Sesame seed paste is all the rage right now. Here's why. 
Seed + Mill
Credit: © Erez ben Shachar

I know what you’re thinking. You know all about tahini. It’s brown and bitter and usually consists of layer of oil sitting on top of a dry, concrete-like paste. Every now and then you attempt to stir it up to scoop into the hummus you’re bringing to the family gathering at your vegetarian aunt’s house. Other than that, it just sits in the fridge, behind the quart of expired buttermilk and that 32 ounce jar of capers from Costco you bought a couple years ago (you’re almost a quarter of the way through it—nice work!).

For a long time, bitter, separated tahini was all most of us could hope for here in the US, but that’s beginning to change thanks to recent plugs from chefs like Michael Solomonov of Philadelphia’s Zahav restaurant and Yotam Ottolenghi, who runs the Ottolenghi chain of retaurants in London. Both are Israeli born and have publicly praised the versatility of tahini. Solomonov has touted Philadelphia-based Soom Brand which supplies the paste for Zahav, as well as Beauty’s Bagel’s in Oakland, Shaya in New Orleans, and Superiority Burger, Del Posto, and Mission Chinese in New York City. Founded by the Zitelman sisters as a producer of tahini and tahini-based dips and hummus in 2013, Soom decided to drop the dips in October 2015 and focus solely on providing great tahini to both restaurants and consumers alike. New York also has its own artisanal tahini producers like Brooklyn Sesame, which began handmaking tahini and halvah in 2013. This past January also saw the opening of New York’s Seed + Mill, a shop in the Chelsea Market that also focuses exclusively on sesame based products.

Seed + Mill
Credit: © Scott Matthews

Not surprisingly, these high-end tahinis can be a bit pricey: sometimes between double and triple the cost of supermarket brands like Joyva, with its recognizable orange-and-brown can. Without shipping costs, Brooklyn Sesame sells for $1.02 per ounce, Soom for $0.63, and Seed + Mill for about $1.33, compared to Jovya at a mere $0.42 per ounce. So what makes the higher price tag worth it? “Our tahini is made from the finest quality Ethiopian white humera sesame seeds,” says Monica Molenaar, a partner at Seed + Mill, “Most of the tahini you can buy in the US is made from seeds that come from Mexico or India and are not as coveted.” Soom also uses Humera seeds, and in his Guardian column, Ottolenghi suggests they are the best in the world because of “their richness of flavour.” And while sesame seeds will always have a somewhat bitter taste, the excessive bitterness of supermarket tahini can be due to poorly roasted or over-roasted seeds. A more careful, gentler roasting process, like those of small-batch tahini producers, can lessen the harshness and smooth out the flavor.

Besides the quality of the seeds themselves, good tahini is easier to use and more shelf stable. Molenaar continues: “Because [our tahini] is so fresh, it has not separated into a thick solid mass with an inch of oil on top like most other brands of tahini in the US and therefore is easy to stir and use. Real separation will not start for roughly 6-8 months, and if you keep it in the refrigerator, it will delay this even further.” She also adds, “There is no water activity in pure tahini, so it is completely shelf-stable in or out of the fridge, and will last for up to 2 years.”

Israeli Hummus with Paprika and Whole Chickpeas
Michael Solomonov's Israeli Hummus with Paprika and Whole Chickpeas.
| Credit: © Amit Geron

Michael Solomonov's Israeli Hummus with Paprika and Whole Chickpeas.

With the increasing availability of first-rate tahini, there’s never been a better time to start using it. Of course you can use it in a classic hummus, like Michael Solomonov’s Israeli Hummus with Paprika and Whole Chickpeas, but it can do so much more. “There are few limits as to what you can do with tahini,” Ottolenghi said in his column in The Guardian earlier this year. “Tahini sauce – a mix of tahini paste, water, crushed garlic, lemon juice and salt – is one of my go-to fridge staples, there ready to add a bit of heft to all sorts of meals.”

Halvah-Stuffed Challah
Credit: © Molly Yeh

Don’t forget about the sweet possibilities. Molly Yeh’s Halvah Stuffed Challah from our February ’16 issue is a traditional challah loaf, braided around a mix of halvah and tahini. Or, for an easy vegan treat, try Monica Molenaar’s Tahini truffles: mix together 1 cup of high-quality tahini (like Seed + Mill), 1 cup of melted, good quality 70% dark chocolate, and freeze the mixture in a parchment-paper lined baking dish. Once the mixture is set, cut it into cubes and dust with cocoa.

Oh, and tahini is also pretty nutritious; sesame seeds are a good source of copper, manganese, calcium, magnesium, iron, phosphorus, vitamin B1, zinc, dietary fiber, protein and lignans. So whether you like it sweet or savory, tahini is a vegan, kosher, nut free, gluten free way to amp up food.