Za’atar can refer to both a specific herb and a spice blend that’s popular throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa. Sometimes Anglicized as Zaatar or Zatar, the spice is complex and useful on a regular basis.
Both the herb and spice blend have long histories of being used in cooking and medicine. The herb is referenced in the Bible, and we can confirm that as far back as the 12th Century the blend was prescribed as medicine. It may even be good for your brain! For clarity, we’ll be referring to za’atar as the spice blend, unless we say otherwise.
So, how do we use za’atar in our cooking?
Similar to Chinese five spice, za’atar tastes like the herbs and spices that make up the blend. Traditionally, the herb za’atar is included in the spice mix, but since it’s rare and often expensive, most modern or store-bought versions mimic the flavor. Instead, you’ll often find herbs like thyme, oregano, or marjoram. These give the blend a deeply aromatic quality with a light sweetness, earthiness, and warmth. This allows za’atar or its substitutes to pair well with the other fundamental ingredient in the blend, sumac. This deep red spice has a citrusy sweet and sour flavor that enhances the taste it’s pairing.
The common third ingredient is toasted sesame seeds which add a nutty, earthy flavor. Finally, many blends will add salt as a flavor enhancer, though this isn’t required. Together, you have an earthy, spicey, and salty seasoning with enough acid and sweetness to create a well-rounded blend.
There are a few really easy ways to use za’atar beyond seasoning. A really easy way to enjoy is to pour some extra virgin olive oil on a plate or shallow bowl with a sprinkling of za’atar overtop. Then it’s just a matter of dipping a bread of your choice, whether that’s laffa or sliced bread. You can eyeball the amounts for this, but about a tablespoon of za’atar to two to three tablespoons of oil is a good starting point.
The other simple way to use it is to make man’oushe by brushing a little oil on some laffa bread, sprinkling za’atar on top, and baking or broiling it. This makes an excellent appetizer to be served with pickled vegetables, meats, cheeses, or other small finger foods.
Finally, you can use it as a salad dressing. The simplest combination here is to mix some za’atar with olive oil and lemon juice. We encourage you to try it for yourself, adding other ingredients to see what you can create!
Now that we’ve seen just how easy it is to use za’atar, what are some ingredients that work well with it? For us, the best way to use any spice mix is to pick out a flavor featured both in the mix and your ingredient. For example, za’atar works really well with roasted vegetables, as both have an earthy flavor. The same is true of grilled or roasted meat with the savory and often salty flavors. The citrus notes from the sumac will also work well with lemon or other citrus fruits and sour flavors. Don’t forget to try it with other warm spices like cinnamon or paprika or in dishes traditionally from the Middle East, Northern Africa, or around the Mediterranean. There’s not much that doesn’t work well with za’atar!
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Whether you’re using a store-bought mix or your own homemade recipe, za’atar is a useful and multifaceted spice mix that you can call upon regularly. If this spice mix is new to you, give it a try. You’ll soon understand why humans have been using it for hundreds, if not thousands, of years!