Monday, January 14, 2013

Make it Yourself: Homemade Tahini

Homemade Tahini
I love Hummus, and still remember my first taste of it made by Chef Mo on a homemade pita that was also his handiwork.

Back in my college days, I catered at Microsoft in order to earn enough cash to pay for tuition.  I worked the morning shift from 5:30 AM to 12:30 PM, and then headed out the door as fast as I could go, high-tailing it from the Eastside up over the bridge across Lake Washington and squealing into the Montlake parking lot in my white 1978 Dodge Plymouth Volare, hoping there would be a free parking space close to the pedestrian bridge so I could run quickly up to my 1:00 PM class, usually just a little bit late.

Catering was a great job for a college student:  I was always well-fed, and because I made friends with the chefs in the kitchen, they'd save a plate of some of the best outgoing meals for me, share tips and tricks and were a source of vast entertainment.  Not to mention - catering was a highly physical job, at least where I worked.  We'd load heavy 6-foot (2-meter) tables into big cargo vans, along with huge tubs of beverages and heavy Cambros full of hot food.  And then we'd get to wherever it was on the Redmond campus that we were going, and haul all of that stuff across the parking lot or lawn, and up into the freight elevators (if we were lucky) or carry them - up several flights of stairs in order to get the breakfast or lunch or special events done on time.  Good thing for all that exercise - I had little time for the gym with a full-time study schedule and a 30 - 35 hour work week.

A favorite snack:  Fresh Garlic Hummus and Carrot slices
We had a lot of fun - with a great team of smart people and a fair amount of autonomy once you were out in the field.  I rarely did dinners - unless they were of the special-order VIP sort -  I was the VIP caterer so on a regular basis I'd be in the back room setting up lunch while Bill Gates and his team discussed some strategy or the other, or doing a private dinner party at the home of one of the executives (tips were definitely best here).  One of my most amusing memories was from a private party in Medina near Bellevue, where Prince Andrew of England was the guest of honor.  It was a buffet dinner, and my guess is that these are few and far between in his normal life in England - he didn't know what do or take first, but was gracious and game about it.  The guests were not at all relaxed around royalty - they all went through the buffet first at his request, and then stood, plates in hands behind their chairs, waiting until he arrived and asked them kindly in his lovely British accent to please sit and enjoy the meal.  Prince Andrew's bodyguard needed no such invitation - he was already half-way through his meal by that time, good man.

The catering world introduced me to a new world of food - the beginnings of a global gastronomic education that living abroad later would continue.  We had chefs from many backgrounds - but culinary and cultural.  My favorite was Mo, who grew up in Egypt.  I never learned the full story of why Mo arrived in America to cook up amazing food for the employees of Microsoft, but I will say that Mo was a kind-hearted and amusing soul with a great talent for homemade pitas, Baba Ganoush and Hummus.

I've made Hummus before, and although I typically soak my dry chickpeas overnight and boil them up myself the next day, I had always used store bought Tahini, and didn't/don't like it all - though my Hummus always tasted just fine, the flavor of the Tahini itself never did.  I decided to make my own, following a recipe found on the web.  It was a disaster.  The recipe said to roast raw sesame seeds in the oven for 10-15 minutes with no mention of what oven temp to use - Bad Idea.  I wasted both the sesame seeds and the olive oil:  the seeds looked OK until I processed them with olive oil in the food processor and the whole thing turned the dark brown of a hazelnut shell and smelled decidedly burnt.

Chunky Garlic Hummus made with Homemade Tahini
Back to the drawing board:  I decided to change a few things:
1.  Toast the sesame seeds in a pot or pan on the stove, not in the oven.  You'll have much better control, and it takes only a few minutes.  Shake the pan gently every 10-15 seconds to prevent any burning.  You'll know the seeds are done when they start to hop and pop and begin to smoke a little.  Remove them from the heat and pour them immediately onto a clean dinner plate to cool
2.  Use an immersion blender (for smaller quantities) and a regular blender (for larger quantities) if you want a really smooth tahini.  I tried to get the burnt version to smooth out just to see if it were possible in the food processor with no luck.
3.  Add a little salt, to taste - the flavor is just better, in my opinion, but you can decide for yourself.
4.  Make a smaller batch.  I don't use a lot of Tahini - at least not yet.  2 cups of this stuff in my fridge feels a bit wasteful to me, but feel free to double the batch if you use this a lot - in which case using a blender will work wonderfully for that.

The end result of this was lovely - definitely worth the trouble and quite tasty.

Homemade Tahini

1 cup / 2 dl raw sesame seeds (I prefer the un-hulled kind)
8 - 9 tablespoons of olive oil
salt to taste (I used a little less than 1/2 teaspoon)

1. Toast the sesame seeds in a pot or pan, on the stove, not in the oven.  Shake the pan gently every 10-15 seconds to prevent any burning.  You'll know the seeds are done with they start to hop and pop and begin to smoke a little.  They won't visibly change color much, if at all. Remove them from the heat and pour them immediately onto a clean dinner plate to cool.

2.  Once the sesame seeds are cool to touch, pour them in a glass measuring cup or the tall plastic cup immersion blenders usually come with (alternatively, use your blender for this).  Add 8 tablespoons of olive oil and blend until smooth and combined, moving the immersion blender up and down in the mixture or by pulsing the blender.  You want the Tahini to be runny and mostly smooth.  If it feels a little thick, add more olive oil.  Add a salt to taste and stir to combine.

Makes a scant 1 cup / 2 dl Tahini.

Store in the fridge and use within one month or store in the freezer for up to 4 months.


  1. Mmm, I want to do this!! I LOVE hummus, don't know about tahini but I definitely want to try. Love the story about the catering job, you're amazing :)

    1. Thanks Erica! Tahini by itself can be a bit of an acquired taste, but I found myself tasting it again and again by the spoonful! It's the key ingredient that gives hummus the richness and depth of flavor that you can't get from the chickpeas alone. Definitely worth a try. Enjoy!

  2. I love this blog! The story is a gem. Didn't know that you had been in the same room as royalty!