Growing up downstate in Michigan, where so many people have Middle Eastern roots, a girl can eat a lot of good hummus. The best of those for me has always been in suburban Detroit’s authentic Lebanese restaurants, where I first came to know a style of classic “hummus bi tahini” that is thick and rich, ultra-smooth and luscious while still remarkably light.
The hummus most of us know and love, whether homemade or store-bought, is typically grainy, lackluster and disappointing by comparison. Of course, there is a lot to love about hummus of any sort, grainy or no, and we’re eating plenty of it. Hummus is poised to reach Greek yogurt-esque popularity, crowding refrigerated grocery store shelves with its own explosively vast array of flavors and brands.
Trend-tracking group Baum + Whiteman predicted that 2015 would be the year when hummus would become America’s “it” food, going from a niche product “eaten primarily by Arab and Israeli immigrants” to an inescapable trend toward ubiquity. Hummus can now be found in 20 percent of American households, compared with 12 percent eight years ago.
One brand, Tribe, has even said its goal is to make hummus “the new salsa.” A tall order? Maybe not: Hummus seems to appeal to all ages, with a reputation as a healthful snack or even light meal high in protein, fiber and good carbs.
Clearly I’m far from alone in reaching for hummus more often than not: When I order a bagel at our local Big Apple bagel shop, I’m asked for my choice, “Cream cheese or hummus?” (You know my answer.) Subway is on its way to a hummus sandwich, the Baum +Whiteman report says. Of course, we Middle Easterners have always eaten hummus this way, not just as a dip but rolled up in pita or topped with meat or sauteed vegetables.
Until I started cooking and writing about Lebanese cuisine, I thought that hummus of the highest order, the way I’d eaten it in those select Michigan Lebanese restaurants, was unattainable at home, the result of some kind of restaurant-grade food processor that would never cross my kitchen threshold. My Lebanese American mother did not count conquering smooth hummus among her priorities while raising five children, so learning it the same way I had so many other Lebanese dishes — at her apron strings — wasn’t possible.
What I’ve discovered in my quest to perfect the purest form of hummus should have been obvious: It’s not the equipment; it’s what you put in it that matters. There are so few ingredients in classic hummus that each one has to be at the top of its game if the result is to be what hummus dreams are made of: an ultra-smooth, thick, rich puree that spreads like a luscious buttercream, in glorious peaks and valleys.
Those few but important ingredients include:
The chickpeas. Hummus means chickpeas in Arabic, so while the black bean or cannellini “hummus” we’re eating might taste just fine, if there isn’t a chickpea in there, it really isn’t hummus. The most important thing to note about chickpeas is that they have translucent skins. Those skins are the cause of grainy hummus, and they dampen flavor. They have to go.
Many methods are employed for that task, most of them labors of hummus-love involving time and patience. At La Shish Lebanese restaurant in Dearborn, Mich., the peeled chickpeas take three days to prepare: a day to soak (with baking soda, a critical ingredient in loosening the skins), a day to cook long and slow (adding cold water as needed) and a day to chill. Some other cooks who hate grainy hummus don’t go to quite the same lengths. Chef Michael Solomonov of Zahav in Philadelphia also uses baking soda to soften the chickpeas overnight; it loosens the skins somewhat for his hummus, but he doesn’t focus on removing them altogether, especially given the quantity of hummus he’s serving. And in their book “Jerusalem,” Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi of London’s Ottolenghi rapidly boil chickpeas with baking soda, skim off any skins that float, and leave it at that.
I don’t go to all the trouble La Shish does, but I do try to get every last skin off, and the effort to peel via any method is still time- and labor-intensive, in a fava bean sort of way. At a certain point, I had to wonder about the availability of a pre-peeled chickpea. There is the Indian pulse chana dal, but when I tried it, I found it has a sweetness that doesn’t impart quite the right hummus flavor. Then a few years ago, I saw a random post from a food-writer friend on Facebook: She had used pre-peeled chickpeas to make “the best hummus of her life.” I feverishly went after finding those little beans and discovered that the game-changing, perfect skinless chickpeas do exist, imported from the Mediterranean (but not widely available). They are dried but par-cooked, so they require no long soak. After a couple of hours on the stove, they yield a remarkably smooth, delectable hummus. Very little pain, unbelievable gain.
