Tahini is one of the pantry staples we rely on most at Milk Street. Common in Middle Eastern cooking, it’s now becoming a household ingredient in the United States. If you haven’t seen tahini dressing on a menu or drizzled a tahini sauce over meat or vegetables at home, you’ll at least recognize the sesame paste as one of the key ingredients in hummus, baba ghanoush, and other dishes from the Middle East.

WHAT IS TAHINI AND WHAT IS IT MADE FROM?

Tahini is nothing more than ground sesame seeds, but when made well, the roasted flavors and smooth, creamy texture can transform a dish, and the difference between good and bad tahini is stark. Tahini is made from hulled sesame seeds, which means that the outer husk is removed. This contributes to its nuttier taste and smoother texture compared to unhulled sesame seeds.

WHERE TO BUY TAHINI

Though it’s fairly easy to find in most grocery stores (look near the peanut butter), most store-bought tahini is over-roasted and has a bitter quality. After testing dozens of brands, we settled on Soom Premium Tahini as the best tahini to buy. (Find this and other pantry essentials in the Milk Street Store).

Soom’s tahini is nutty, balanced and boasts a fresh sesame flavor. It’s worth stocking up on two jars—one to use in savory applications and one for sweet. What sets Soom’s tahini apart is how it’s made—with hand-harvested white sesame seeds sourced from northwestern Ethiopia and processed in Israel—and its consistency—creamy but pourable, instead of heavy and hard to mix. Soom also makes a chocolate tahini and a dark chocolate sea salt tahini, which are like sophisticated versions of Nutella. (Need we say more?)

HOW TO USE TAHINI

Here are some quick ideas that show off the sesame paste’s versatility, and below you’ll find some of our favorite tahini recipes.

Savory Uses for Tahini

  • Tahini Dressing: Whisk together 2 tablespoons tahini with 3 to 4 tablespoons of either extra-virgin olive oil or thick whole milk yogurt. Add 2 to 3 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar or lemon juice (everyone’s acid tolerance is different) and season to taste with salt, pepper and a pinch of sugar. (If necessary, thin with water.) To this base, feel free to add cumin, coriander, cayenne, za’atar and chopped fresh herbs. It’s good on any crunchy fresh salad green or tossed with chickpeas, chopped tomato and cucumber, torn herbs and crumbled, toasted pita bread for a classic dish called fatteh.
  • Tahini-Yogurt Dipping Sauce: This all-purpose dipping sauce works alongside meats, drizzled over roasted or blanched vegetables (particularly good with beets or carrots) and is perfect as a sandwich spread for cold cuts or crudités dip. Smear some on a serving platter beneath a big Romaine salad simply dressed with a light olive oil vinaigrette and enjoy the contrast of crisp leaf and cool, creamy sauce.

    Mix 1 cup yogurt, 3 tablespoons tahini, 1 tablespoon lime juice, 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, and salt, pepper and cayenne pepper to taste. If you like, stir in chopped fresh herbs such as mint, cilantro, oregano or marjoram, and a little grated garlic (be warned: the garlic will strengthen with age, so skip if you want to keep the sauce around for a few days).
  • Beet-Tahini Dip: In Cairo, Milk Street Editorial Director J.M. Hirsch found a memorable, bright purple dip made with beets, hibiscus tea and tahini. To make a similar version, in a food processor combine an 8.8-ounce package cooked beets, 1 cup tahini, ¼ cup water, 2 tablespoons lemon juice and ½ teaspoon kosher salt. Process until smooth, adding more water 1 tablespoon at a time until the desired consistency is reached. Eat it with pita, flatbread or raw vegetables.
  • Tahini-Slathered Cod: Tahini does a great job of enhancing the flavor and moisture of lean fish such as cod, halibut and hake. Try this: Roast well-seasoned, olive oil-slicked fish fillets in a 450°F oven until just beginning to flake, 10 to 15 minutes. Meanwhile, blend equal parts softened, salted butter with tahini, a handful of chopped herbs—parsley, oregano, cilantro, basil—and salt and pepper to taste. Once the fish is out of the oven, immediately smear the paste on each fillet, tent with foil and allow to sit for a couple minutes. Serve with any remaining tahini butter and lemon wedges. In Turkey, they slather freshly grilled fish with tahini and sandwich it into flatbread with lettuce, tomatoes, pickles and hot sauce.
  • Tahini Pasta: For a quick alternative to heavy Italian-style cream sauces, try a tahini and yogurt sauce fit for any style of noodle. Bring a large pot of well-salted water to a boil. Meanwhile, in a large pasta bowl, combine 2 grated garlic cloves and the zest and juice of 1 lemon; let sit for 10 minutes. Whisk in 1 cup whole-milk yogurt, ⅓ cup tahini, and salt and pepper to taste. After cooking and draining the paste, add ⅓ to ½ cup of pasta water to the yogurt mixture to thin, then add the pasta, a few chopped scallions and, if you like, toasted walnuts and cumin seeds for garnish. No cheese necessary.
  • Roasted Sweet Potatoes: Never underestimate how satisfying a humble roasted sweet potato can be. Split the roasted potato in half lengthwise, add a spoonful of tahini, a spritz of lime juice and chopped scallions and cilantro. Hot sauce too. It’ll make you wonder why you ever added butter.

Sweet Uses for Tahini

  • Tahini-Swirl Brownies: Tahini might be chocolate’s greatest foil. A touch more bitter than peanut butter, it provides a more complex contrast in our Tahini-Swirl Brownies.
  • Tahini-Jam Sandwiches: And once you try tahini and raspberry jam on whole-grain bread, you’ll forget about peanut butter altogether. It’s a great combo; add thin-sliced apples or pear for crunch.
  • Tahini for Breakfast: Tahini also is terrific over your favorite hot cereal or whole-grain toast paired with brown sugar, maple syrup, or raspberry jam or plum preserves.
  • Tahini on Ice Cream: Drizzle over chocolate or ginger ice cream and top with black sesame seeds.
  • Tahini S’mores: Smear tahini onto a Graham cracker before adding the molten marshmallow and chocolate. It’s an addictively “adult” taste.

    PRO TIP

    Don’t forget to stir the tahini very well. Some brands separate and can become quite thick at the bottom of the container. If your tahini is particularly thick, it won’t mix well with hummus. You may need to add a tablespoon or two of water for hummus to reach the right consistency. If you see it has separated, try turning the jar over 15 minutes before using it. That can help to recombine it once you stir.


    HOW TO MAKE TAHINI

    Homemade tahini can be a bit tricky to make as the sesame seeds can burn quickly, making the tahini bitter and charred. However, the process to make tahini is simple—all you need are sesame seeds and a watchful eye. Toast raw sesame seeds in a pan on medium heat until they reach a light golden brown, take them off heat and let them cool. Once the seeds are cooled, transfer them to a food processor and blend until the consistency is thin and smooth, pushing down the sides of the bowl as needed. Once the tahini reaches a runny texture, transfer it to a container and store it in the fridge for up to a month. If it’s grainy, you can push it through a fine-mesh sieve with a rubber spatula. But we usually don’t mind a bit more texture.

    TAHINI SUBSTITUTIONS

    Depending on the flavor profile you’re looking for, you might substitute a nut butter for tahini; peanut butter could work well as a stand-in for tahini in our brownies, for example. But with so many great uses, a jar of tahini is well worth keeping on hand.

    For more on tahini, watch this episode of Milk Street TV:

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