Is it possible to improve upon a dish as simple as tabbouleh? That's the question I asked myself when I started working on my own recipe for it. I looked up as many published recipes as I could find, focusing on those written by respected sources on Middle Eastern foods, including Paula Wolfert, Yotam Ottolenghi, and Claudia Roden. I gazed at photos online. I prepared test batches. And what I found was, yes, it can be improved, at least in subtle ways.
At its heart, tabbouleh is most often a straightforward mixture of parsley, mint, cooked bulgur wheat, onion (in some form or other), tomato, lemon, and olive oil. Spices like cinnamon and allspice are common. Read almost any expert, and they'll tell you a few key points about the salad, so let's start by getting those frequent refrains out of the way:
- The main ingredient in tabbouleh, as it's made in the Middle East, is parsley; everything else is secondary as far as quantity is concerned. The tendency to use lots of bulgur (or even couscous) in the United States is a deviation from the original spirit of the dish—it is not a grain salad with lots of parsley, it's a parsley salad with some grain in it.
- Wash and dry all the herbs well to prevent excess moisture from getting into the salad. A salad spinner is your best bet for this.
- You should hand-cut the parsley and mint with a very sharp knife to prevent bruising; a food processor, while tempting for the ease it promises, will result in a beaten, battered, and pulpy salad.
What struck me, though, was despite the concept's inherent simplicity, and despite following all of the rules set out by experts, my own early batches of tabbouleh were too wet. Mind you, I wasn't aiming for a dry tabbouleh—some juiciness is good. But as my initial tabbouleh sat, a pool of liquid quickly began to collect underneath. In theory, tabbouleh should get better and better as it sits...not wetter and wetter. Just take a look here:
Maybe the American tendency to beef up the grain content in their versions was out of a desire to absorb some of that extra liquid. I didn't want to go that route though, so I came up with my own solution to dealing with, or, better yet, avoiding excess moisture in my tabbouleh.
One word of warning: Don't be fooled by some of the published photos of tabbouleh out there, which can make the finished salad look as light and fluffy as a pile of feathers. As far as I can see, there's no way to keep finely chopped herbs airy and separate once lightly dressed and seasoned—tabbouleh is going to look moist, and the little pieces of herbs will darken and stick to each other. My guess is a lot of savvy food stylists arrange the salad before dressing it for the prettiest image, but not the most realistic one.
I knew right from the start that the tomatoes were likely to dump their juices into the salad and make it soupy, so I turned to a trick we've used on Serious Eats before: I tossed the diced tomato with salt and let it drain through a strainer into a mixing bowl below (we'll save those drained juices, more on that below).
The salt draws water out of the cells of the tomato through osmosis, which would inevitably happen in the salad bowl if we didn't take care of it beforehand. Some recipes call for seeding the tomatoes, but salting eliminates the need for that, since the jelly-like seed pulp drains away with the help of the salt (the seeds themselves remain, but aren't noticeable in the finished salad).
Salting the tomatoes, though, turned out not to be enough. The parsley, while much less wet than tomato, has enough of its own water content that, once seasoned with salt, it too will gradually release water into the salad and over-moisten it.
To test out if pre-salting the parsley would be helpful, I sprinkled a tablespoon of the chopped herb with salt and let it rest on a paper towel. Ten minutes later, this is what the towel looked like:
Multiply that effect by about 32 (the total amount of parsley in my recipe), and you'll get an idea of how much liquid can come out of it into the salad.
Unlike the tomato, I sat the parsley in a paper towel-lined mixing bowl, which better blots up the herb's moisture, since it doesn't accumulate well enough to actually drip through a strainer like it does with the tomato; I also avoided pre-salting the mint, since it's more delicate and can oxidize quickly after being sliced.
The tabbouleh I made with pre-salted parsley that I blotted dry on paper towels came out much less wet:
Next, I turned my attention to the bulgur, which can be a confusing ingredient. Simply put, it's made from cracked durum wheat (the same kind used to make semolina) that's been parboiled and then dried. Most of the recipes I found for tabbouleh list it just as "bulgur" without any additional information, but there's more to it than that.
The most important thing to know is that it comes in different sizes, from coarse to fine. The good news is that unlike many dried grains, bulgur doesn't need to be cooked in a pot of boiling water. A lot of tabbouleh recipes have you rinse or soak the bulgur in cold water until softened, but what they often fail to tell you is that the cold-soak method only really works for the finer grades.
In my tests, coarse bulgur refused to soften even after a couple hours in room temperature water. And in my shopping trips to well-stocked markets in New York City, I found coarse bulgur to be more readily available than the fine kind (at a Whole Foods, for example, I found a couple different coarse options and not a single fine one).
This is a problem, because if you can't find fine bulgur, the cold-soak method isn't going to work. A hot soak, meanwhile, will work regardless of the grind size of the bulgur, so that's what I'm calling for here.
But—here's another one of those small, subtle tweaks—unlike a lot of those other recipes that have you soak the bulgur in water, I realized I had a better, more flavorful liquid on my hands: the drained tomato water from my salting step.
I brought some of it to a boil, then poured it over my bulgur and let it stand until softened, which takes about an hour for the coarse grind (it'll continue to soften in the salad, so even if it still has some bite after the hour, it'll be okay). The bulgur doesn't taste radically different with the tomato water, but it does have a little more depth and savoriness that I think is worth it, especially when you consider that using the tomato water is no more complicated than using water.
Just like the parsley, I blot the bulgur of any excess moisture to help keep the liquid levels under control.
With the excess water removed from the parsley, tomatoes, and bulgur, and the tomato water re-purposed to hydrate the bulgur, almost everything is done. All that's left is to toss it all together along with some mint and chopped scallions (though minced chives, shallots, or onion work too), dress it with olive oil and lemon juice, season, and serve.
Before you do that, though, consider adding just a hint of spice. Some people like allspice, some use nutmeg, others cinnamon. To keep things simple, I add a pinch of cinnamon along with a bit of ground coriander seed, since I love its flavor and think it works well with the herbs in the tabbouleh, but you can omit it if you want—exactly which spices you use are up to you.
When my colleague Max bit into a heaping scoop of my tabbouleh on a piece of romaine lettuce (a common way to serve it), he thought for a moment, then said, "It's an accumulation of subtleties." That was exactly what I wanted to hear.