I had been making toum (Lebanese garlic spread) one particular way for a while now—I would blend the garlic, and then alternate water and oil, drizzling them in very slowly. But no matter how careful I was, my emulsion would sometimes inexplicably break. One particular day, when I was making a big batch for a party of seventy-five, I tried making toum four times in a row, and was left with nothing but garlic and oil splattered glasses and a half gallon of garlicky swill. It was not my finest hour.
But I recently gleaned a really helpful strategy from my friend Cosette’s toum recipe. If you know anything about Cosette, this shouldn’t surprise you, because she is the unequivocal queen of toum. I’ve started incorporating this method into my own recipe, and ever since this shift I’ve been batting 1000 with my emulsion successfully taking. I don’t know if I can say my recipe is absolutely 100% fail-proof, because I’m not sure that a fail-proof toum recipe can actually exist, but it’s been working really well for me, and I hope you have the same success rate trying it at home.
Here’s the key thing I learned from Cosette: it works much better to add all the water at once toward the beginning, before slowly drizzling in the oil, rather than alternating between drizzling in water and oil. I prefer starting with garlic and salt, then grinding them up in the food processor until the garlic is puréed or finely chopped (the salt helps it break up a little more easily than just adding the garlic right in with the water). Then you simply add the cold water, blend it together even more until the garlic liquifies, and begin slowly drizzling in the oil. Once all the oil is added, it will have emulsified, and will even start to thin out into an aioli consistency, at which point you drizzle in the lemon juice to help it seize up and thicken a little more (and to give it some zing and preservation).
From there, the possibilities are endless. I’m going to post one of my favorite ways to use toum in just a couple days, but until then, feel free to experiment with using it as a marinade, in a little bowl with your favorite meze, as a dip for a ho-hum store-bought rotisserie chicken, and basically anywhere you want to add a lot of garlicky flavor, some richness, and a little acidity. But before you check out the recipe, make sure you also read over my list of ways to prevent your emulsion from breaking, which should help keep you out of trouble.
How to make sure your emulsion doesn’t break:
Add the water all at once with the finely chopped garlic toward the beginning.
Drizzle in the oil in a slow and steady stream. Whatever you do, do not add it all at once.
Don’t let the food processor or blender run gratuitously (especially if you have a high-power blender, which can overheat quickly). If you’re taking a break from streaming in oil, don’t let it run longer than a couple seconds. But make sure you do let it run for 1 or 2 seconds after you stop drizzling in the oil to make sure it fully incorporates.
Don’t make toum in large batches, even if your blender or food processor is big enough to hold that much liquid. This recipe is the maximum amount you should make at a time. This shouldn’t be a problem, because it’s incredibly strong, and easy to whip up whenever. If you’re cooking for a huge party and need to make extra, make it in a couple batches. You might sometimes get away with doubling this recipe, but it will most likely break about half the time, and anything more than doubling it will break just about every single time. Trust me when I say I’ve learned from experience.
Use cold water and cold lemon juice.
Use a very clean blender or food processor.
Use fresh garlic (I learned this tip from Maureen Abood’s recipe, and I think it helps a bit with the emulsion taking, but either way, it certainly helps with flavor).
Follow the recipe below, which accounts for all this advice, and it won’t steer you wrong.
toum | garlic spread
yield: about 2 cups*
total time: 15 minutes
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90g very fresh peeled garlic cloves (heaping 1/2 cup, from a 105g head)
1.5g salt (1/4 teaspoon)
55g cold water (1/4 cup)
315g neutral oil (1 1/2 cups)**
30g cold lemon juice (2 tablespoons)
special equipment: a high-powered blender***
Combine the garlic and salt in a blender or food processor. Blend at a low speed until the garlic is coarsely puréed. Add the water and blend at medium speed until it liquefies. Turn the blender off when you’re not using it, to prevent it from overheating.
With the blender running at a medium-low speed, remove the cap from the lid (but keep the lid on so it doesn’t splatter/for safety), and start to slowly drizzle in the oil through the small opening. Try to aim the stream of the oil for the center of the blades. Do not pour the oil too quickly or the emulsion will break.
Once all of the oil has been added, the toum should be thick and white, kind of like an aioli or thin mayo. Slowly pour in the lemon juice while the blender is running. The toum will thicken a bit more, and then it’s ready to use. You can store in in the refrigerator for about 2 weeks (adding more lemon juice will allow you to store it longer, for more like 1 month).
* Do not double this recipe. Toum is an eggless emulsion, so it’s very temperamental, and will break very easily. It must be made in small batches. Let the blender cool down between batches, because excessive heat can also cause the emulsion to break. This shouldn’t be a problem, because you probably won’t need more than 2 cups at a time. It’s strong stuff!
** Do not use extra virgin olive oil for this (although it works alright with super refined olive oil. I like to use canola, but any other neutral oil will work).
*** If you don’t have a high-powered blender, you can totally make toum in a food processor instead. The danger of making it with a high speed blender is letting it run too long, which makes the toum overheat and break. On the other hand, the danger of making it with a food processor is not puréeing the garlic enough at the beginning, so make sure you mince it finely with the salt, and then slowly add the water. In either case, it’s important to add the oil slowly, but you’ll want to add it a little extra slowly when using a food processor.