I am willing to bet that there is no authentic Middle Eastern kitchen that doesn’t stock tahini paste. There’s just no way to go without it, especially if you’re having a seafood meal. Tahini sauce — made from tahini paste mixed with water, lemon juice, spices, garlic and sometimes, yogurt — has become a staple even in a lot of Western homes. What can tahini dressing not get drizzled on? At least all these make the cut: salads, roasted vegetables, stuffed vegetables, rice or quinoa, falafel, shawerma, seafood (and I’m probably missing lots more). The best thing about tahini is the smooth, nutty but mild taste, followed by the fact that it pairs well with pretty much any savory food, and certain sweet ones as well (halawa, anyone?). If you can get your hands on tahini made with organic sesame seeds, it’s a quite nutritious dressing to boot!
The origin of sesame seeds (and some benefits to eating them)
Before I dive into my post on how to make homemade tahini, I’d like to share a couple of cool facts I stumbled upon when researching sesame seeds (yeah, that’s really what I like to do in my spare time):
- It’s old! Ancient 4000-year-old Babylonian records mention sesame, and it made the cut in the list of medicinal drugs kept by the ancient Egyptians (oh, and I found it pretty cool that they called it sesemt). In fact, “sesame seed is considered to be the oldest oilseed crop known to man, domesticated well over 5000 years ago” (Wikipedia).
- Sesame is native to sub-saharan Africa and India, where it is cultivated in the largest quantities to this day.
- Sesame has one of the highest oil contents of any seed. The oil is considered quite stable as long as it is expeller pressed and stored properly.
- Two words: drought-tolerant. Sesame is said to survive in places where a lot of other crops fail.
- In Egyptian Arabic, sesame seeds are called sem-sem, and tahini paste is called tahina.
- Seeds are typically cleaned and hulled after harvesting. Hulled seeds don’t have as much calcium as unhulled seeds, but the calcium inside the seed is the more bioavailable kind anyway (well, according to the World’s Healthiest Foods website).
- Sesame seed oil is made of Omega-6 fatty acids, but doesn’t have any Omega-3s. If you follow nutrition blogs like Mark’s Daily Apple, you’ll learn that the typical Western diet is high in Omega 6 but low in Omega 3, thereby causing inflammation. So don’t be eating too much tahini and make sure you have plenty of sources of omega 3!
- Curious about the nutritional content of sesame seeds? “Not only are sesame seeds a very good source of manganese and copper, but they are also a good source of calcium, magnesium, iron, phosphorus, vitamin B1, zinc and dietary fiber” (WHFoods). Woohoo!
What’s wrong with store-bought tahini paste?
There’s only one little caveat: most packaged-store bought tahini paste (some also call it sesame butter) is not pure, and it is cut with refined, genetically modified vegetable oils like canola oil (which is tasteless so it’s often used as a filler oil, but it’s quite unhealthy) and refined sesame seed oil, which is refined using chemical solvents, and is prone to rancidity if not stored properly in the refrigerator. This is true even if the ingredient only lists sesame seeds. If you opt for the organic brands you can find at your health food store, then you should be prepared to part ways with upwards of about $8-$10 a jar (if you’re in the U.S.). If you’re a tahini-lover like me, that can get expensive pretty fast! So if you’d like tahini to be a staple in your fridge, then you should consider whipping up some yourself.
How to make homemade tahini paste from raw sesame seeds
I admit I was pretty intimidated by the process at first: would I have to invest in some kind of seed grinder? I had read in a couple of online forums that a coffee / spice grinder is often used to make homemade tahini. But I thought it might get messy especially with a small grinder that doesn’t come apart for washing. I posed my dilemma to our readers on Facebook, and a few helpful people commented saying that I can just try a food processor — surely I have that on hand (ahem, yeah, foodie in the house!).
So food processor it is, I decided. But first: soaking. I’ve mentioned soaking seeds and legumes repeatedly on MidEats, but because it’s so important, I’ll mention it again: you gotta soak your sesame seeds. Why? Well, glad you asked. Sesame seeds (and many other kinds of seeds) are designed with certain chemicals, such as phytic acid, that pull nutrients from the surrounding environment in order for the plant to grow. When we ingest a lot of these chemicals, nicknamed “antinutrients” in the world of nutrition, we risk malabsorption of important nutrients found in other foods. Additionally, the sensitive stomachs among us can also have digestive issues resulting from eating improperly prepared (i.e. unsoaked) beans, grains, nuts and seeds. Leaving the super-scientific nitty-gritty details aside, I know that there’s an age-old trick to getting rid of a large amount of phytic acid: soaking! Simply cover the sesame seeds with warm water, add a sprinkle of sea salt and let it sit overnight. Then, you can rinse, drain, and dehydrate/roast/toast as desired before using in a recipe.
I chose to toast mine in the oven after soaking, just to give the seeds a little bit of a toasted flavor; but if you like it raw, then by all means simply dehydrate (if you have a dehyrdrator) or leave out in the sun to dry. If you choose the oven route, you can spread the seeds on a baking sheet and bake for 12-20 minutes in a 300 F oven until light-golden and fragrant, mixing to expose the other side midway through the toasting. Add the seeds to your food processor, and pulse until finely chopped and the oil starts to release. You’ll notice after a minute or two that the consistency is becoming like that of a nut butter. If you want to thin out the mixture, you can add a high-quality unrefined sesame seed oil, light olive oil, or coconut oil, in small quantities until the desired smoothness is reached. Otherwise, you know you’ve made tahini paste (or sesame butter) when the seeds have all been crushed and blended so you cannot make out individual seeds any longer, a la the image below. Note: a teaspoon or so of (not virgin) coconut oil was used in making this paste.
Tahini dressing: The first recipe to try with homemade tahini paste
Now. You want to make a garlicky tahini dressing that goes well with pretty much anything, eh? Once you have the homemade tahini paste on hand, the rest is easy peasy. All you gotta do is acquire all the ingredients you need (listed below), grab your food processor, immersion blender or bullet blender, add all the ingredients in it and give it a whirl until everything’s well-blended. Of course, the best part of making tahini dressing is taste-testing and adjusting the spices to your liking as you go along. So please use the measurements here only as a guide, and experiment with the flavors yourself!
Spiced Tahini-Yogurt Dressing
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: none – it’s raw
Keywords: blender raw appetizer ingredient side snack gluten-free soy-free sugar-free vegetarian vegan garlic sesame seeds tahini paste Middle Eastern Egyptian fall spring summer winter
Ingredients (about 1 cup)
- 1/3 cup homemade tahini paste (aka sesame butter) – read the post to learn how to make it
- 1/3 cup filtered water
- 3-4 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- 3 tablespoons full-fat plain organic yogurt
- 1 tablespoon raw apple cider vinegar
- 2 garlic cloves, chopped
- 3/4 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
- pinch of cardamom powder (optional – adds subtle background flavor)
- pinch of cayenne pepper (optional – if you like a kick)
- unrefined salt and freshly cracked black pepper, to taste