The Tangy-Savory Seasoning of the Middle East

Named for the wild thyme that is a key ingredient in it, za’atar is a Middle Eastern seasoning blend that is a one-­stroke solution for adding herbal, bright and savory notes to everything from flatbreads to roasted meats and vegetables (such as our Butter-Roasted Carrots with Za’atar and Pomegranate Molasses). Variations abound, but most include dried herbs, toasted sesame seeds and sumac, the latter responsible for za’atar’s signature pops of sour flavor.

Since blends vary widely, we tasted several, including supermarket options and premium brands. No two were alike. Some were cumin-heavy, others more sumac-forward, and some were spiked with citric acid. None emerged as a clear winner, though our favorites were pleasantly fragrant and offered a nice balance of flavors and textures.

Ultimately, we found that selecting a za’atar largely comes down to taste preference. Our takeaways: The more intact the ingredients, the better the flavor. One of our favorites, a premium za’atar from Jordanian company Kamā (which sells for about $19 per 4.2-ounce jar) featured clearly visible dried herbs. Two widely available brands, Watkins (about $7 per 2.6-ounce jar) and Ziyad (about $5 per 1-pound bag), also performed well, both offering a burst of tangy flavor. By contrast, za’atars with herbs that had been ground to powder—such as Morton & Bassett—tasted unpleasantly musty. This often is the case with powdered herbs, as volatile essential oils dissipate more quickly when the herbs are broken down. In general, it’s best to buy whole spices and grind them yourself when possible.

For that reason, we often make our own za’atar. To prepare ½ cup za’atar, stir together 2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons dried thyme, 2 tablespoons ground sumac, 1½ tablespoons toasted sesame seeds, 1½ tablespoons dried oregano and 1 teaspoon ground cumin. Stored in an airtight container, the za’atar will keep for a few months. We like to use it as is, but if you prefer a finer consistency, grind only what you need in a spice grinder or with a mortar and pestle.