Why It Works
- Drying the za'atar (or substitute herbs) yourself produces the most fragrant and long-lasting blend.
- If you can't find real za'atar, oregano mixed with some marjoram and/or thyme gives you the closest approximation to the flavor of the native plant.
- Grinding the za'atar with some of the sesame seeds releases the seed oils, moistening the dried herb, while folding more sesame seeds in whole creates a more pleasing overall texture.
Za’atar is one of the most used and loved Arab ingredients in the West, and yet it is also one of the most misunderstood. Translations abound from “thyme” to “spice blend,” and mixes include all kinds of different ingredients, some calling for a mishmash of store-bought dried herbs to simply be mixed together. While this is neither offensive nor terrible tasting, it deprives you from experiencing za’atar in its best and most original form.
What Is Za'atar?
The word "za'atar" itself refers to a specific plant, the same way marjoram or dill or parsley do. It is also the name given to the blend made with the dried leaves of this plant—very creative nomenclature, I have to admit. Za’atar belongs to the oregano family (its scientific name, unsurprisingly, is Origanum Syriacum), and is native to the Levant, particularly the Syrian, Jordanian, and Palestinian mountains. This is probably why its closest substitute here in the West, in terms of flavor, is oregano, and not thyme as so many translations of the recipe might have led you to believe.
Every spring growing up, my family would take several trips to the mountains surrounding Jerusalem and pick za’atar leaves in the wild. We would use the fresh leaves in salads and breads, then dry the rest for use throughout the year. To this day, even with dried and ready-made varieties widely available, my parents, like many others, still forage for za’atar in the wild and dry it at home. If you’re thinking, why bother making it at home when you can now buy this condiment in stores, the truth is that what you buy tastes almost nothing like this home-made version. Give it a try, and you’ll understand why many Palestinian families still choose to forage, dry, and perform this yearly ritual by hand.
At its finest, za’atar (the blend) uses only the leaves of the plant, which have been stripped off the stem and dried. These leaves are then ground with sesame seeds and then mixed with sumac, salt, and more whole sesame seeds. The texture of the ground sesame-herb mixture should be powdery, but it will not be dry because of the oils released from the ground seeds. The whole sesame seeds added in at the end are there as much for flavor as for texture, giving the blend the most satisfying delicate crunch.
Making Your Own Za'atar
Fresh za’atar is difficult to find in the US, but its relatives like oregano and marjoram, and even thyme, are bountiful. Yes, you can purchase dried oregano, thyme, and marjoram in grocery stores, but I highly recommend you buy your own fresh leaves and dry them yourself, as the dried ones sold in stores can be cut with other herbs, can include stems, and are probably not as fresh as they should be, which is not ideal for making truly fine za’atar. (While I haven't had much luck finding dried za'atar leaves on their own in the US, one can find the premade za'atar mix here from companies like Burlap & Barrel, Maureen Abood Market, Milk Street, and Syndyanna, all good options for those who want to try za'atar made from real za'atar leaves.)
Sumac is another important component of the blend, and since the recipe calls for store-bought sumac, make sure you use a pure version without salt. If you are unable to find it, simply omit the salt in this recipe.
All the Ways to Eat Za'atar
There is hardly a Palestinian kitchen table anywhere in the world that does not have a small bowl of za’atar sitting next to one of olive oil. The most common breakfast food is a piece of bread dipped in olive oil then za’atar. It is also perfect sprinkled over fried eggs or swirled into yogurt or labaneh. You can also mix it with olive oil and use it as a topping for manaqeesh (a flatbread), add it to meat and chicken marinades, or blend it into doughs. Since moving to the United Statesabroad, I have come up with less traditional uses for it, mixing it into salad dressings or breadcrumb coatings and even sprinkling it on mashed potatoes and roast vegetables. My soft spot, though, remains the most basic: a fresh piece of taboon bread dipped in olive oil and za’atar.
- 1 cup (6 ounces; 180g) unhulled white sesame seeds (see note)
- 2 cups (1 1/2 ounces; 45g) dried za’atar leaves, firmly packed (see note)
- 1 tablespoon (7g) sumac
- 3/4 teaspoon (3g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt; for table salt, use about half as much by volume or the same weight
In an 8- or 10-inch stainless steel skillet, heat sesame seeds over medium-low heat, stirring continuously to avoid scorching, until aromatic and starting to pop, about 8 minutes. Transfer toasted sesame seeds to a bowl to cool completely.
Using a blender or spice grinder, and working in batches if necessary, grind za’atar leaves and one-third of the toasted sesame seeds to a fine powder. Transfer mixture to a large bowl, then whisk in the remaining sesame seeds along with the sumac and salt until well combined. Transfer to an airtight container, then store at room temperature for up to 3 months, in the refrigerator for up to 6 months, or in the freezer for up to 1 year.
A powerful blender (like a Vitamix or a Thermomix) or a spice grinder
The actual za’atar plant is not very easy to find in the US, although some specialty purveyors or international markets might carry it in the spring and early summer. Oregano is the most suitable substitute: For the best results, start with fresh oregano leaves and dry them according to the directions below (commercially dried oregano will be older and less flavorful). You can also mix in some marjoram and/or thyme leaves, but oregano should be the most prevalent herb (a ratio of 3 parts oregano to 1 part marjoram and/or thyme works best).
To get 1 1/2 ounces (45g) of dried oregano leaves you will need 250 to 300g fresh oregano leaves, from about 1 to 1 1/2 pounds (500 to 700g) oregano stems (once dried and rubbed to a fine consistency, this will yield about 1 1/4 cups). To dry the oregano, first taste the fresh leaves and make sure they are not so bitter, peppery, or astringent that it feels unpleasant in your mouth (some varieties of oregano can be especially intense and are best not used for this; most of the fresh oregano I've bought in the US is fine, but it's worth confirming before proceeding with the drying process). Spread oregano stems on towel-lined baking sheets and set in a well ventilated but clean area until completely dry (next to a sunny window is ideal). This can take from a few days to a couple of weeks depending on climate and batch size. Alternatively, use a dehydrator set to 100°F (38°C) until completely dry, about 36 hours. You will know the leaves are dry when one easily crumbles between your fingers.Rub dried leaves off of stems and discard stems, then proceed with recipe.
Make-Ahead and Storage
Za’atar can be kept in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 3 months, refrigerated for up to 6 months, or frozen for up to 1 year.