The tahini. Not all are created equally. Too often this sesame paste is sludgy, unpleasantly bitter and so separated that it’s difficult to stir the paste and its oil together. But tahini is a key flavor maker in excellent hummus. Solomonov, whose “hummusiya” (hummus restaurant) Dizengoff in Philadelphia has a cult following (and rightly so), makes some of the most delectable, smooth-and-thick hummus you can eat. His secret? Use lavish amounts of tahini to get there.
“I love hummus that’s rich, and that’s the role of the tahini,” he says. He notes that hummus from different regions might include far less tahini, or none at all. The Israeli-style hummus he makes is similar to Ottolenghi’s, which is like the hummus typical of southern Lebanon, where my own family is from: They all give tahini a starring role. (In fact, Solomonov’s version uses tahini and lemon juice as the only liquids in the hummus.) My recipe includes a healthy hit of tahini but not quite as much as those others, mainly to keep the bitterness factor at bay and to allow the chickpeas to have their moment in the sun, too.
The flavor of the tahini should be nutty and lightly, pleasantly bitter. I’m partial to imported Lebanese tahini (look for Al Wadi, Alkanater and Lebanon Valley); they go easy on the bitterness and are emulsified from the get-go. Joyva out of Brooklyn (in a can rather than a jar) and Soom from Philadelphia are terrific, too.
Tahini is made from roasted or raw sesame seeds; when made from the former, it is darker and has a deep flavor. I generally favor anything toasted or roasted, but here both are delicious. Buy tahini as fresh as possible, then store it in a cool spot at room temperature (even after opening). It will keep for at least a year, but be sure to give it a good shake every now and then to prevent the paste from solidifying. It doesn’t get that treatment at the grocery store, which is why older tahini there becomes so unworkable.
The garlic. Look for firm heads, and take a minute to slice the cloves in half lengthwise before tossing them into the mix. If there is a green sprout inside, remove it. The sprout is a signal that the garlic has some age on it: The clove is still fine to eat, but the sprout imparts unappealing, unacceptable raw-garlic heat.
The lemon juice. It’s so simple: There is no substitute for fresh to give hummus bright, citrusy flavor. Get a good lemon juicer or reamer and have at it, straining out the seeds. I have tried the alternative, lemon juice from a bottle, just to see (once, I confess, on a grand scale, on large-batch hummus for a big party); it may have been easier, but the results were sulfite-laden and downright dull. Never, ever again.
The chickpea cooking liquid. There has been some buzz lately about the virtues of this liquid (or even the liquid in canned chickpeas). It’s something akin to a well-made stock, which translates to liquid gold for terrific body and flavor in hummus. Water is a fine substitute; just be sure either one is nice and cold, and used sparingly, or your hummus will be too thin.
The olive oil. Hummus gives finishing oil its purpose in life. This is the moment to pull out your bottle of very fine extra-virgin olive oil, drizzling it generously on top of the hummus rather than incorporating it in the mix, where it will just weigh things down.
Making exceptional hummus at home is one of those pleasures with a high payoff that is so worth fitting into your regular cooking program. Just like making your own yogurt, it’s satisfying and economical. And, as Solomonov says, “you can dispense with all of the citric acid and preservatives that are in the store-bought hummus.”
My Aunt Hilda Abood Kelush was famous for noting, with culinary and cultural pride, how anyone eating one or another of her delectable Lebanese dishes “just raved about it, honey!” So I feel I come by it honestly when I say that virtually everyone who has eaten hummus this way, with each of its few ingredients just so, has spontaneously said, “This is the best hummus I’ve ever eaten!”
They rave about it, honey — and they know there’s no going back.
Abood is the author of “Rose Water & Orange Blossoms: Fresh and Classic Recipes from My Lebanese Kitchen” and blogs about cooking at www.maureenabood.com, where she also sells a hummus kit and peeled chickpeas. She will join the Free Range chat at noon Wednesday at live.washingtonpost.com.