The Talents of Tahini
If you have ever bought tahini for a special recipe, you may still have the rest of the jar sitting in your fridge or on the shelf waiting for the next time you feel inspired to experiment. But tahini is not a seed butter to be ignored.
Tahini makes delicious dressings, creamy soups, scrumptious sweets and excellent entrées. But knowing how to choose the right variety, store it properly and integrate it into dishes is important. So here are the keys to discovering the talents of tahini.
How tahini is made
I always enjoy learning a bit about how something is made before I go out and buy it, and food is no exception.
Traditionally, tahini is made by soaking sesame seeds overnight, after which they are crushed in order to separate the bran (the hull) from the seed. The crushed seeds are then put into a mix of salt and water, which allows the bran/hulls to sink and the seed kernels to float to the top of the water where they can be skimmed off. After this they are either immediately ground (for a hulled raw tahini) or toasted and then ground into a paste.
Some tahini is also left unhulled as well, This variety is more bitter then its hulled counterpart, but more nutritious.
Different Types of Tahini
You’ll usually find these different varieties of tahini in your local health food store or “natural/ ethnic” section of the supermarket:
Raw, hulled, unhulled, light and dark roast.
Usually the level of bitterness and nutritional value go hand in hand, except when it comes to a darker roast. Here is an approximate ranking of nutritional value and flavor from highest nutritional content to lowest:
- Raw unhulled (bitter, and much thicker than roasted)
- Raw hulled (less bitter, but still thick)
- Light roast unhulled (semi-bitter, but smoother in texture)
- Dark roast unhulled (a bit more bitter, but with a deep flavor and texture somewhere in between that of raw and light roast)
- Light roast hulled (sweet and smooth, good for replacing cream or adding to smoothies)
- Dark roast hulled (deeper flavor, a bit more bitter, but not compared to unhulled. Also, the texture is usually thicker than that of the hulled light roast)
Tahini is sold both “fresh” and dehydrated. I have never tried the dehydrated version, but I assume it would be good for traveling. In general though, if you’re not moving around, I would go for the fresh variety.
At the Gentle World Educational Center, we’ve been lucky enough to receive quality product donations over the years from Once Again Nut Butter, Living Tree Community and Sunshine International Foods. Sunshine International Foods light and medium roast tahini have a particularly delicious flavor.
An important fact about the information below:
While many of these nutrients will still be present in hulled and roasted sesame seeds, the values are significantly less than those of raw and unhulled tahini. No matter the difference in nutritional value though, each variety of tahini is delicious in its own way.
If your main concern is the nutrient content, it is important to buy the less processed varieties, but if you want an easy to use and smoother sesame paste than I recommend purchasing hulled light or medium roast.
Nutritional content and Health Benefits of Tahini:
- An excellent source of protein, copper and manganese
- A good source of tryptophan, calcium, magnesium, iron, phosphorus, vitamin B1 (thiamin), zinc, selenium, essential fatty acids, Methionine and dietary fiber
- The only source of sesamin and sesamolin. Both of these lignans have been shown to lower cholesterol and protect the liver from oxidative damage.
- Also contains vitamin E
What some of these nutrients mean for your health:
Copper contributes to many anti-inflammatory and antioxidant enzyme reactions. For this reason, it has been shown to reduce pain and swelling in rheumatoid arthritis and other inflammatory conditions. It also plays a role in providing strength, elasticity and structure to the blood vessels, bones and joints.
Magnesium is helpful in preventing spasms and tension in the body. This means that magnesium can help prevent the airway spasms that attribute to asthma and the blood vessel spasm that can trigger migraine attacks. It also helps lower high blood pressure and reduce some symptoms of menopause.
Calcium helps protect certain cells from cancer-causing chemicals. It also contributes to the prevention of bone loss and is said to reduce the occurrence of migraine headaches. It is also known to reduce PMS symptoms during the second half of the menstrual cycle.
Helps preserve bone mineral density, which is essential to both men and women.
Methionine is an important amino acid which contributes to liver detoxification and the absorption of other amino acids.
Sesame oil is highly resistant to rancidity so keeping your tahini fresh for an extended period of time is easy to do if you follow these simple steps.
1. Make sure the tahini is kept in an airtight container. Some people recommend keeping it in the fridge as well. This may be more of a concern if you plan to have the same jar around for a couple of years. We use tahini regularly and keep ours on the shelf and it has never gone off.
2. Any spoon, spatula, or other serving utensil that goes into the tahini must be 100% clean and DRY! Even a couple of drops of water can cause a gallon of tahini to go off, which is a huge bummer.
3. If your tahini sits for an extended period of time the oil and solids may separate. Stirring them back together can take some muscle, but it is completely possible to do. If you are unable to stir them back together, or you find some solids at the bottom of the jar, simply use the sesame oil for cooking and blend the solids into dressings using a blender or hand-mixer.
If you follow these simple steps for storage your tahini can last almost indefinitely, but don’t worry; if something goes wrong you’ll know it! The smell of rancid oil is unmistakable and if foreign particles get in the jar it will cause mold to grow. If the jar smells like sesame and is free of mold then it’s most likely still good, but use your best judgment.
Now that you know how tahini is made, the different varieties you find, its health benefits and how to store it, it’s time to get down to the really good stuff. How to use tahini!
- How to Use Tahini -
I find that hulled tahini works best for dressings and sauces because it adds a creamy, light, earthy flavor to dishes without overpowering them or adding a bitter finish. If you’re looking to replace cream in sauces or soups, light roast hulled tahini – along with some nutritional yeast and touch of salt – does an excellent job.
When a small amount of water is added to tahini, the tahini becomes thicker rather than thinner, until the water to tahini ratio is far exceeded! Because of this helpful characteristic, tahini is a wonderful healthy thickener for any dressing or sauce. If you add too much though, dressings can become bitter, so start with approximately one part tahini to two parts liquid (water, vinegar etc.) and experiment from there.
The type of tahini you choose to use for desserts really depends on which dessert you’re making. But like any nut or seed butter, tahini adds rich body and flavor to creamy desserts. If you’re making your own vegan chocolate, fudge, or are simply looking for something yummy to drizzle over your frozen bananas, tahini can be a wonderful addition.
Thicker tahinis such as raw or dark roast add not only flavor, but body and texture. Lighter smoother tahinis, such as hulled light roast, will add a creamy subtler flavor to desserts.
If you’re looking to veganize a chowder or creamy soup, tahini may be the key. When blended with potatoes, squash, carrots or miso, it makes a wonderful base for any soup. I usually add approximately ¼ cup tahini for each six cups of water to begin a creamy broth. Don’t just dump the tahini into your soup and expect it to dissolve in the water though. Mix your tahini with a cup or two of soup and give it a whirl in your mixer before adding it back to the pot. You’ll be surprised how creamy and comforting the soup becomes with this simple addition. Follow the directions listed in “Dressing/Sauces” to use tahini to replace cream in recipes.
One of the things tahini does best is bind ingredients together. It helps make grain into burgers and adds extra oomph to an egg-less omelet and it doesn’t take much to do it! Tahini can help bind dishes together with as little as 2 tablespoons per 5 cups of ingredients.
The thicker tahinis, such as dark roast or raw, do the best job of binding ingredients together, but the light roast will work as well.
There are no set rules* for using and enjoy tahini on a daily basis, so feel free to experiment, and enjoy the talents of tahini!
*Tahini does have a good deal of fat in it, but mostly the good kind. Simply use your best judgment on how much to enjoy on a daily basis.