Toum: Lebanese Garlic Spread
My failures attempting to make toum have been catastrophic. Ever couple of months I’ll make a Lebanese style dinner, which inevitably involves some form of grilled or baked meat, an assortment of side dishes and fresh pita bread, and yet another failed attempt at making toum. Yet hope springs eternal, and so it goes that I try again…and fail again…and try again…and fail again….
If you have never had toum before, it is a rich sauce/spread that is intensely garlicky and creamy. In texture, the closest popular spread to compare it to would be mayonnaise (it’s thicker than an aïoli), and at it’s best toum is light, fluffy, lemony and almost spicy with fresh garlic. At it’s worst — and believe me, I know all about it’s worst — toum is runny, loosely curdled and suspicious looking.
To make toum you pulverize fresh garlic, slowly drizzle in a bucket or so of light oil and add freshly squeezed lemon juice until the mixture is emulsified, thick and stable. My first attempt, I tried what seemed to be the easiest technique, and I slowly, painstakingly drizzled the oil and citrus into my food processor. It didn’t emulsify, and after 10 minutes of effort, slowly pouring in just the tiniest addition at a time, I had what looked like curdled caesar salad dressing.
For my second attempt, I opted for the old fashioned mortar and pestle approach. Look, you already know how this one is going to turn out, so please don’t make me dig too deeply through memories that are better off buried. What I will say about the mortar and pestle is that it planted the seeds for future carpal tunnel syndrome, and after about 45 minutes I finally gave up on my runny garlic sauce.
At that point, I learned from my mistakes! I decided not to wing it, I would consult The Very Reliable Internet. On said internet, I discovered “the potato trick”, whereby you add a small amount (1/4 – 1/2 cup) of floury mashed white potato to the olive oil in your food processor. The potato is supposed to give your toum volume and stability. Sadly, this was possibly my greatest failure to date. At the very least, my past toum fiascos could sideline as salad dressings or marinades. However, a mass of lumpy, greasy garlic and potato soup has no place on my table.
The last time that I tried to make toum I used the restaurant trick of beating in a single egg white while the sauce was emulsifying. That miscarriage of an attempt became an excellent binder for vegetarian rice stuffed peppers. It should have worked, I know that in principle, it just….didn’t. Not for me at least; not that time.
For my dinner of shish taouk (Lebanese grilled chicken skewers), which were just crying out for rich, garlicky toum on the side, I tried one more time. I vowed that this time would be my last, and if it didn’t work out then forevermore I would just fold minced garlic into mayonnaise and feign a choking fit if anyone suspiciously asked me what it was. This time, I did everything right. The light safflower oil was drizzled in ever so slowly. I painstakingly monitored the additions of lemon juice, alternating a tablespoon of juice for 1/4 cup of oil. I added the egg white 3/4 of the way through the process and salted near the end, just to be on the safe side. For the sake of posterity and emulsification, I even TIMED the bloody blender and let it whir away for exactly 1 minute between each addition. After all this care and attention to detail, in the end, I had a blender full of greasy white particulate suspended throughout a runny sauce. AGAIN.
When your toum separates, there is generally no coming back. Just accept that it’s time to give up the ghost and start again. Ergo, I resigned myself to yet another batch of glitchy garlic salad dressing when all of a sudden The Big Magic happened.
To thin the dressing out somewhat I started adding cold water, about a tablespoon at a time. The mixture instantly began to thicken into a full bodied, creamy mass. Delighted by my new discovery I added a little bit more, and a bit more….yes, you know where this is going. My glorious, fluffy white toum had reached critical mass and started to deflate and thin out in exactly the way that a mayonnaise would. Although I do like my toum a little bit fluffier, this was thin enough to use as a dip for cruddite but thick enough to slather and spread on pita bread. If I hadn’t added that last splash of water, this would have been perfect toum. Yes, perfect. And that’s saying a lot for a sauce that just moments before had failure written all over it.
Why does a tiny splash of cold water make such a difference? I don’t know. Just go with it, because it works. Don’t give me too much credit, though. I was all ready to crow gleefully across the internet with my new discovery, but someone already beat me to the punch…and has much nicer pictures, to boot.
One more thing – if it isn’t already painfully obvious, this is a spread that is best served to and eaten with your beloved. You know, the one who loves you no matter what, even when you cough and your breath causes all the leaves fall off of a maple tree, or your kitchen tiles slowly start to rise and peel back. If you’re not a garlic lover, spare yourself the pain and pretend that you never saw this post. If you are a garlic lover, however, come into my parlour. I think we’ll be fast friends.
Makes 1+ – 1.5 cups, depending on airiness of finished product
- 4 cloves garlic *
- 3/4 cup safflower oil **
- 1-1.5 lemons (1/4 cup juice)
- 1 egg white, chilled
- 3/4 tsp kosher salt, or to taste
- 2 – 3 tablespoons ice water, at your discretion if the mixture doesn’t bind
* Toum recipes can call for anywhere between 2 cloves to one whole bulb of garlic for a single batch. I love garlic, but anything more than 4 cloves is overkill to me. You should be overwhelmed by garlic, true, but you should also be able to appreciate the creamy mouth-feel of the spread and enjoy the tangy, lemony flavor.
** Olive oil is too heavy for toum and it will also make the color a darker pale yellow. Mind you, I have limited experience with successful toum, so perhaps when your toum is fluffy the olive oil is irrelevant? I do know, however, that safflower, sunflower and grape-seed oils are all used commonly to whip into toum, but olive oil rarely makes an appearance.
Have all of your ingredients measured out in pourable containers and ready to go before you begin. This will make it much easier to add installments without turning off the blender.
Start by pureeing the garlic cloves with a tablespoon of olive oil. It should be very fine and paste-like, because you don’t want any garlic chunks in the finished toum.
Very slowly drizzle in 1/4 cup of oil with your blender running at a medium speed. When the oil is incorporated and the blender is still running, slowly drizzle in one tablespoon of the lemon juice. Repeat this process two more times (you should have 1/4 cup oil and a splash of lemon juice left) before adding the egg white and salt. Let the blender whiz away for another minute with the egg white before you add the final addition of oil and lemon juice.
This should be a slow process (about 5-7 minutes) that requires a bit of patience, because if you add either the oil or lemon juice too quickly the sauce will seize and separate.
For example, please see below. Sigh.
But huzzah! Remember, we still have our secret ingredient at hand….ice cold water! With the blender still running, add a tablespoon of ice water to your gloopy sauce and watch the magic happen.
Do you see how the sauce instantly thickened and lightened in volume and color? Brilliant. Just brilliant. I am absolutely chuffed, I am!
Scrape down the sides of your blender to incorporate all the separated solids back into the mass. Add more water a few drops at a time, stopping when the toum is thick and holds together like a fluffy mayonnaise, or you have a texture that you like.
Toum is generally liberally dolloped on the side of your entree if you have a grilled meat like shawarme, kafta or shish taouk. I like toum simply spread on pita bread with a few slices of cucumber and fresh red onion (much to the chagrin of anyone sitting beside me, I’m sure), but it’s also popular as a meze dip for cruddite or fresh small pitas, served right along side the garlicky hummus and baba ganouj.
“Hhhhhhhhhey hhhhhhhoney! Whyyyyyyyy don’t you come hhhhhhhere and give mama a kiss?”
The long weekend was a race against the clock to eat as much toum as possible before I had to detoxify and go back to work. Even so, was I sweating out garlic at my Tuesday morning meeting? Probably. Was it worth it for succulent spiced chicken kebabs with a pungent, kicker of a garlic sauce? Absolutely.