Spice Things Up With Za’atar
This fabulous Middle Eastern spice blend packs a punch with a potent combination of dried herbs, sumac, and sesame seeds
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Zaatar Spice from Feasting at Home
I first tasted za’atar, the Middle Eastern spice blend, at one of the many Lebanese grocery stores in my old Chicago neighborhood, a spot that’s hosted successive waves of immigrants from all over the Levantine. Their bakery counter is replenished continuously throughout the day with fresh baked pita and lavash, spinach and cheese pies, as well as other baked goods in a staggering variety of shapes and sizes.
My perennial favorite is manakeesh — a circular flatbread topped black-and-white-cookie-style with a half-moon of melted white cheese and on the other half, a thick layer of deep olive green za’atar and extra-virgin olive oil. Folded in half, it makes for a perfect bite, showing off every layer of flavor and depth that za’atar has to offer — floral aromatics from oregano and thyme, a nutty crunch of toasted sesame, plus sparkling tartness from sumac — all beautifully paired with the briny richness of halloumi cheese and the toasted caramel of fresh bread.
With manakeesh as my gateway drug, I laid in my own supply of za’atar and discovered, as many cooks before me have, its universal culinary appeal. It tastes good on just about anything, from grilled meats to tomato salads, as a last-minute accent dusted on a bowl of hummus to a fundamental bass note in marinades for meat. Za’atar can enhance any meal of the day. If you’re new to za’atar, here’s a dossier of recipes to guide you into your new spice obsession; if you’re a za’atar-head from way back, I hope you’ll find inspiration here to incorporate it into even more dishes.
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Protein-packed za’atar main courses >>
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Thyme for a za’atar FAQ
Let’s get the basics taken care of before we dive into the za’atar recipes!
What is za’atar?
Za’atar is a Middle Eastern blend of dried herbs and spices. The spice blend shares a name with a wild herb in the same family as mint (Origanum Syriacum) which is often included in the blend itself. The spice blend may also contain dried thyme or oregano or marjoram in place of za’atar (the herb), plus tart sumac, toasted sesame seeds, and salt. It’s a staple seasoning in countries all around the Eastern Mediterranean with formulas that change from country to country and from house to house. No two za’atar makers use the exact same recipe, but they all have in common a savory herbal depth and a crunchy nutty texture.
How do you make za’atar?
You can make it yourself with your own blend of dried herbs and sesame seeds (see below for a recipe), or you can find a variety of packaged za’atar options at your local Middle Eastern grocery store or online.
How can you use za’atar?
Zaatar is an incredibly versatile ingredient, equally at home as a garnish on salads, as a spice rub on grilled meats or roasted za’atar chicken or vegetables, or as a flavoring agent in dips and spreads.
What does za’atar taste like?
Za’atar packs a punch, flavor wise — the dried herbs provide a floral, grassy foundation to the gentle acidity of the sumac and the crunchy nuttiness of toasted sesame. Different recipes may add cumin, coriander, citrus peels, and other accents.
What spices are in za’atar?
It depends! Za’atar recipes across the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa vary as much as BBQ rubs in different regions of the American South. You’ll sometimes find za’atar (the herb) or substitutes like dried oregano, marjoram, and thyme. Most za’atar recipes call for dried sumac as well as toasted sesame seeds for nutty crunch.
The za’atar basics
Where to begin with za’atar? Right here with a template to make your own savory spice blend and the very simplest ways to enjoy it.
Here’s a basic formula to start from if you want to make your own za’atar spice mix at home. Sumac may be tough to find, but it’s worth the effort and planning to order some online if you are not close to a Middle Eastern grocery.
The simplest way to enjoy za’atar is to dunk some pita in oil and then into a pile of za’atar, then devour with cucumber slices and a few chunks of feta. This dip takes that elemental recipe and adds a little garlic zing — think of it as Levantine chimichurri.
This classic Lebanese flatbread with oil and za’atar was my first introduction to this delightful blend. Use store-bought lavash or pita if you’re not ready to wrestle with your own yeast dough.
Some za’atar spreads
Everybody likes chips and dip. Za’atar is a terrific ingredient to take your spreads to the next level.
Labneh Dip with Zaatar Pistachio Mint Olive Topping
On the dairy spectrum, labneh falls somewhere between Greek yogurt and cream cheese and it’s a great foundation for this tangy layered dip. I love the little pomegranate seeds as a sweet contrast to the salty olives and savory za’atar.
