Tahini is a key element in many popular foods, such as hummus and baba ghanoush, but what is tahini made of and what is tahini used for beyond those beloved dishes? Find out that and more, including nutritional facts, and how you can easily make your own tahini at home.
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If you have ever made hummus from scratch, then you know that tahini is one of the key ingredients. It contributes to the overall flavor, texture and aroma of the chickpea-based dip. But, what exactly is tahini? Are there any other uses for tahini other than in hummus? Read on to have these questions answered and learn more about this aromatic and nutty-tasting sesame paste.

What is tahini?

With origins in the cuisines of the Middle East and popularity in the surrounding regions as well as in the U.S., tahini is a condiment made from ground sesame seeds. Usually the seeds have been hulled and also toasted to varying degrees (depending on the maker; for example, New York brand Seed + Mill's tahini is toasted) before being ground into a paste or butter. Although ground sesame seeds produce a considerable amount of oil (you may have opened a container of tahini to find an inch or so of oil on top, as you sometimes find with certain peanut butters—more on how to remedy that later), some makers will add oil depending on how quick or refined their grinding process is and the texture they're going for. In China, zhī ma jiàng (sesame paste) is made from raw, unhulled sesame seeds that are usually darkly toasted, and is commonly used in noodle dishes and as a dip or dressing.

As you may know, tahini is not only a condiment, but also an important ingredient in foods like hummus and baba ghanoush. Tahini also complements falafels and shawarmas and is an excellent addition to dips, sauces, spreads and dressings, adding creaminess and depth of flavor.

Tahini nutrition facts

 According to the USDA, 1 tablespoon (15 grams) of tahini has:

  • 89 calories
  • 2.6 grams protein
  • 8 grams fat
  • 3.2 grams carbohydrates
  • 1.4 grams fiber
  • 64 milligrams calcium
  • 110 milligrams phosphorus
  • 62 milligrams potassium

Tahini is an energy-dense food, with more than 80% of its calories coming from fat, predominantly unsaturated fat. It also has a high concentration of lignans, a plant compound that may lower the risk of certain types of hypertension and other conditions. But, more research is needed to confirm its effectiveness in delaying, preventing and treating such chronic conditions.

How to use tahini 

You can enjoy tahini beyond hummus. In addition to the dishes previously mentioned, you can add tahini to soups and smoothies for extra creaminess and some added protein. Or, use it to make a sauce, as in our recipe for Sesame-Maple Roasted Tofu. Tahini also pairs well with fish or vegetables, like in Ginger-Tahini Oven-Baked Salmon and Roasted Vegetables

You can even enjoy tahini in baked goods and desserts. Our Super-Seed Snack Bars recipe is a perfect example of how you can use it in sweets. You can also add tahini to cookies, tarts, banana bread and more, adding an extra hint of nutty flavor, aroma and thicker texture. Tahini is the main ingredient in the traditional Middle Eastern confection halva, along with honey and sometimes dried fruit and nuts. You may have seen halva in bar form at delicatessens and supermarkets.

How to make tahini at home

Like many sauces and dips, you can make your own tahini. Start by toasting sesame seeds in a skillet until you smell their nutty aroma and see the seeds turn to a light-caramel color. Then, use a blender or a food processor to blend the seeds into a paste. Adding a couple of tablespoons of oil will enhance the smooth and creamy consistency and make the blending process quicker.

How to store tahini

Storing a fresh batch of tahini in a tightly sealed container and keeping it in the fridge is the best way to extend its shelf life. On the other hand, unopened, store-bought tahini can be kept at room temperature, such as in the pantry, for up to one year from the date of purchase, according to the USDA FoodKeeper app, a consumer resource on safe food storage. Once the container is opened, you can store tahini in the fridge for up to three weeks. Always check the food manufacturer's instructions. 

You may notice a separation between the solids and the oil in your tahini, just like in nut butters. Stir it before use to ensure the tahini becomes homogenized. If the tahini is challenging to stir, you may need to warm it up in the microwave or, if it was refrigerated, leave it out to bring it to room temperature to soften its texture.

As with nut and seed butters, and any spreads with a large proportion of fat, you may notice tahini has spoiled when it tastes or smells stale, sour, musty or even like cardboard. Since both homemade and store-bought tahini could be made from raw sesame seeds, there can be a risk of Salmonella—be sure to follow food safety guidelines and watch out for recalls from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for store-bought tahini.

Are there substitutes for tahini?

You may be surprised to learn that sesame allergy is a growing concern in the United States. If you are allergic to sesame, then you may need an alternative to tahini. But even without a sesame allergy, you may want to know the other options if you want something different.  

Nut-free seed butters like sunflower butter can be a substitute for tahini. Look for a sunflower butter with no sugar added if you plan to use it in savory dishes. Nut butters, such as peanut, cashew and almond, are also alternatives, as long as you are not allergic to them. 

Bottom line

Tahini is a ground sesame paste widely enjoyed beyond its origins in Middle Eastern cuisines. It is not only a condiment, but can be used in an array of recipes, from salads dressings to desserts. Tahini can be a replacement for nut butters and spreads, making it possible to enjoy recipes customarily made with nuts. Find out how to include Healthy Tahini Recipes in your meals and snacks today.