Published January 1, 2013. From Cook's Illustrated.
This creamy chickpea spread has gone from health food obscurity to the No. 1 refrigerated dip. But some brands definitely aren't worth a swipe.
With just five ingredients—chickpeas, tahini, garlic, olive oil, and lemon juice—plus a smattering of spices, hummus couldn’t be easier to make at home. But that doesn’t mean we can resist the convenience of the store-bought stuff, especially now that it’s sold everywhere. Fifteen years ago, a handful of companies shared the $5 million U.S. market for hummus. Today hummus dominates the category known as refrigerated spreads, which raked in more than $430 million in retail sales last year. Brands can be found coast to coast, even at the 7-Eleven—a trend no doubt fueled by the fact that hummus is something you can feel good about eating. It’s a protein-rich food far lower in fat than the typical cream-based dip.
As for supermarket shelves, they are jammed with an ever-expanding menu of “hummus and” riffs: sun-dried tomatoes, jalapeños and cilantro, roasted garlic and chives—there’s even guacamole hummus. Flavor options aside, the explosion in brands alone makes it harder to know which one to buy. The ideal spread is appealingly smooth and creamy, with the fresh, clean flavor of buttery chickpeas in balance with the earthy toasted-sesame taste of tahini, set off by a lemon-garlic bite. But some store-bought hummus doesn’t even come close, with funky off-flavors and stodgy, grainy consistency.
To find the best supermarket version, we rounded up eight nationally available samples of plain hummus (no flavor variations). Along with the usual refrigerated concoctions in party-size plastic tubs, we found a shelf-stable hummus that uses no oil, a soy-chickpea-blend hummus, and a box mix that has you stirring in hot water and olive oil. We included them all, setting them before 21 staff members who sampled them with warm pita in two blind tastings. Our findings confirmed that many spreads simply aren’t worth buying—in fact, five of the eight products we tasted didn’t earn our recommendation at all. But the good news is that a few hit the mark with nutty, earthy flavor and a wonderfully thick, creamy texture.
All hummus starts with the chickpea, the creamy yellow seed of a legume pod first cultivated thousands of years ago. The ancient Romans bought roasted chickpeas from street stalls. One of the earliest recipes for hummus bi tahina (chickpeas with tahini) appeared in a 13th-century Egyptian cookbook. Today chickpeas are the most consumed legume in the world, and hummus is a staple in the Middle East, where hummus shops are as common as pizza parlors in this country. Heated debate can erupt over whose hummus is best, and exact recipes are carefully guarded secrets.
As we scooped our way through the hummus brands in our lineup, our first realization was that some of them didn’t taste much like hummus. The outliers were easiest to dismiss. One, which relies on soybeans in addition to chickpeas, was clearly not what we had in mind for superior store-bought hummus: It had “odd soy sauce” flavors that lingered. A shelf-stable product that uses no oil had a “runny” texture “reminiscent of baby food” and tasted more of mustard than of sesame. As for the box mix, prepared with olive oil and hot water per the package instructions, it had “an odd wheaty flavor” and a “sandy,” “dry” texture.
But nothing seemed to account for our disappointment in products that, on their labels, listed the same ingredients as the ones that won us over. One sample was undermined by “random grains of chunky chickpeas.” Another tasted “like a sandwich spread” instead of like hummus. Most of the losers tasted lean in comparison with the products that passed muster, in which tasters found the “earthy,” “rich” flavors they were looking for, along with “smooth” textures that ranged agreeably from “super-soft and silky” to “hearty but not dense.” What was the top of our lineup doing that the bottom wasn’t?
According to industry experts, the process for making hummus is pretty much the same from brand to brand. It starts with opening and inspecting enormous 2,000-pound bags of the legumes, which are emptied onto long conveyor belts that shake twigs and dirt off the beans. Then the beans soak in huge vats before cooking, which softens them before they are ground and mixed with tahini and oil. Next, the mixture flows into huge mixer-like bowls fitted with paddles, and the salt, garlic, and spices go in. This blending/pureeing step varies depending on whether the hummus maker wants the texture to be chunky with unpulverized bits of chickpea or completely smooth. Hummus makers can dispense with whole-chickpea processing by using preground chickpeas or chickpea flour—the obvious downfall of the product we faulted for having a gritty texture.
Brands can also prolong product shelf life by using preservatives or by pasteurizing the finished hummus to 180 degrees before packaging. Was this a flavor factor? Not that we could see, since our two top products did one or the other, and the preservative used, potassium sorbate, imparted no off-flavors. In fact, the product that uses this preservative rated highest with tasters for its “very nutty and fresh” flavor. So what, exactly, was the key to this brand’s success? We were stumped, since none of the hummus companies were willing to tell us what proportion of tahini, chickpeas, or other ingredients they use. So we sent all of our samples to an independent laboratory for an analysis of the fat, sodium, protein, and moisture levels of each product. (Labels include some of these percentages, but they aren’t exact.) Finally we had our answer: It turned out that our favorite hummus contains the least moisture and the highest combined level of fat and protein—including almost twice the fat of bottom-ranking products. These least-favorite products also tended to have the highest sodium content—presumably to make up for their lack of flavorful fat.
The source of all that richness? Tahini, the second key ingredient in hummus. Made from hulled, roasted sesame seeds crushed into a thick paste, its flavor can range from milky and mild to overroasted and bitter. Tahini has 20 percent protein by weight (compared with 23 percent for chickpeas) as well as most of the fat found in hummus. Both translate into fuller, richer flavor and less taste-diluting moisture. No wonder tasters called their favorite product “tahini heaven.”
Reviewing tasters’ responses again, we began to see that our winning hummus had another quality beyond all that tahini-delivered protein and richness. Tasters raved about a “very clean” and “earthy” flavor that was also “well-rounded.” Was chickpea quality a deciding factor? Although he declined to name the companies, George Vandemark, a research geneticist at Washington State University and a chickpea expert, told us that large-scale hummus makers sometimes include green, unripened beans to keep down costs. “It is a very price-sensitive business,” Vandemark said.
The maker of our winning product buys all of its chickpeas from a cooperative of U.S. farmers that supplies the company with only fully mature beans, according to their head chef. “Harvest time is very critical," she said. "You have to have all the sugars and starches developed.” Immature chickpeas, she added, “have less of a rich, sweet, earthy note and more of a green bean note. That’s what makes [mature] chickpeas so wonderful. They are the one bean with a real umami characteristic.”
Whether from just the right amount of tahini or the ripest chickpeas available, our winner brought the most flavor to the table, winning both of our tastings easily. Its texture was “hearty but not dense,” and its “earthy” and “very clean flavor” was the closest we came to a stand-in for a homemade spread.