The first time I had ever heard of toum—the crazy good, strong garlic sauce that is a ubiquitous Middle Eastern condiment for kebabs and other barbecued meats—was just a few years ago. I had recently met my friend Janet, a powerhouse food writer whose husband is Lebanese, and she asked me, don’t you just love toum?
We were both surprised that not only had I never made this version of garlic aoli before, I had never tasted it, either. Turns out I was missing out on the kind of garlicky flavor that gives BAM! a whole new meaning.
There is not a lot of garlic in the Lebanese cuisine I grew up with, which may be the result of the regions from which my parents hail, but it could also have to do with the fact that my mother really does not care for garlic. For her, garlic is like an annoyance that just won’t go away, the mosquito bite of foods. When she heard I’d be making toum with you, she did not pretend to think that was a good idea. It’s as though she thought the windows of my blog would be wide open and through those windows the scent of garlic would bother everyone as much as it bothers her. She did point out that it’s not just her taste that has kept toum off our table—it’s never been on any table in either her or my father’s families, and it is not in her favorite old country cookbook, either. So there.
On my third attempt at toum recipes in one day, I commented to her on how the scent of the garlic was very much with us. With us? I smell it and I taste it, she shouted from the other room.
But why three attempts for the toum, you might wonder, and rightly so. My admission of that is not to scare you off from making toum, but simply to say that after trying a few different methods, I think the one I’ve landed on is going to be successful for all of us. Toum is essentially a type of mayonnaise, an aoli, both of which are emulsions of egg, oil, and lemon juice. Except toum, which means garlic in Arabic, contains no eggs; it is an emulsion of lots of garlic, lemon juice and a neutral oil. Some recipes do call for a raw egg white to be included in the toum, but none of my Lebanese cookbooks do; still I’ve tried it and I don’t think it’s necessary. The toum on my cousin May’s table in Lebanon was made by starting with cornstarch and boiling water. Something must have been lost in translation because for me it wielded cornstarch/garlic/oil liquid, which shouldn’t have been a surprise given that oil and water don’t mix.
Emulsions can be a tricky thing; we spent plenty of time on them in culinary school and discovered that practice makes perfect. I had a few rounds of unsuccessful toum during that time and decided I’d leave perfecting it to another day—like today. Given that garlic is the basis of the sauce, into which the oil is emulsified, it takes a significant amount of garlic to create enough of a foundation for the oil to work its magic. So don’t be shocked by the full cup of garlic cloves used in the recipe, or the four cups of neutral-flavored oil that are blended into them…it can be more than challenging to make a smaller amount of toum, and since toum lasts for weeks in your refrigerator, a larger quantity is not a bad thing (think the best garlic toast you’ve ever tasted, under the broiler). Unless you’re a member of the no-garlic-on-my-table club. In which case you’re still going to love a smokey, char-grilled plateful of barbecued laham mishweh—lamb kebabs, coming up tomorrow—just like I always have, even without the extra BAM.
Garlic Sauce, or Toum
Fluffy toum sauce is delicious with any type of barbecued meat, particularly chicken, beef, or lamb, and grilled vegetables. Try it spread on thick slices of crusty bread and broiled for some of the finest garlic toast around. Check this toum demo out by the talented Lebanese Chef Kamal Al-Faqih. My recipe is an adaptation of his (from his Classic Lebanese Cuisine, published in 2009 by Three Forks, an imprint of The Globe Pequot Press). Be sure to use a food processor, spatula, and measuring cup that are completely dry—water can cause the emulsion to break. Choose garlic that is firm and fresh.
1 cup very fresh garlic cloves, peeled
2 teaspoons salt
½ cup lemon juice
4 cups neutral oil (like canola or grapeseed)
Cut the garlic cloves in half lengthwise and remove the green center sprout. Even if the sprout is barely there or mostly white, remove it, as it causes a bitter flavor.
Place the garlic and salt in the bowl of the food processor and pulse until it is finely minced, stopping to scrape down the sides of the bowl between pulses.
In a very thin, slow stream that is so slow it stops to a dribble at times, pour about ½ cup of oil into the running processor with the garlic. Then add slowly add about two teaspoons of lemon juice while the processor is running. Turn off the processor and scrape down the sides of the bowl. Continue in this manner, alternating oil and lemon juice in very slow, steady streams and stopping occasionally to scrape down the bowl. The mixture will turn fluffy and white.
Scrape into a bowl or container with an airtight lid, but don’t put the lid on yet. Cover the toum with a paper towel and refrigerate for about 12 hours, chilling the sauce completely and removing some of the moisture which would cause the toum to separate if covered immediately with the airtight lid. Then cover with the airtight lid and refrigerate for up to one month.
If your toum tastes ‘hot’ from the garlic, let it rest for a few days in the refrigerator, which will soften the flavor. Makes 4 cups of toum.
Find a PDF of this recipe here.