Tahini, called "tahina" in some countries, appears prolifically in the cuisines of the Mediterranean and Middle East; the earliest known mention of it dates back to 3500 BC. A paste made from ground sesame seeds, it's often blended into classic dips, such as hummus and baba ghanoush. Tahini-based sauces appear widely in Armenian, Turkish, Iraqi, Cypriot, Greek, East Asian, and Indian fare, and creative cooks worldwide recognize the versatility of this simple but flavorful and nutritious ingredient.
What Is Tahini?
Grinding sesame seeds turns them into a thick, oily paste similar in texture to natural peanut butter. Essentially sesame seed butter, tahini adds a nutty flavor and creamy texture to recipes ranging from savory to sweet.
How to Use Tahini
You can eat good tahini right from the jar, but it might be best enjoyed in the classic manner as a main ingredient in hummus, or more adventurously, drizzled over fruit, swirled into cheesecake, or as a marinade for chicken or lamb.
In Israel, residents and tourists ladle an herbaceous tahini sauce over pitas packed with falafel; it's also a favorite topping for vegetables and sometimes even fries. You can stir it into soup to add non-dairy creaminess, use it to thicken a smoothie, or simply spread it on toast. Or make a versatile tahini sauce by combining it with lemon juice, olive oil, and seasonings to create a spread for sandwiches, a marinade for meats, or a simple dip for vegetables.
What Does It Taste Like?
Tahini resembles natural peanut butter in appearance, but it's not inherently sweet like nut butters. It has the earthy, nutty flavor of sesame seeds but with a tinge of bitterness (although if it tastes unpleasant or astringent, it's past its prime). Tahini made from roasted sesame seeds generally tastes milder than tahini made from raw or unhulled seeds.
With so many creative uses for tahini, this versatile paste could become your go-to secret ingredient in everything from cocktails to dessert.
Where to Buy Tahini
In the U.S., look for tahini in Middle Eastern, Greek, and Indian grocery stores. It's also readily available online and you can find it either in the international foods section or with the oils at many standard grocery stores and even some big-box stores.
Tahini fans disagree on the best storage location; some claim it does just fine in the pantry while others recommend refrigeration. If you go through it quickly, within a few months, it should be fine kept at room temperature, but beware that the high oil content makes it susceptible to becoming rancid. A sharp or metallic aroma and unpleasant flavor should alert you if it happens. Like with natural peanut butter, the oil separates in a jar of tahini, and it can become difficult to recombine after it sits in the refrigerator, although the cold extends the shelf life to about six months. You may need to warm it in the microwave or a bowl of warm water before you can stir it.
Nutrition and Benefits
The nutrition in a particular brand of tahini may vary depending on the type of sesame seeds and whether or not they retain the hull. A 1-tablespoon serving of standard tahini made from hulled and toasted white sesame seeds contains about 90 calories and 8 grams of fat, although primarily the healthy monounsaturated ones credited with decreasing inflammation and the polyunsaturated ones that support brain function and decrease the risk of heart disease. Tahini is also a good source of the minerals manganese and copper, and a decent non-dairy source of calcium and vegan source of iron. Tahini made from whole sesame seeds, including the hull, has a bit more fiber.
Most common brands of tahini use hulled white sesame seeds, either raw or toasted. Choose this lighter variety for dishes that highlight just a few quality ingredients, such as with salad or to stir into a sauce for drizzling. Darker varieties come from either black sesame seeds or toasted white sesame seeds with the hull intact. They tend to taste a little more bitter and aren't as smooth, but the more robust flavor works well in sweet baked goods.