Chickpeas are in my hair, lemon rinds are on the floor, and tahini paste is flung on the ceiling. I spoon my creation into a rinsed-out to-go container and drizzle some olive oil on top.

“Look! Hummus!” I say to my roommates as I pass tortilla chips. Okay, so the hummus is a little lumpy, no doubt because I made it in a plastic zip-top bag. I’m still beaming with pride. My newfound ability to turn canned chickpeas into my favorite food will serve me well for years to come, cutting my grocery bills in half given my hummus-centric diet.

When I was living in my first apartment, buying packaged hummus was a luxury I couldn’t really afford. A food processor was laughably out of my budget.

This was back in the day, when you needed to visit a gourmet shop to find prepared hummus; it would be a few years before hummus commanded its own supermarket aisle. But even now, it’s dramatically cheaper to make your own, and the result is so much tastier. I still advise the food processor-less among us to smash the chickpeas to a paste inside a plastic bag, then squeeze it into a bowl and stir in the other ingredients. (Just make sure that bag is really sealed before you start.)

[Make the recipe: No Food Processor Hummus

You probably think of hummus as a go-to snack, lunch or appetizer. Pro tip: It also makes a satisfying dinner. I make at least a full quart of hummus every week, and it vanishes, mainly because I serve it as part of an entree. I’ve come to think of it as another starchy, flexible base for flavorful toppings, much like mashed potatoes or polenta. Trust me on this.

A quart of hummus sounds like a lot, but when you make it yourself, you eat more of it because it tastes better than store-bought. A lack of preservatives is one reason from-scratch hummus is so different. Typical ingredients in the packaged stuff, such as citric acid and potassium sorbate, give hummus a long storage life but contribute artificial sour notes that don’t even suggest the fresh lemon flavor that’s supposed to be there. And no brand of hummus I’ve ever tasted has enough tahini, an ingredient equal in importance to the chickpeas, to make for a truly luxurious spread. The best hummus has a higher-than-you-think tahini-to-chickpea ratio.

[Make the recipe: Speedy Homemade Hummus

Here are my guidelines for making the best hummus and getting the most out of it:

Start with canned chickpeas. As with most home cooking, the quality of your finished product starts with the quality of the ingredients. You might think that means I’m going to tell you to cook your own chickpeas from dried, but that isn’t worth the effort. Depending on their age, dried chickpeas can be hard to cook evenly. They can overcook, absorbing too much water and yielding an overly loose hummus. And if some chickpeas in your batch don’t cook enough, you might be left with a gritty final product.

In this case, the easy way is also the better way: Buy canned chickpeas. But not all canned chickpeas are equal. For perfectly seasoned and tender chickpeas that make the best hummus, go with Goya-brand. They’re cheap and ubiquitous, and they really do taste the best. Whatever brand you buy, skip the salt-free versions. They are also taste-free and will yield a bland, spiritually inert hummus nobody wants to eat.

Choose good tahini. It can range from delicious to wholly unpalatable. I prefer either Soom or Whole Foods’ 365 brand, but any tahini that smells fresh and tastes rich and clean with just the slightest edge of pleasant bitterness will do the trick. Rule of thumb: Don’t put tahini you wouldn’t enjoy spooning directly into your mouth into your hummus.

Think about toppings. Once you have your own homemade hummus waiting for you, you can turn your attention to topping it with hearty, simply prepared ingredients that make it dinner-worthy. It doesn’t have to be complicated. One of the best and easiest ways is to top your hummus generously with whole canned chickpeas, a swirl of olive oil, and a sprinkle of paprika or za’atar. A simple chopped salad of tomatoes, cucumbers, red onion and parsley is another appealing option, especially in summer when those things are all over the farmers market or even in your garden. Leftover smoked or braised meats work well as toppings, too.

[Make the recipe: Beet Hummus

In the absence of hummus-friendly leftovers, it’s worth the time to spend a few minutes cooking up a topping. I like to combine something cooked, dense and earthy, such as meat or mushrooms, with something lighter, maybe a juicy vegetable such as tomatoes or cucumbers. And, of course, spices, herbs and a bright pop of acidity from pickles, hot sauce or vinegar. A final flourish that adds crunch — nuts, seeds or a raw veggie such as radish — can take it over the top.

Don’t be afraid to break the mold. I know hummus purists will be scandalized, but I sometimes stray from the classic chickpea version. Vibrant pink beet hummus is a scene-stealer in a party situation. As summer moves into fall, I like to sub roasted sweet potatoes, butternut squash or pureed pumpkin for the beets. I know, I know: The word “hummus” means chickpeas. But guess what? The hummus police have not come to handcuff me yet.

Consider the dippers. Before you run to your kitchen to whip up your own homemade hummus in 10 minutes flat, ask yourself: What will you eat it with? A well-topped hummus is a dish I sometimes eat with a spoon, but usually I’m scooping it up with wedges of whole-wheat pita or other flatbread. Spreading it thick, with or without toppings, on a toasted or grilled slice of bread makes for a filling and Instagrammable open-face sandwich. In my most health-conscious moments, I use sturdy triangles of green or purple cabbage as dippers. I can only say that this tastes a lot better than it sounds. Give it a try.

Use every bit. And finally, when you have just a few spoonfuls of hummus left at the bottom of your container, I encourage you to whisk the remnants into a homemade or bottled vinaigrette to toss with salad. Just a little hummus thickens the dressing, making it lush without dairy, and proves that a big batch of homemade hummus is good to the last drop.

More hummus recipes:

Hummus With Seared Shiitakes, Tomato and Basil

Hummus With Spiced Lamb, Scallions and Dill

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