You might be asking yourself, "Why do I need a recipe for za'atar?" Indeed, when it's undeniably easier (though not that much easier) to buy already-blended spices instead of mixing your own, I definitely need to justify the suggestion that you make your own. But the reason is simple: if you spend a couple extra minutes blending your own spices, you can tailor them perfectly to your own tastes.
Just imagine having a bespoke spice blend, perfectly designed just for you, that makes everything you sprinkle it on infinitely more delicious. The only thing standing between you and spice bliss is five minutes and a few ingredients, so what are you waiting for?
Za'atar is a great first blend to experiment with because it's very straightforward. Spice blends are all about balance, nuance, tension, and harmony. The more elements you introduce, the more difficult it becomes to really thoughtfully and carefully adjust things without making it taste muddy and perplexing (unless that's the experience you're going for!)
While za'atar ingredients sometimes vary, the three ingredients in my blend are dried thyme, sesame seeds, and sumac. To figure out how to design your own za'atar, you just need to know a little about the flavor profile of each ingredient, so that you can bring the three in perfect balance with each other. The best way to understand this is to taste a little bit of each one with a teeny-tiny pinch of salt to help bring out the flavors. Even if you think you know what they taste like, taste each one just before mixing them, because dried herbs and spices age (and not all that well), different crops have different properties, and you just never know what you're going to get.
Thyme is the heart of za'atar and its namesake, so I like to think about building everything else around it (even if the thyme makes up a small part of the total ingredients in the end). Everything that you add to the thyme should be there to highlight its flavor. Think about what you like about thyme. Is it its fragrance or its earthiness? If you want to highlight its fragrance, you might want to add more sumac, and if you want to highlight its earthiness, you might want to add more sesame seeds. If you want to bring out the thyme's intense bitterness, add a little more sesame, but if you want to bring out some of its zesty qualities, you can use more sumac to make the mix tangier. I like having tension between all of these things, so I like to add equal parts of each. That way it doesn't end up tasting soapy or unpleasantly bitter.
I use za'atar in the following recipes, so feel free to visit the links below if you're looking for a way to incorporate za'atar into your cooking:
I've included my own personal recipe for za'atar (if you can even call it a recipe). Some people like to grind their za'atar into a fine powder, some people add oregano, marjoram, or savory, and too many other tasty ingredients to list, and some people use a very different ratio of ingredients than the one below. I've tried a lot of variations and I prefer a simple ratio of 1:1:1. Feel free to experiment to find your favorite za'atar.
My Favorite Za'atar
1 part good quality dried thyme leaves
1 part sesame seeds
1 part sumac *
Optional: salt to taste (e.g., when each part is equal to 1/4 cup, I use 1/2 teaspoon salt, for a total of 3/4 cup za'atar)
- Toast the sesame seeds in a small pan over medium-low heat, stirring constantly (about 5 minutes). Remove from heat immediately once they turn light golden.
- Mix together the thyme, sesame seeds, sumac, and salt (if you're using it).
- Optional: grind for 2 or 3 pulses in a spice grinder or for less than a minute in the mortar and pestle. Instead of turning the za'atar into a fine powder, simply crush and release the flavors a little.
* Sumac is a common ingredient in many of my recipes and is worth having in your pantry.