Za’atar is an herb and spice blend popular in Levantine cooking. It’s a complex marriage of musky, citrusy, and nutty flavors. It’s an aromatic and versatile kitchen staple for Middle Eastern cooks, often sprinkled on hummus, salads, roasted vegetables, and grilled meats and fish. Mixed with olive oil, it becomes the perfect dip or a spread for flatbreads. There are endless ways to use za’atar.
What’s in Za’atar?
Za’atar: In addition to being a seasoning, za’atar also refers to an herb that grows wild in the hillsides of Lebanon, Israel, and Palestine. It looks like oregano and is a member of the wild thyme family. The leaves are dried in the sun and ground. It smells like a mixture of oregano, thyme, and cumin. For that reason, some za’atar spice blends include them to emulate the aroma of za’atar leaves.
Sumac: Sumac are crimson berries that are dried and ground to use as a seasoning in many Middle Eastern cuisines. It tastes like lemon-lime. Iranians, like me, keep it on our dining table alongside salt and black pepper to sprinkle on kebabs and salads.
I buy sumac at a local Middle Eastern supermarket here in London. Look for pure sumac without added salt. In the U.S., you can purchase unsalted sumac online.
Sesame seeds: For the best flavor, buy raw sesame seeds and toast them yourself. In a cinch, it’s okay to use toasted sesame seeds.
Can only find salted ground sumac? Leave out the salt in the recipe.
Lots of Ways to Use Za’atar
There are endless uses for za’atar and I have no doubt you will find innovative ways to use it in your everyday cooking. Here are some ideas:
- Sprinkled on fried eggs
- A topper for hummus or labneh
- Sprinkled over salads or in a simple dressing with olive oil and lemon juice
- Added to the flour dredge for fried chicken
- Sprinkled over roasted vegetables or grilled meats
- Brushed with olive oil over any meat, fish, or vegetables before cooking
- Brushed with olive oil over flatbreads before baking, like Lebanese manoushe
- As a dip with olive oil for crusty bread
- Sprinkled over focaccia dough before baking—it becomes incredibly fragrant!
Best Way to Store Za’atar
Store za’atar in an airtight spice jar or container in your pantry as you would any other dried herbs or spices. It is likely to lose some of its flavor and aroma after a month. If you keep it in your fridge, tightly covered, it will last up to 3 months.
Spice Blends = Delicious Magic
I buy za’atar leaves from a Lebanese supermarket in London. If you can’t get your hands on this extraordinary herb, use 3 tablespoons dried oregano, 1/2 tablespoon dried thyme, 1/2 tablespoon dried marjoram, and 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin instead.
- 2 tablespoons raw sesame seeds
- 4 packed tablespoons dried za’atar leaves, or 2 tablespoons ground za’atar
- 2 tablespoons ground sumac
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- Mortar and pestle or spice grinder
Toast the sesame seeds:
Add the sesame seeds into a small skillet. Set it over medium-high heat and toast them for 3 to 5 minutes, stirring occasionally to make sure the seeds do not burn, until they are golden brown, glisten, and occasionally pop. Transfer the toasted sesame seeds into a bowl to cool down for about 5 minutes.
Grind the za’atar:
Grind the za’atar leaves into a fine powder using a mortar and pestle or spice grinder.
Add the remaining ingredients:
Add the sumac, toasted sesame seeds, and salt to the mortar or spice grinder. If using a mortar and pestle, grind for about 2 minutes to lightly crush and release the aromatic oils in the sesame seeds.
If using a spice grinder, pulse it a few times. The sesame seeds should mostly remain whole. You are simply trying to release some oils and bring out the nutty aroma, not finely grind them.
Store the za’atar:
Transfer the za’atar seasoning into an airtight container and store it in your dry pantry for up to 1 month or in the fridge for up to 3 months. I hope you find yourself sprinkling it on everything!
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