"It's like what ketchup is to America, but white."
That's how chef and blogger Danielle Oron describes tahini dip in her book Modern Israeli Cooking. It's not a new pastry hybrid or the latest rainbow carb—tahini has been around for thousands of years. But something about the Middle Eastern spread, a paste made from ground toasted sesame seeds, is driving award-winning chefs around the country to buy it by the 40-pound bucket.
Shelby Zitelman, one of the three sisters behind Philadelphia's Soom, says they founded the company due to a glaring lack of high-quality tahini in the United States. Now Soom ships the nutty goodness to spots like Philadelphia's Zahav, down to Alon Shaya in New Orleans and dozens of Chopt locations in between. "We saw a big opportunity to showcase it as the next must-have ingredient," she says, both for home cooks and restaurant chefs.
And that ingredient is having a serious moment in both sweet and savory dishes around the country. While most commonly associated with savory hummus and dips, there's way more to tahini. Oron adds tahini-honey sauce to her version of bananas Foster and pairs it with butter for salted tahini chocolate chip cookies. We took note with our brown butter-tahini sandwich cookies, which feature a salty, tahini-boosted chocolate ganache between two butter-tahini wafers (see the recipe).
Smooth, homemade tahini requires a powerful blender and patience to match, so Brooklyn Sesame founder Shahar Shamir advises against making it at home ("unless you're a masochist," he says). Rachel Simons agrees—she's one of the cofounders of New York's Seed + Mill, where they have two custom-designed seed mills. Luckily, there are many online sources for easy ordering, and you're even likely to find the ever-popular ingredient on supermarket shelves. Here's how chefs are playing with sesame in the kitchen and why you should, too.
? Sweeten: Tahini adds earthiness to desserts, most commonly in halva, a crumbly Middle Eastern confection. Seed + Mill uses its milled-on-site product to make 25 flavors of halva, plus treats like tahini-halva brownies and goat's-milk soft-serve. Simons suggest making "the easiest two-ingredient vegan recipe in the world" by mixing a cup of melted dark chocolate with a cup of tahini, refrigerating it until set then cutting it into rich, nutty truffles.
? Spread: Hummus would be lost without its right-hand man. "It's what gives hummus its rich, creamy texture and addictive flavor," Shamir says of tahini, also a major player in smoky eggplant dip. Simons is a fan of the even-simpler-to-make tahini dip: "It can be mixed in the actual serving bowl, and you only need to make as much as you need." Though typical in Middle Eastern cuisine, you'll find it beyond the falafel cart. At Dimes in New York City, the breakfast favorite love toast is a thick tahini-coated slice of bread topped with honey, mint and pyramids of juicy raspberries.
? Swap: "I love to cook, but I don't like to follow recipes. I like using tahini in ways that I was previously using other ingredients," Zitelman says. For her, this means trading mayo for tahini in coleslaw or subbing it for dairy to make creamy mashed sweet potatoes. Shamir agrees: "Just last week, I used tahini and olive oil instead of cream and butter to make vegan mashed yams, and it was an instant new favorite." Simons uses it in place of yogurt for thick, nutritious smoothies; tahini's nutty quality (a nut is just a giant seed) makes it a good almond or peanut butter substitute in smoothies and oatmeal.
? Savor: Earthy tahini and roasted sweet potatoes are having a serious New York minute. Lower East Side gem Wildair dresses the roasted roots with house-made green tahini, stracciatella and a bright mint-parsley herb salad, while nearby at Balaboosta, Einat Admony tops them with sesame-oil boosted tahini, micro cilantro and nigella. Admony's favorite flavor is to blend her classic tahini sauce with roasted red peppers, plus paprika for a vibrant color. Other vegetables are getting the tahini treatment as well, like the cauliflower and Brussels sprouts at Miami's Byblos, and the black garlic tahini-dressed broccoli rabe at Vedge in Philadelphia.
Simons likes to put green herb tahini on cauliflower and broccoli before roasting. "The marinade has a natural sesame oil, which soaks into the vegetables and gives them a tasty, crispy exterior," she says. But there's always the easiest, and arguably best, route: a from-the-jar spoonful of quick, seedy energy.
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