Tahini, with an American accent, is a little different from its Israeli cousin. For one thing, we say t'chinah, with that ch like in Bach. I wouldn't quite call tahini the peanut butter of Israel, because what a PB&J is to America, cottage cheese and tomato is to Israel. Nevertheless, tahini functions in Israel a lot like peanut butter does in American food culture: it's a staple ingredient, its quality varies from industrial to artisanal, and it can skew sweet or savory, though more often savory than does peanut butter.
Tahini, in its raw form, is just sesame seeds ground to a paste. Even so, raw tahini varies wildly in its quality. It apparently has to do with origin--where and how the sesame is grown--and processing. Until relatively recently it was difficult to find halfway decent tahini in the US, and the first artisanal brands to surface generally didn't have kosher certification. But now we have Soom, which is every bit as heavenly as Michael Solomonov swears it is in Zahav. I have the Soom 2-pack on autoship from Amazon so I get a bit of a discount (it's not cheap), and I think it's worth it (no affiliation.) A lot of recipes involving tahini will tell you to use tons of it, but I find they make huge quantities--with one exception, hummus, when you really do want to use a sizeable ratio of tahini. I most often prepare tahini from between ¼ and ½ cup of raw tahini.
In American and UK recipes, when a recipe calls for tahini, it's generally talking about raw tahini. In Israel, the default tahini is "prepared." What this means is that it's been thickened with lemon juice, flavored, usually with salt and garlic, and then thinned out to the desired consistency with ice water.
Because of all the oil in the sesame paste, essentially what you're doing is making an emulsion, like vinaigrette or mayonnaise--twice, first incorporating the lemon juice and then the water. Plenty of recipe will tell you to mix everything together at once, but I have not gotten good results doing that; something about the two-step emulsification seems to work better.
Since you're making an emulsion, the tahini will look "broken"--the chefy term for awful--after you add the liquids. You're going to take your beautiful, thoughtfully sourced tahini and turning it into a gobby mess floating listlessly in sludgy liquid. Don't despair; this is exactly what it's supposed to look like. Keep going. You can whisk it by hand, in a food processor, or using an immersion (stick) blender, my personal favorite.
Then, when you tahini suddenly perks up, gets its act together, smoothes up and looks lovely, you're going to break it all over again. Yes. It's okay. Keep whisking/processing/blending. How much water you add will depend on how you want to use your finished tahini. For a dip, use the smaller amount of water; for a salad dressing or drizzled sauce, use the larger amount.
Oh, and I suppose we need to have the garlic talk. I am not much of a garlic person. I begrudgingly recognize its culinary prowess, but we're not good friends. Thus, I like to put lowbrow, meek and mild garlic powder in my tahini. If you're a lover, feel free to stick as much freshly minced garlic in your tahini as you like. Most recipes will tell you to put what I consider a ton of it. I don't think tahini should be garlic flavored, but without any garlic, it's too flat.
Sweetened tahini = halva
You know how you you could eat peanut butter plain out of the jar, but usually you pair it with a buddy, like jam or banana or chocolate? Same deal with raw tahini. Its canonical sweet buddy is silan (also called date honey, date syrup, or date molasses). You'll find the tahini and silan combination in a lot of Israeli desserts. It's also great on toast.
When raw tahini is sweetened, usually with honey or cane sugar, it's called halva (chalvah, again with the Bach ch). Across the Middle East and into South Asia, halva (or halwa) just means confection or sweet, but in Israel it always refers to sweetened sesame paste.
Halva shows up in three basic forms: as a brick (this is what "halva" generally refers to), feathered into wisps, and creamed into a spread. All of these are eaten out of hand, but also commonly feature as dessert ingredients. The texture of halva is unique, sort of like grainy cotton candy. Halva spread is used in cookie rolls, yeasted sweets, and sometimes in mousse or ice cream. Feathered halva is usually used as a finishing touch, for its textural qualities. And plain halva, that comes into a brick, is used for just about everything.
Halva, the brick kind, also comes in a variety of flavors, chocolate and pistachio being the most common. It's not generally made from scratch at home, so read the ingredients panel scrupulously when you see it in the store. Halva is often loaded with artifical flavorings, preservatives, and stuff like maltodextrin and sucralose.
Tahini on one foot
Tahini (pronounced t'chinah in Hebrew with a guttural h) can refer to or become a few different things:
- Plain sesame paste = raw tahini.
- Sesame paste emulsified in lemon juice, seasoned with salt and garlic and thinned with water = prepared tahini.
- Sweetened sesame paste = halva, usually made into a brick that can be crumbled.
Prepared Tahini (parve)
- A sturdy whisk; or a food processor; or an immersion (stick) blender
- ½ cup raw tahini - 120ml
- 1 lemon, juiced, about 3 Tbsp
- ¼ cup ice water - 60ml, up to 3 Tbsp (30ml) more, if you want it thinner
- 1 tsp salt - or more, to taste
- pinch garlic powder - or freshly minced garlic, if you prefer
- Using a whisk, food processor, or immersion (stick) blender, mix the raw tahini with the lemon juice until it becomes creamy and well combined. (It will look separated and all wrong until it comes together.)
- Season with salt and garlic, then pour the ice water over the paste. The mixture will look broken again, but will come together as you continue to whisk/process.
- Once the tahini is smooth again, add more water to thin it to the consistency you want. Taste and adjust seasoning according to your liking.
- The tahini is ready to use, or can be stored in a sealed container in the refrigerator for a few days.