Over the years I have tasted various styles of Hummus around the world. Enough styles to know that when someone asks “What exactly is Hummus?” the correct answer is “It’s complicated”.
The typical person will tell you Hummus is made out of chickpeas ground into a paste. The more experienced foodies will tell you it also contains sesame paste (“Tahini” in the US and in Arabic speaking countries, “T’hina” in Israel).
Some adventurous souls will even try to make it at home, cooking the chickpeas until soft and then processing them in a food processor. They think the secret is in the lemon, or maybe it’s the garlic… or the cumin?
The truth is that it’s really not as simple as that. Hummus is one of those elusive dishes with hundreds of recipes, most of them zealously kept family or even trade secrets (think the Coca Cola formula). Many will pursue the ultimate Hummus recipe the same way some pursue the ultimate life partner, the ultimate beer, the ultimate high, the ultimate startup that will make them billionaires and change the world, the ultimate adrenaline inducing experience, etc. We are all obsessed with replicating at home that miraculous flavor and texture that we’ve all experienced at various legendary Hummus restaurants around the world. I say legendary because while many middle eastern restaurants sell Hummus, it’s very likely you’ve never really tasted even decent Hummus. This is especially true if you bought Hummus at the store (I have tried it, and it never tastes even remotely good, once you’ve had the real deal).
And as with every adventure to find the holy grail of something, the field is rife with rumors, theories and small pieces of a larger puzzle. A friend who heard from his friend who once used to work with another guy who used to work at one of those legendary Hummus restaurants. Some piece of the puzzle will be revealed, but it will take a grand effort to put all the pieces of the puzzle together. To further complicate the matter, every legendary Hummus restaurant has its own distinct style. Indeed the mature Hummus connoiseur knows not to argue about style, and instead focus on quality. It’s almost like arguing which supermodel looks better – they are all supermodels.
This blog post is place holder for my own humble efforts to demystify the process of preparing the ultimate home made Hummus, and if possible, In the style you prefer.
What I learned, so far
Not all chickpeas are the same
I learned that for years, I’ve used the wrong chickpea. Turns out there’s a specific type of chickpea all the best restaurants use. The pea is smaller, smoother, and its skin thinner.
Although I manage to get those peas at my local persian supermarket, Amazon sells those peas as well:
Soaking technique matters
You need to soak the chickpeas in water with sodium bicarbonate for 24 hours before cooking. This will soften the skin around the peas, and eliminate that “gritty” texture you feel on your tongue when processing non-soaked peas.
The water you use matters. The same principle that applies to rice, certainly applies to legumes; if you use water high in chlorine, your peas will have the aftertaste of chlorine. So if you can, try to use filtered water when soaking your legumes.
The secret of the Onion
Some will peel a medium sized onion and drop it whole into the pot to cook along with the peas. Supposedly the sweetness from the onion infuses into the peas, enhancing their flavor.
The “holy ratio”
Unbeknown to most, the name Hummus is actually misleading because you see, in terms of ratio, Hummus is really mostly Sesame paste with some amount of chickpea paste. For example in my last experiment, I used a ratio of 70% Sesame / 30% Chickpea.
Some of this confusion is due to an unfortunately common misconception about sesame paste. If you mix sesame paste with water, it will dilute and remain a liquid. However if you add the proper amount of lemon and mix vigorously, the oily paste you thought was liquid becomes a solid.
The sesame matters
Since we established a good Hummus is really more Sesame than Peas, the quality of the Sesame paste used is critical, more so than the type of pea. At the very least you need organic sesame paste without any additives & chemicals. It should be minimally processed and non-heated (processed cold).
And as there are many types of peas, there are also many types of sesame seeds and it may take some searching to find the manufacturer that “does it” for you. A good sesame paste will have a very faint aftertaste that reminds you of cooked eggs.
Cooking the peas
It’s much simpler and faster to cook peas when they are properly soaked. You can either cook the peas in a regular pot on a low flame (making sure they are always covered in water), or you can use a pressure cooker.
When using a pressure cooker, you will usually not need to cook the peas for more than 40 minutes from the moment high pressure is achieved. This is because a pressure cooker will typically reach a temperature of 120ºC (depending on your altitude relative to sea level), and because the high cooking pressure forces the hot liquids into the core of the peas, producing a uniform softness across the pea.
When using a regular pot, you may want to check every 10 minutes after the first 45 minutes (every pot and every stove are different). The pea should “melt” under the slightest pressure, but not completely disintegrate when touched or picked up with a spoon.