You might have tried tahini in your local Middle Eastern restaurant. You might even have a jar in your fridge from that time you made hummus. But lately, chefs, bakers and even bartenders have been taking tahini mainstream.
Tahini, long a staple for salad dressing and sauces, is fast showing up in smoothies and cocktails. It’s becoming a popular substitute for peanut butter among people with nut allergies. And it’s appearing in baked goods without ties to the Mediterranean.
Tahini, a paste made from sesame seeds, is used in cookies and croissants at Zingerman’s Bakehouse, in Ann Arbor, Mich., where it takes a place among Jewish rye bread, sourdough rounds and French baguettes.
Amy Emberling, one of the Bakehouse’s partners, sees three reasons that tahini is becoming more popular.
First, Americans have had regular exposure to Middle Eastern foods in which tahini is used, such as in hummus and on falafel, so the flavor has become familiar.
Second, it’s made from a seed, not nuts, meaning it’s an alternative for worried diners. “With the rise of peanut allergies, it’s just perfect timing to catch on,” Emberling says.
Third is word of mouth within the food community. “Just like in other fields, when one of us gets going with something new, the rest of us pay attention and start playing also, if it seems interesting,” she says.
“Tahini may have started with the chefs and bakers making Middle Eastern food, then others of us see it and begin to translate it into our kitchens,” Emberling says.
Tahini’s popularity has been a boon for Philadelphia-based Soom Foods, a company founded by three sisters in 2013 that imports high-quality tahini from Israel. Its Israeli tahini is much smoother and less chalky than some of the tahini sold in American food shops and supermarkets.
“We were seeing tahini used in hummus and sauces, (but in Israel) they use it in baked goods and in yogurt bars and smoothies,” says Amy Zitelman, Soom’s vice president of business development. “We couldn’t understand why it wasn’t being used more in the United States.”
Amy and her sister Jackie were named to the FORBES 30 Under 30 in Food & Drink for 2018. They are two of the company’s founders, along with their older sister Shelby.
Zitelman says Soom’s main approach has been to market high-quality tahini to food professionals, who make up 80% of the company’s customers.
Its high-profile roster of chefs includes Michael Solomonov, a 2017 James Beard Award winner for his restaurant, Zahav, in Philadelphia, and Ana Sortun, the owner and chef at Sofra Cafe and Bakery in Cambridge, Mass., who is nominated for a Beard Award this year.
Soom products also were used by Alon Shaya at his namesake restaurant Shaya before his split with chef John Besh’s restaurant organization.
Now, Shaya says he’ll be using Soom in his new restaurants: Saba, which will open in New Orleans this spring, and Safta, which he plans to open in Denver later in the year.
“I love the pure flavor of sesame that Soom has, with (its) great toasty flavor, but more than anything I love and respect the company that the Zitelman sisters have created. They are the best!” Shaya said via email.
Zitelman says Soom signed up its chef customers by visiting their restaurants and asking them to try their tahini. “Chefs are now influencers and like to share the good ingredients they find,” she says. “We really find our product spreads best by word of mouth.”
Tahini is not a cheap ingredient. Four 11-ounce jars of plain Soom tahini cost $32.80 on Amazon, while a two-pack of Soom’s chocolate tahini goes for $19.98. That’s much costlier than the price of many peanut butters in grocery stores.
But, Zitelman says the price of tahini is competitive with almond butter, and sesame seed is more nutritional than peanuts. Also, Soom’s plain tahini is pure sesame seed, without any added fat or sugar. The chocolate variety has cocoa and sugar added.
Another key point: Soom processes tahini every four to six weeks, which leads to a fresher product than many supermarket tahinis, which might have been on the shelves for months. “As people have access to better tahini, they’ll have more confidence in using it,” Zitelman says.
Emberling says Zingerman’s is just figuring out how best to use tahini. Thus far, it’s shown up in a tahini-filled croissant, as well as tahini-date cookies that are reminiscent of Scottish shortbread, with sesame overtones.
Some bartenders are going even further. In Chicago, tahini became a key ingredient in a 2014 cocktail whipped up by Charlie Scott. It contained Batavian arrack, from Indonesia, as well as creme de cocoa, tequila and coconut milk, and became, as he told Chicago Reader, “kind of foofy.”
He advised adding tahini last to any drinks, since it would gum up a cocktail jigger.
People learning to use tahini in baking need to keep some things in mind. One, tahini is more oily than peanut butter, so it may absorb more flour, Emberling says.
Also, tahini is a fairly mild flavor and can easily be overtaken by spices such as cinnamon or nutmeg. And tahini that is too old can easily separate in the fridge, leaving a layer of oil on top. In that case, it’s best to bring it to room temperature and stir it, or perhaps just buy some fresh tahini.
Zitelman says her family’s five-year-old company has seen a 100% increase in revenue every year, and Soom is considering expanding its retail sales. But she knows that will take more resources than simply selling online or through food service.
Still, Zitelman says: “Our dream is for tahini to be accessible and available to the American market. We really believe tahini adds value to peoples’ lives. That’s our mission.”