Kitchen Cupboard Know-How: What Is Za’atar And How Do You Use It?

what is zaatar
What Is Za’atar And How Do You Use It?Vicky Chandler

Confusion often arises about za’atar, because it is both the name for a distinct herb in the mint family, and a middle-eastern seasoning blend. We’ll be referring here primarily to the seasoning blend rather than the individual herb itself, but for clarity’s sake, the mint-like herb of the same name can appear in the spice mix, depending on where you buy yours from.

What Is In Za’atar?

Za’atar varies between regions but key ingredients tend to include sesame seeds, sumac, and dried herbs - that’s before we get into the variations which might include a whole host of other spices: dill, salt, and dried citrus zest.

At its heart, za’atar is an intense, heady blend of flavours which together form a complete seasoning, as each ingredient brings its own character to the mix. Toasted sesame seeds, often enhanced by cumin or coriander, provide earthiness; acidity or brightness usually comes via the inclusion of sumac but can augmented with dried citrus zest, and the delicate green herbiness is traditionally provided by the za’atar plant itself - but is often substituted with a combination of marjoram, thyme, mint or oregano because real za’atar is relatively difficult to get hold of.

As far as the texture is concerned, it’s on the coarser end of the spectrum - this should be almost crunchy from the toasted sesame seeds, and add a pleasing nubbly bite to whatever you decide to sprinkle it over.

Which brings us, fortuitously, to…

How do you use za’atar?

Traditionally, za’atar is used as part of a dip with warm flatbread and olive oil: you dip the flatbread into the oil, and then into a little bowl of za’atar so it sticks to the flatbread and you get a zingy, fragrant mouthful every time. This should definitely be the first thing you do when you get your hands on your first little tub of of za’atar, and although it’ll probably take you at least three tubs to get bored of this incredible snacking option (you have been warned) here are some other ways to use za’atar which will instantly brighten up all sorts of meals.

Sprinkle it onto salads

Add another dimension to salads with a good dusting of za’atar. Either add a cheeky tablespoon into the dressing or simply sprinkle it over everything before tossing together - the earthiness of the sesame and punch of the sumac will really elevate things. This works really well with robust salads with hearty ingredients such as avocado, feta, walnuts or goat’s cheese because the fat in these ingredients are a good vehicle for the flavour compounds found in the za’atar.

Use it to coat salmon fillets before baking

If you’re bored of your usual teriyaki or pesto salmon, then why not spice things up a bit and let za’atar come to the rescue? Mix equal parts breadcrumbs and za’atar and then dip your salmon in it on each side to coat before baking as normal in a hot oven. This makes a quick weeknight dinner when served with a chopped cucumber and parsley salad, couscous and a good dollop of lemony tzatziki.

Mix it with a little grated Parmesan for a mind-blowing savoury popcorn topping

Cook your popcorn according to packet instructions and then melt over a little butter and toss, before sprinkling over some Parmesan and za’atar for a salty, earthy, and addictively herby snack. This makes a lovely snack to have with drinks at a party - people will be sure to ask you about it. Just make sure to pay attention to the salt content of your popcorn and za’atar and adjust your parmesan usage accordingly.

Use it to cover a leg of lamb before roasting

Essentially what you’re doing here is making a rub for a leg of lamb using za’atar as a base ingredient. Combine olive oil, garlic, chilli flakes and salt with a few tablespoons of za’atar to make a paste, then rub all over a leg of lamb and marinate for a few hours, preferably overnight. Then either cook as normal in an oven or on a barbecue for a wonderfully smoky flavour.