I had to laugh when this question came across my inbox, because I just taught a class on Friday at the Easton Public Market that involved a lemon-honey-tahini dressing. I was shocked because when I opened up the jar of hummus that they sell at the market, it was the smoothest, thinnest tahini I'd ever encountered. I gasped. And it was so delicious that they ended up selling at least a half a dozen jars after the class was over.
As usual, the answers come from chef Matthew Robinson of the Culinary Exchange. And it has to do with tahini.
Question: How do you use tahini? I've tried different brands and I always end up having to add in extra olive oil to get a consistency that's good for mixing with other ingredients. Am I using it wrong?
Answer: Let’s get to the point first. No. You are not using tahini wrong. I think that is nearly impossible. I could only think of a few NSFW ways to use tahini that some might consider wrong, but then I am sure others wouldn’t. So, again, no.
That being said, we should first pop a big culinary bubble to get to the bottom of this: Tahini is not only used in hummus. Why is this important? Because given that tahini is used in a range of recipes from thick, even chunky hummuses to creamy, rich tahini dressings, I struggle to think of a recipe where tahini would likely go unthinned. Even in a chunky hummus, some smoothness may be appreciated so a thinning of the tahini and chickpeas would be needed either with oil, as you chose, or with lemon juice or even water.
It sounds like you are pre-thinning the tahini to make the preparation of recipes easier. Nothing wrong with that at all, but it does require extra effort. So are you using it wrong? No. If you are using a recipe, it could simply be that the recipe isn’t written well. Perhaps ease of preparation should have been more heavily considered when the recipe was written. I think we all know that there are lots of not so great recipes out there, and one thing that can certainly be part of a not so great recipe is a poor “order of addition” in the method section. Before there is an onslaught of emaiI, I will say that I am not picking on recipe writers, No! They have a tough job. I am just saying . . . (Editor's note: I wholeheartedly agree here!)
So why does tahini get so thick vs say natural nut butters? I was unable to find any studies comparing the separation of the two products, but there could be a few things at play. It is possible that nuts are slightly more able to emulsify when they're ground due to naturally occurring emulsifiers. It could pertain to the manufacturing process. Different roasting/grinding processes could potentially result in different oil holding characteristics. Another possibility is time of manufacture and shelf life. If one has a longer shelf life, it is possible that there is more older product on the shelves. The longer a product sits, the more time there is for separation and packing of the solids in the product. It could also be something very simple. Perhaps, nut butter manufacturers pack the jars upside down in the shipping boxes. The separation oil would then move toward what is the bottom of the jar. When the jar is flipped at the store, the oil would slowly travel back through the nut butter keeping it looser.
If you find yourself using tahini a lot, one thing you might consider doing is making your own at home. This way you can add as much or as little oil as you would like, making a tahini that fits your cooking needs. This is quite easy to do. You could make a bunch and keep it in the fridge.
Here is how you make homemade tahini. Get some hulled sesame seeds, white or black. If you want, toast them up to your liking in a dry pan on the stove. Add the seeds to a food processor and whizz them up until they just start forming a paste. Add a neutral-tasting oil slowly and continue whizzing, stopping frequently to scrape down the bowl. Continue adding oil until the tahini reaches the smoothness and consistency you like. If you need a starting point for amounts, try 1 cup seeds to 3 tablespoons of oil. You could potentially thin it with sesame oil, but it depends on the source of the oil. I always find the roasted sesame oils to be very strong in flavor, but this is a matter of taste and it could certainly be used. Of course, a pressed oil from unroasted seeds would impart a mild taste; an oil like this may even enhance a tahini’s flavor. Both roasted and unroasted oils are very stable, so there would be no problem with rancidity. Of course, storing it in the fridge in a dark container is the best, either way.
If this isn’t of interest and you really want to skip any pre-thinning, you could try two other things. First, make sure that the tahini is at least room temperature and that any oil that has separated out is mixed back in well. Another idea to try is to change your mixing method if possible. Switch to a stick blender or mini chopper where possible. The extra power might get the job done without the extra work of pre-thinning. Of course, always read recipes ahead and make sure the best order of addition is happening.
Thanks for asking your question!