The recipe says that the za’atar is optional, but once you dust this chick pea hummus with our favorite spice blend, you’ll consider it a compulsory add-on going forward.
Roasted Eggplant Dip
While you’ve got the tahini out and you’ve already extracted some pomegranate seeds, why not throw an eggplant in the oven and whip up some baba ghanoush. Feel free to double (or triple) the za’atar.
Za’atar sides and veggies
Eat your veggies! Eat ‘em with za’atar! You’ll like ‘em even more!
Cold lentils and seedless Persian cucumbers make a satisfying summer salad. Feel free to add a few more teaspoons of za’atar!
This salad is like a Lebanese panzanella — crispy toasted pita chips soak up oil and tomato juice and make for the tastiest croutons imaginable.
Potatoes Roasted with Za’atar and Lemon
Dredge your potatoes in za’atar and aleppo chili before roasting them off; toss with lemon juice right before serving to bring out the za’atar’s sumac sour notes. Crunchy lemony potato perfection.
Baked Sweet Potato Fries With Za'atar
I love za’atar with sweet potatoes. The spice blend accentuates the deep caramel notes of well-browned sweet potato fries.
Zaatar Roasted Carrots with Labneh
I’m a big fan of roasted carrots — we eat ‘em multiple times a week. Za’atar is the regular rotation of roast carrot flavor profiles in my kitchen — right between Parmesan / garlic and miso / ginger / honey. Add home-made labneh and you can’t miss.
Za'atar-Roasted Cauliflower Steaks with Bean Salad
A vegan meal fit for a king — thick cauliflower “steaks” crusted with homemade za’atar take on an irresistible sweetness in a hot oven.
Protein-packed za’atar main courses
Za’atar belongs at the center of the plate; it’s the spice blend star of the show in these main courses.
Za'atar Crusted Grilled Pork Chops
Start up a charcoal chimney, break out your meat thermometer, and give these za’atar crusted pork steaks a quick sear over open flames till they’re a perfect pink-hued medium-well.
Za’atar Roasted Chicken
Bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs are the most delicious cut for an easy weeknight sheet pan dinner. When I prepare this za’atar chicken recipe, I slide some za’atar under the skin as well to season the meat and make it easier to crisp up the top.
Zaatar-Crusted Lamb Fillet With Skordalia
Marinate a lamb filet in za’atar and oil for an hour and then char-grill it to perfection.
Skillet Baked Eggs in Quinoa with Za'atar
You know this one-skillet dish will be good, because the recipe calls for you to put za’atar in before AND after you bake it. That’s a double za’atar hit!
Herby Lemon Za'atar Salmon over Yogurt & Cherry Tomatoes
With fresh citrus, lightly dressed cherry tomatoes, and plenty of fresh herbs, this za’atar-crusted salmon is bright and earthy all at once.
Za’atar fusion dishes
When I tell you that za’atar is versatile, believe it — these dishes take our favorite Middle Eastern spice blend on a world tour and prove that za’atar belongs wherever you sprinkle it.
Why stop at sesame when topping your bagels? Hit ‘em with za’atar and get sesame plus spice. I like to throw a few fragrant nigella seeds in the mix, too, for added bagel topping intrigue. That’s my nomination for the new “everything” bagel.
Za'atar Cacio e Pepe
Celebrity Chef Yotam Ottolenghi has been making recipe-shaped arguments for the wider use of Levantine ingredients in everyday kitchens for years. His take on cacio e pepe may drive Italian purists into paroxysms of rage, but I LOVE the idea of pushing this Roman classic in a Middle Eastern direction with a liberal dollop of za’atar.
Olive Oil Popcorn with Za'atar
It sounds basic, but sometimes basic is where it’s at. Movie night will be even better with Middle-Eastern popcorn.
Za'atar Roasted Butternut Squash + Chickpeas | Lemongrass Rice | Miso Tahini
I sometimes find roasted butternut squash a little bland, but with za’atar, fermented miso and silky tahini sauce on the case, this recipe pumps up the umami flavors and gives this squash the depth it deserves. With a surprising lemongrass rice alongside, I’ll happily polish off this vegetarian meal.
Keep the spice coming
Leave bland behind. These Yummly articles are for spice lovers!