Tahini, also known as tahina or tehina, is a staple of Middle Eastern cuisine. The sesame seed paste has “a strong, earthy taste with bitter undertones, but it should be a very pleasant bitterness with a hint of sweetness when it first hits the palate,” Reem Kassis writes in “The Arabesque Table.” It is one of the key ingredients in hummus, responsible for the dip’s slight nuttiness, but it can be used in so much more — savory and sweet dishes, snacks and beverages, and meals at any time of the day or year. Some cooks even consider it to be a mother sauce (a basic sauce integral to a cuisine).
However, the versatile ingredient is novel to me, and it’s one that I am eager to incorporate into my own cooking. Here’s what you — and I — need to know about tahini.
Simply put, tahini is pure ground sesame seeds. While black seeds can be used to make tahini (there is also a version made from nigella seeds), white seeds are most common. “The best sesame seeds in the world come from a very fertile region of Ethiopia called Humera,” says cookbook author Adeena Sussman, whose next book, about the foods of Shabbat, publishes fall 2023. While the seeds can be left whole, most of the tahini available in the United States is made from hulled seeds unless specified as whole-grain, which is darker, less smooth and more bitter.
The hulled seeds can be left raw or roasted to varying degrees to deepen their flavor. (Some makers roast seeds for 12 hours, Sussman tells me, resulting in a rust-colored product known as red tahini that is really only found in East Jerusalem.) Next, the seeds are ground into a paste. “If you go to a traditional tahini production facility, you’re going to see two giant stones grinding against one another and this magic elixir dripping out the sides,” Sussman says.
Though some recipes for making tahini at home include a neutral oil in the ingredient list, what you buy from the store should only have one ingredient: sesame seeds. The seeds themselves are about 50 percent oil by weight, eliminating the need for any additional oil to achieve the proper consistency. “It should have a pourable texture, kind of like a pancake batter,” Sussman says.
Over time, that oil will separate from the solids and rise to the top, like natural peanut butter. When shopping for tahini, “You want to shake that jar in the store. And if you hear a heavy slapping, that’s a good sign because it means that the tehina inside is incorporated and emulsified,” Sussman says. “And if you feel splashing, it probably means that it’s separated because it’s older … and then you’d have to reincorporate it at home, which can be a little challenging.”
Sussman recommends bottled tahini from Soom, Seed + Mill, Al Arz and Har Bracha. The latter two are also what chef Einat Admony uses both at home and in her restaurants. “When I came [to the United States] in ’99, I used to bring my own with me,” Admony says. “It’s interesting now to find so many beautiful tahinis. There are a lot of great ones.”
Once you get your jar of tahini home, you want to open it up and give it a stir to make sure it’s incorporated. (If the oil has fully separated, such as in the photo above, Food editor Joe Yonan uses an immersion blender to reincorporate it, after which he says it stays emulsified.) Store it upside-down — which Admony does even with the 40-pound buckets she gets delivered to her restaurants — in a cool, dark place to keep it from getting super thick at the bottom.
While some people recommend storing it in the refrigerator, Admony and Sussman both advise against it. “I never put my tahini in the fridge unless I make a sauce,” Admony says. The cold will cause the tahini to thicken and then you’d need to let it come to room temperature to return it to its proper consistency, or put it in hot water to warm it up, which could run the risk of adding water to the tahini and reducing its shelf life. “Tehina is kind of like honey a little bit in that it’ll last forever, as long as no foreign agents are introduced to it,” Sussman says.
For anyone inclined to put it in the refrigerator over worry that it’s going to go bad because they only use it once a year, Admony simply encourages them to use it more. “You can put it on anything and it would be delicious and super healthy,” she says, including roasted vegetables or meats or with your morning bowl of yogurt or oatmeal. “You don’t even have to make a sauce out of it if it’s a good tahini,” Admony says.
But that classic sauce — made of tahini, water, lemon juice, garlic and salt — is popular for a reason. “It’s just this wonderful, really fluffy, silky condiment that you want to eat with a spoon,” Sussman says.
Beyond that, it can be used in any way any other nut or seed butters are used, which is to say in almost anything. Blend it into smoothies, whisk it into dressings and vinaigrettes, swirl it into soups, bake it into cakes; the list goes on. As Sussman puts it: “It’s very versatile. It can play well in a lot of different culinary sandboxes.”