Some chefs travel with a favorite knife. Lior Lev Sercarz brings tahini everywhere he goes.
Chef Lior Lev Sercarz is so serious about tahini that he carries it with him to cooking events. “Some chefs have a favorite knife. I could use a serrated knife and peeler — I'm not picky about that,” he says. “Tahini, to me, is what's important.”
Lev Sercarz praises tahini’s nutty flavor and aroma, its richness, and its luscious fat content. He loves how it quickly emulsifies into other products and helps extend their shelf-life. He quickly references how it can – without any addition – be used on produce, fruit, and meat. “I'm an advocate for considering -- Can I use tahini? -- every time you’re cooking something. That should be the first question,” he says of his favorite ingredient’s true versatility.
As the Israeli-born owner of New York’s biscuit and spice shop La Boîte, Lev Sercarz brings some of the best spices from around the world into collaborations with food professionals like chef Eric Ripert and mixologist Jim Meehan. Which might make one assume that Lev Sercarz himself hand-grinds tahini from specially-sourced sesame seeds.
“Not to offend anybody around the planet, but I have yet to find a great homemade tahini,” he states. Unfortunately, most of what we find on grocery store shelves and delivery services isn’t the best, either. So Lev Sercarz first breaks down how to spot his ideal jack-of-all-trades ingredient, and then, why you should never have it on hand for too long.
How to Buy It
“Tahini is one thing: ground sesame seeds,” he starts.
Even better, it’s sesame seeds ground by stone, not metal. This keeps the separated oil at a lower temperature, reducing potential bitterness and its proclivity for spoiling. Lev Sercarz praises Ethiopian sesame seeds for their particularly rich oil, but stresses quality production is critical; the more attention to freshness and grinding, the better the product.
Every time Lev Sercarz samples a new brand, the first test is if he can eat the tahini as is, “meaning that it is not too bitter, not too coarse, or chalky,” he says. Some bitterness is to be expected and even desired. But too much bitterness hints at seeds ground at a high temperature or oil mixed into the batch already starting to turn.
Then, the color: visible flecks of seed show a tahini that’s not been ground well, but a pure-white tahini means the seeds have been hulled. “Then it loses a lot of the nice characteristics from the outer layers,” he explains. Overall, look for an off-white, gray hue, and you’re good to go.
More than anything – and like any nut or seed butter – when smelling and tasting tahini, Lev Sercarz stresses that “it needs to taste like the original product… If you cannot recognize sesame, it doesn't deliver on the promise.”
His favorite brand, El Karawan, is made by a fourth-generation family company the West Bank using imported Ethiopian sesame seeds. Philadelphia-based Soom Foods—a favorite of other chefs like Michael Solomonov and Danny Bowien—and New York’s Seed + Mill are his stateside suggestions. (Both women-run companies, Lev Sercarz notes the future is female in the tahini market.)
Once you’ve got a good one, it won’t last long.
How to Use It
Your go-to sweet or savory sauce
“The sad and good news is that it's gonna go good on everything,” Lev Sercarz jokes.
While not a replacement for sugar, he finds that a small amount of tahini provides a satisfying mouthfeel and hits similar pleasure receptors. Swapping some in means you can use less sugar, honey, or molasses in a parfait or pancake dish, and feel lighter and still satisfied after eating. Swirl it over fruit, and you’ve got breakfast (or dessert) balancing sweetness with richness. Swap out the high-fat product in a morning fresh-fruit smoothie by drizzling a little tahini into your preferred base, and “you're going to get a beautiful, creamy beverage that is just outstanding.”
Come lunch or dinner, a classic sauce of tahini, lemon juice, and salt and pepper suits anything needing a quick dose of flavor. Mix it with “whatever seasoning you fancy, toss with whatever leaves or vegetable, and you have a dressing,” he says. Hearty kale or delicate Bibb – anything goes.
Cold dressings and dips
“Tahini is a fantastic emulsifier.” Because of the rich oil and body from the seeds, adding a touch of tahini to any dressing you plan to toss in the fridge helps it stabilize and not separate or curdle, as a mere oil-based vinaigrette might. You don’t have to worry about proper emulsifying technique here, either. “With tahini, it’s a no-brainer,” he promises. “You can stir everything with a fork, and it’s going to make a smooth consistency that’s never going to split.”
When making a dressing you’ll intentionally serve cold, keep in mind tahini's consistency thickens in the fridge. “There’s nothing to be afraid of, you just have to keep adding more liquid until you reach the consistency you want,” he coaches. If you're looking to pour the dressing, add extra liquid before refrigerating. For something dip-worthy, add less. (Use cold or room temperature liquid, as warm will make it curl. If that happens, add cold liquid spoon by spoon until it comes back together again.)
When it comes to warmed sauces for grilled vegetables or meat dishes, think of tahini as you might yogurt: it breaks under high heat. Instead of adding thickeners, let it work its magic in simple sauces pulled together right before serving. After roasting chicken or grilling steak, whisk some tahini into slightly warm pan juices. “You’ll have a beautiful tahini dressing that’s not going to split, and makes a great sauce,” he says.
Look to tahini to lighten up cakes, tarts, or fruit dishes where you’d typically fold in pastry or whipped cream. First, stir sweetened Greek yogurt or labneh with honey or molasses if desired. Then, whisk in tahini until it thickens to what you need to plop or spread. “It recreates this sort of beautiful, quick, fake pastry cream,” he says of his dessert go-to.
(Pro tip: If going the traditional route and whipping cream for later use, adding a tablespoon of tahini in the mix will help keep this peaks stiff longer, too.)
The Finishing touch
A spoonful here and there recipes adds richness and unexpected flavor to cake recipes. It adds moistness to meatballs. When looking to add body to a vegan pasta dish, “you’d be surprised if you just fold a spoonful of tahini sauce into the pan, how you’ll get that beautiful, rich, luscious pasta without the egg factor.”
As Lev Sercarz concludes, “I wouldn’t be exaggerating to say that one should always have a jar of tahini, because it really is so versatile.”