb. It can take on other flavors, or stand out on its own – however you choose to use it.

Tahini normally sits by the peanut butter down the natural foods aisle of your grocery store, and if you ask me, that’s exactly where it belongs. You can eat peanut butter with every meal, mixed into oatmeal for breakfast, as a sandwich for lunch, or mixed with some hot and cold noodles for a Thai dinner treat. Would you think you could do the same with tahini? Well, you can. While it does do wonders in recipes, spreading it on toast and eating it plain is amazing as well. For a sweeter breakfast, take a cue from Iraq and mix it with date paste. In Egypt, tahini is used as a spread for nearly every sandwich unless you request otherwise. And, since tahini is a great source of protein and low in cholesterol, so it makes a great snack for athletes. Personally, I’ve started eating tahini plain on some bread as a pre- or post-running snack. It’s a good and healthy source of quick energy. In WWI and WWII, Turkish aviators were often lauded for their mental and physical endurance because their diets were high in sesame products and tahini.

Tahini is nothing more than ground sesame seeds, water, and salt, so if you like sesame, you’ll enjoy tahini. Its texture is just as smooth as your standard smooth peanut butter. It tastes like the more natural and unsweetened nut butters you either make yourself or buy sugarless at the store, and, like those butters, can actually separate, leaving a layer of oil at the top. What separates tahini from the other nut butters, though, is its slight bitterness — though it’s not unpleasant. The best way I could describe the taste is “sophisticated.”

What’s even more sophisticated is actually making your own, which is easier than you might guess. When I went to go make a batch of hummus the other day, I realized I had no tahini left. However what I did have were sesame seeds lying around that I haven’t been able to use as often as I’d like, so I sacrificed my bottle to make some tahini. I felt accomplished for making it myself, and I didn’t even have to leave the house. A note on homemade tahini: the taste was similar if not identical to store-bought, which could depend on how much salt you add or if you toast your seeds, but where homemade differs from store bought is mainly in the texture. When I mentioned that tahini is just ground sesame seeds, that was partially true. Store-bought tahini is made from hulled sesame seeds, and while that might not seem significant yet, it will be the defining factor between store bought and homemade tahini. Since the homemade recipe uses whole sesame seeds, the consistency of your tahini will be a bit more coarse, but again, not unpleasant.

Your tongue is getting a massive hug from someone wearing the silkiest of pajamas – and that someone’s name is tahini.

Lacto-intolerant and vegan folk, pay attention – tahini is an excellent dairy replacement. I tried it in mashed potatoes, in lieu of milk or butter. It kept the potatoes super smooth and luxurious, with that subtle, sophisticated bitterness adding an extra dimension of flavor. Tahini can be added to soups and can also be incorporated into cream- and milk-based salad dressings. Because of its consistency, tahini is also a great base for a dip like baba ganouj or this one using chard stems, which sounds like something I’m up for the next time I throw a tapas party. If barbeques are more your style, I’ve also used tahini as a binder in turkey burgers, and it also works for beef and veggie patties. I definitely recommend this, by the way. It gives your burgers this really nice “I’m using a secret ingredient” kind of feel.

If you think at this point that this sesame “sauce” can only work with savory foods, you’d be wrong – it’s also a secret weapon to add to your baking arsenal. Tahini is great in cookies, like these shortbreads, simple almond cookies, and even vegan chocolate chips. It’s a key ingredient in a sweet treat called halva, a lovely, nutty, fudge-like confection that’s at the top of my to-make list. Surprisingly, tahini’s also a great way to keep brownies (yes, brownies) nice and moist, even though got some funny looks when I mentioned using sesame “butter” in brownies. Yes, the brownies turned out fine; yes, they were moist; no, they didn’t taste funny.

You’ll notice I’ve barely mentioned making hummus yet. The honest truth is, as I was doing my research, I became so excited that I started to fall in love with tahini for all of the things it could do other than just be used for hummus. It was really easy to lose sight of why I made (and later bought) it in the first place. Well I finally got around to using it for its intended purpose, and let me tell you: Yes! To start, I don’t know if you have ever experienced or imagined hummus melting in your mouth, but this hummus melted in your mouth. Without the tahini, the recipe wasn’t gross or anything, but it was a bit grainy in texture and somewhat one-dimensional, like turning in a ‘B’ paper when you know that one more, easy 30-minute edit can turn it into an ‘A’. With one jar of a super-versatile ingredient, your hummus can go above and beyond anything you would have imagined. At first bite, you get the wonderful and characteristic chickpea flavor, followed by the lovely bite of the garlic and lemon juice, all the while your tongue is getting a massive hug from someone wearing the silkiest of pajamas – and that someone’s name is tahini. The bottom line when making hummus: tahini it’s not ultimately necessary, but you’d be foolish not to use it!

When buying tahini, here’s what you need to know: It’s typically about $2 cheaper than other peanut-alternative nut butters (like almond and cashew). Joyva brand is often cited as the most versatile and mild brand of tahini on the shelves, but some people prefer Turkish tahini, and some prefer Israeli, as it’s said to be less bitter. Tahini has a remarkable shelf life, but you shouldn’t really concern yourself with that, considering you’ll love it so much it won’t stay in your pantry for long. Finding tahini shouldn’t be that hard either. You can find it in natural and specialty food stores, but as I mentioned earlier, you can probably find it in your own grocery store – if it’s not by the peanut butter, try the natural or ethnic food aisles.

Tahini is essentially whatever you need it to be. Cream substitute, dip base, a moistening agent for your baked goods… Most importantly, it’s creamy, lovely, and silky. It’s the friend that will help you out to meet guys at a bar, and then conveniently blend into the crowd once you’ve gotten your flirt on. It’s your secret weapon. It’s got some nutty components to it, and yes, it is a bit bitter, but it’s not offensive. If you have any reservations left, this is just one ingredient you’re going to have to trust me on. Take a leap of faith here, make some hummus, and then just go crazy and get creative using up the rest of the jar. Tahini is the culinary friend you have been waiting for, the one ingredient that can take you from smooth to silky in just a tablespoon.

Photos by Bruce Bortin via Flickr (Creative Commons)and Mark Seton via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Dana-Leigh Formon is a part-time food blogger, modern dancer, and distance runner from Drexel University. She is committed to fresh, locally made, good-for-you food and making as many things from scratch as possible. Her psychology background meets food when she explores how foods and flavors can affect your mood.

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