The ultimate guide to tahini

Ingredient focus: tahini

by Pete Dreyer 21 January 2020

As a result of our national hummus addiction, tahini is fast becoming an essential pantry staple in the UK – but what else can we do with it? Join us for a deep dive on tahini’s myriad uses as well as how to identify the good stuff.

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Pete is a food writer at Great British Chefs.

Pete is a food writer at Great British Chefs.

Tahini is a prime example of an ‘exotic’ ingredient that we have quickly warmed to in the UK. No one in their right mind would make hummus without tahini these days, and we’re very quick to reach for the jar if we’re whipping up a dressing or a dip. It even finds a way into smoothies and desserts!

For the uninitiated, tahini is a paste made from ground roasted sesame seeds. It’s made in a very similar way to nut butters – as the seeds are ground and blended together they release their natural fats and oils, emulsifying them into a smooth, creamy paste.

Sesame paste in general has been an important part of Middle Eastern and Asian cuisines for many centuries (there are references to sesame paste as early as the thirteenth century in Persia where it was called ardeh). For a long time, tahini was only accessible to wealthy members of society – it played a significant role in medicine as well as food and as such it had some commercial value, sometimes being used as a form of currency.

In Israel, Lebanon and much of the Mediterranean West Bank today, tahini is widely available to the masses and is a central pillar of Middle Eastern food. As Yotam Ottolenghi explains in Jerusalem, ‘[tahini is] the one ingredient that appears on every table, no matter how fancy or of what religion or ethnicity.’ Tahini goes into everything from sweet and savoury doughs to pancake batters, dips, sauces and more; it covers roasted meats and vegetables and soothes inside fiery shawarma wraps. Often you’ll find tahini on the table as a common condiment to spoon over your food as you wish.

Finding quality tahini

Western cuisine doesn’t use tahini so ubiquitously, but that is perhaps down to the quality of tahini that is easily available here. The gap between good tahini and bad tahini is enormous – much wider than most condiments – and the tahini most commonly available in supermarkets is on the lower end of the spectrum. The stiff, chalky paste you find in cheaper jars is a pale imitation of the real thing. Generally speaking, cheaper tahini is made with unhulled seeds, sourced from all over the world – this results in less flavour and a grittier, chalkier texture that also tends to solidify over time. This is the first good sign that you’re buying something of lower quality that hasn’t been produced properly and it’ll likely be bitter without the sweet, nutty nuance of proper tahini.

When it comes to tahini, you very much get what you pay for. Sesame seeds are comparable to coffee beans in many ways – the terroir they’re grown in, how well they’re roasted and the grinding process all have a significant impact on the final tahini. Different seeds yield a different final result (some are oilier than others) and whilst people have their own preferences – Ottolenghi swears by Lebanese tahini, for example – sesame seeds grown in the Mediterranean West Bank are generally considered to be the best. The more roasted the seeds, the smokier and richer the tahini will be, so if you see a darker tahini, that’s probably what you’re looking at. Colour doesn’t necessarily signify quality!

Finding a jar of quality tahini is as much about trial and error as it is looking for the signs – packaging rarely says much about the provenance of the sesame seeds and it’s very difficult to tell a good tahini without tasting it. 'The main thing is to shop around and find a tahini that works for you,' says Selin Kiazim, head chef and owner of Oklava in London. 'I don't like ones that are too thick, they tend to be claggy and unworkable. I prefer smoother slighter runnier ones.'

Shopping in a Middle Eastern food shop is a good start, and you can check the ingredients to get some further idea of quality. Selin advises checking the ingredients to make sure what you're buying is 100% sesame seeds (with no added oil). Tahini with excessive oil separation is also generally best avoided – 'this is a sign that it's probably old!' she explains.

Using tahini

If there’s one thing you’ll learn from a trip to the western Mediterranean, it’s that tahini is far more versatile than we give it credit for. We think of tahini as a Middle Eastern ingredient, but it marries well with dominant Asian flavours like soy and miso and is equally tasty alongside traditional European flavours – it makes a great pasta sauce alongside garlic, lemon and chilli.

A really good tahini makes all the difference in hummus or baba ganoush, but it’s so delicious in its own right that you can eat it spread on toast, or let it down with a little bit of water to make a simple dressing. You can rescue more bitter tahini with salt and lemon to bring out the flavours, as in this roasted broccoli with hazelnut, tomato sauce and tahini recipe – one of our favourite weeknight meals.

Once you have your tahini dressing you can take it in multiple directions – Yotam Ottolenghi adds parsley to create a lovely green dressing to go alongside his Iranian fritters; Kate Moran combines tahini with white miso, rice vinegar and sesame oil for a dipping sauce to go with breadcrumbed avocado fries and Chantelle Nicholson blends tahini with firm tofu, tamari and ginger to make a luscious dressing for her braised mushroom dish.

Tahini is great alongside something with a bit of spice – this recipe for harissa hasselback courgettes contrasts the creamy, soothing quality of tahini with fiery harissa to great effect. In fact, tahini makes a great alternative to cream if you’re trying to bring a creamy element into a dish without using dairy. There are times when dairy-free milks can be a little too thin, but you don’t want the overpowering flavour of coconut milk or nut butters – tahini has just the right consistency and nuance to negotiate these situations, which is why it’s so popular with chefs like Chantelle who are leading the way when it comes to vegan food in the UK.

Also worth mentioning is black tahini, which is becoming increasingly common in shops. Black tahini has an earthier flavour than regular tahini – the seeds are left unhulled (hence the colour) and are well-roasted before being ground into a paste. Black tahini has become a favourite as it gives you great flavour and a striking colour – it’s a favourite with Anna Hansen, who uses it in her roast baharat and lemon marinated lamb and sweet soy, ginger and lemongrass salmon skewers.

You can also use tahini to add body and richness to sauces and soups, where it makes a great vegan replacement for cream. It’s easy to use in baking too – you can use it as you would use any other nut butter in cakes, brownies and cookies. It’s also easily incorporated into dairy-laden desserts like ice creams and panna cottas. 'We often drizzle mulberry molasses into tahini and serve as part of our brunch spread,' says Selin. 'Or you can mix it in with mascarpone and a little icing sugar for layered desserts, French toast and that sort of thing.'