When I’m looking for an irresistibly creamy sauce that’s mild enough to pair with a fridge-clearing salad but has enough of its own nutty, tangy flavor to liven up a sheet of simple roasted veggies, I’m typically turning to tahini. It takes no more than a few minutes and a few ingredients to whip up a simple, endlessly adaptable tahini sauce to pair with whatever’s on the menu.
But before tahini became a staple go-to for homemade sauces (and dips), my jar of tahini was a very lonely one—one that I almost always had on hand, but very rarely used. I had to spruce up my arsenal of tahini-based sauce “recipes” before I realized just how versatile tahini is.
So, if you’re anything like me and you want to give that jar of tahini the life you know it deserves, here’s all you need to know to get started with homemade tahini sauces that blow the store-bought stuff out of the water.
What is Tahini?
First, the basics: What exactly is tahini? Whether it’s called a paste, a sauce, or a condiment, tahini is made from ground (hulled or whole, toasted or un-toasted) sesame seeds, oil, and, usually, a pinch of salt. It can have a thick, nut butter-like texture, or be very thin and smooth, depending on the ratio of oil to ground sesame. Served on its own as a sauce or dip, the paste is also commonly incorporated into other dishes such as hummus, baba ganoush, the sweet, sesame-based confection halva, and even Sichuan dan dan noodles (in some, but not all, cases).
What is Tahini?
Tahini is a condiment made from ground (hulled or whole, toasted or un-toasted) sesame seeds, oil, and, usually, a pinch of salt. It can vary in texture from thick and nut butter-like to very thin and smooth, depending on the ratio of oil to ground sesame. It can be served on its own or act as a base for a sauce or dip.
To know what your preference is when it comes to tahini, you might have to try out a few different brands. Tahini made from seeds that are ground whole (with their hulls still intact) has the tendency to be a bit more bitter and darker in color and paste made from un-toasted seeds will have a milder flavor and lighter shade. You can also easily make tahini from scratch if the versions you find in stores just don’t deliver. Here's what to do.
How to Make Homemade Tahini Paste
Add 2 cups sesame seeds (hulled or whole) to a large, dry frying pan over medium heat. Stir constantly until toasted as evenly as possible, about 5 – 8 minutes. Transfer to a food processor and let cool slightly, then blend until a crumbly mixture forms. Keep blending and stream in 1/3 cup vegetable oil (or olive oil) to form a thick, but relatively smooth paste. Add more oil by the tablespoon as needed for your desired consistency then add a pinch of salt, if desired, and blend once more. Transfer to a jar and store in the fridge for up to 1 month.
Separation is natural, so always insert a spoon or chopstick until it touches the bottom of the jar and stir vigorously before using.
For some recipes (think baked goods, like tahini cookies or tahini brownies) you can substitute it out with another nut butter, adding a bit of toasted sesame oil for a similar flavor-profile. When it comes to sauces though, tahini is quite singular and can’t easily be replaced.
Three Creamy, Dreamy, Everyday Tahini Sauces and How to Use Them
Now that you know what tahini is and can even whip up your own at home, it’s time to get a quick run down of the various ways to turn that paste into a sauce that will sing.
Simplest Tahini Sauce
Stir your jar of tahini really well, then add 1/2 cup to a large bowl. Add 1/2 cup water, 2 tbsp lemon juice, 1 clove minced garlic, and a pinch of salt. Stir well until the sauce is thick but still runny, like clear honey. Add more water by the 1/2 tablespoon as needed to get the desired consistency. Store in an airtight container for up to one week in the fridge, making sure to stir well and add more water as needed before serving.
How to Use This Sauce: Drizzle over grilled meats or fish, dress up a simple green salad, or serve topped with a bit of sumac or ground cumin and freshly chopped herbs with falafel, roasted vegetables (or a complementary sheet pan dinner), or plain flatbread.
Super Creamy, Herbed-Up Tahini Sauce
Stir your jar of tahini really well, then add 1/2 cup to a large bowl. Add 1/2 cup yogurt (or use 1/4 cup buttermilk and 1/4 cup sour cream for more tang), 2 tbsp lemon juice, and 1/2 tsp salt. Stir well to combine, adding water by the tablespoon until you reach a thick but still runny consistency. Chop up a handful of fresh, soft herbs (think dill, parsley, basil, mint) and add to the sauce as desired before serving. Store in an airtight container for up to 3 days in the fridge, making sure to stir well and add more water or lemon juice as needed before serving.
How to Use This Sauce: Drizzle over grilled vegetables, dress up a grain bowl or big salad, serve as a dip for crudités, use (saving fresh herbs until serving) as a marinade for chicken, or spoon over simple flatbread pizzas.
Thick Tahini Sauce Slash Dip
Stir your jar of tahini really well, then add 1/2 cup to a large bowl. Add the cubed flesh from 2 avocados, 1/2 cup yogurt, 2 tbsp lemon juice, 1/2 tsp salt, and a pinch of cumin, if desired. Mash and stir until relatively smooth. Serve immediately.
How to Use This Sauce: Spread onto bread and use as the base for a sandwich, serve alongside fresh veggies or crackers, or add a spoonful to a grain bowl.