Za'atar is a wonderfully tangy, herb-forward Middle Eastern spice blend. Do you know it? I'm sure a bunch of you do. It's the sort of ingredient that tends to make an appearance in my kitchen this time of year. Right now it sits on my counter next to essentials like sea salt and olive oil, and I suspect it will be there a while. I find za'atar a welcome counterpoint to the sweetness of deeply roasted winter squash, a nice wildcard element in big hearty soups, ideal sprinkled generously over eggs of all kinds, and just the right accent on everything from mashed avocado to chopped olives. Seriously, it's good all around. It's one of those blends that varies from country to country, family to family, cook to cook, and it's simple to prepare. The base recipe for the version I make is a simple ratio of dried thyme, sumac, toasted sesame seeds, and sea salt. Pre-made za'atar is easy to find around, and I've sampled a good range, but it's one of those things worth making yourself. Use good sesame seeds, recently dried thyme, with vibrant sumac, and the za'atar you'll have will have an intensity nearly impossible to find in pre-packaged blends.
There is always some confusion surrounding za'atar because it is the name of the spice blend, and also the name of a class of herbs. We're talking about the blend here. I believe the version I make is closest to what is typical in Lebanon, but there are times I like to add other components. If you do a survey of za'atar blends you'll find some use marjoram, or oregano. You read of pistachios, turmeric, hyssop. Like any other spice blend, it's great to start with a good, basic recipe, but it's even more important for you to tweak it from there to your liking. I like a very thyme-centric za'atar with just enough tangy citrus reaching through from the sumac - herb first and balanced. From there, not too many sesame seeds, and just the right amount of salt.
I'll include my basic recipe below, the one I use most often. But related to my point above, sometimes I add to it. I like how this Mexican oregano tastes ground into it. Or, a bit of fennel pollen is a kiss of magic - particularly when I'm planning on using the za'atar swirled with great olive oil into thick yogurt. Just remember, tweak it to your liking.
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While you can used pre-packaged dried thyme here, I prefer to dry my own fresh thyme in the oven just before making this blend. The thyme retains a nice green color, the flavor is bright and fresh, and there is none of the mustiness you sometimes get with herbs or spices that are past their prime. It's one of those little details that make enough of a difference to be worth it.
4 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves, stripped from stems (or equivalent dried)
2 teaspoons ground sumac*
scant 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt, or to taste
1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds
Place thyme leaves on a baking sheet in a 300F oven until dry, just ten minutes or so. Just long enough that they'll crumble between pinched fingers. Let cool.
Use a mortar and pestle to grind the thyme leave finely. If your thyme is at all stem-y or fibrous, sift to remove any larger particles. Transfer to a small bowl, and aside.
Crush the sumac finely with the mortar and pestle, add the salt and crush with the sumac. Add the thyme back, and grind together a bit. Stir in the sesame seeds, taste, and adjust to your liking, perhaps with a bit more salt, or sumac, or sesame seeds. Any za'atar you might not use in the coming days keeps best refrigerated (or in the freezer) if you make a double or triple batch.
*If you're having a hard time finding sumac, check the spice rack at your local market (I've seen it at Whole Foods), specialty foods stores and/or Middle Eastern markets.
Prep time: 5 min - Cook time: 10 min