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Finding the best tahini can be a real grind.
Tahini is a potent paste made from toasted sesame seeds; it’s similar in texture to natural peanut butter. Apart from being a core ingredient in hummus, tahini is often thinned with water or lemon juice and drizzled over falafel, kebabs, pilaf, and roasted or raw vegetables in Middle Eastern recipes. Sesame seeds are generally the sole ingredient—so how different could competing tahinis be? To find out, we tasted seven products, priced from $6.44 to $11.99 and sold in 15- to 16-ounce containers, plain and in hummus.
Right off the bat, our tasters noticed big differences in flavor in the plain tasting, calling our preferred tahinis “toasty” and “nutty” and lower-scoring tahinis “bitter” and “sour.” Flavor discrepancies were less evident in hummus. Although tahini can be made with whole sesame seeds, most manufacturers use seeds that have their outer coatings (hulls) removed before grinding. The hulls contain bitter compounds called oxalates that can be the source of those unpleasant flavors (seeds with the hulls intact are also harder to grind to a smooth consistency). Overroasting the seeds is another factor that can lead to bitterness. Off-flavors can also be the result of rancidity from poor handling or storage of the seeds.
Consistency was another important factor. Sesame seeds are 50 percent oil by weight, which is very similar to the oil content of peanuts. As with natural peanut butter, the oil in tahini typically separates from the paste at room temperature. For some products, a gentle stir was enough to reincorporate the components and form a fairly smooth, fluid tahini that poured neatly from the container. But other options were gritty or so thick that we had to scrape them from their containers with a metal spoon or stiff spatula. The thickest tahini was simultaneously dry and damp, like wet sand. Even after a spin in the food processor, the thick and grainy tahinis produced hummus that was also thick and slightly grainy. While the chickpeas and oil had covered up the biggest textural differences, they couldn’t conceal them completely, and those products earned spots at the bottom of our rankings. Tasters much preferred the “silky,” “buttery” texture of hummus made with smooth, fluid tahini.
Our new favorite, Ziyad Tahini Sesame Paste ($7.59 for 16 ounces), is made with hulled sesame seeds and is fairly pale in color, indicating gentle roasting. Tasters loved its “strong, clean tahini flavor.” It was also one of the smoothest products in our lineup, so hummus made it with had a “lush,” “silky” consistency that made it our clear favorite.
A panel of 21 tasters sampled seven nationally available tahinis plain (stirred gently to reincorporate oil and paste) and in hummus. Products were selected from among the top-selling supermarket brands as compiled by IRI, a Chicago-based market research firm. Ingredients and nutrition information were obtained from product packaging. Additional information on processing methods was gathered from manufacturers. Prices were paid in Boston-area supermarkets or online. We averaged the results of the tastings, weighting hummus more heavily because tahini is rarely eaten plain, and products appear below in order of preference.
“Tastes like the real stuff,” said one taster. In both tastings, our new favorite had “distinct,” “intense sesame flavor” that was neither bitter nor harsh. Its “smooth” and fluid consistency made for exceptionally “creamy,” “buttery” hummus.
Sampled plain, the only Israeli import in our lineup tasted “very roasty” and had “deep sesame flavor.” In hummus, that flavor translated to “subtle nutty background notes.” Tasters also approved of its “very smooth,” “almost whipped” consistency.
Tasters liked this tahini’s “bold sesame flavor” and thought that its hummus tasted “authentic.” Even though it had a slightly “grainy” quality that was absent in our favorites, it was still pleasantly “creamy” and earned high marks for texture.
Tasters loved the “smooth, rich consistency” of hummus made with this tahini; it was the flavor that drew criticism. Tasters noticed a slight “sour,” “musty” quality that distracted from the straightforward flavors of tahini and chickpeas.
Our former winner is more intensely flavored than some of its competitors. As a result, hummus made with it had an especially “strong roasted flavor.” Some tasters approved, but others thought that the tahini “dominated the hummus.” The tahini was also slightly “gritty.”
Hummus made with this tahini had “very deep, nutty flavor” that our tasters liked. Unfortunately, it wasn’t ground finely enough for everyone on our panel. Both plain and in hummus, it was slightly “gritty” and “grainy.”
Very “dry” and “coarse,” this tahini stood out in our plain tasting. It also made for a very “thick” hummus, which some tasters enjoyed. It was “mild” and “muted,” and tasters wished it were more intensely flavored.