Toum, Lebanese garlic sauce
Toum, the Lebanese garlic spread people go bonkers over, is an emulsion of garlic and oil. Here are tips based on what I’ve learned about making toum! One great discovery in all of my toum-making is that if you don’t have a food processor, just reach for your whisk. P.S., “toum” is simply the Arabic word for, you guessed it, garlic.
Recently on Easter here, the buffet was so massive, filled with everything from kibbeh to grapeleaves to cabbage rolls to hummus and pickles, that I almost missed it.
It wasn’t until the big clean-up was in full swing that I saw my sister-in-law pick up the little bowl of beautiful, creamy white goodness that had been quietly resting beside the roasted leg of lamb.
Wait, what is that? I said.
It’s my toum, and I don’t think it turned out, she said.
I ran (literally) to the other end of the buffet for a piece of pita bread. I took an inappropriately deep dip of the light, airy, garlicky pure toum goodness.
I hated to even think it, but that toum was indeed the very best thing I ate that day. You can imagine what a statement that is, give the breadth of the Lebanese buffet from some of the finest Lebanese cooks on the planet.
I could not, would not, stop going for more bread, more toum, another of the bread, and more toum, while Diane told me that last time she made toum it was more of a sauce, and she liked that better.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, I’m just forever reminded of this. Here Diane had reached the quintessential Lebanese garlic aoli emulsion, combining garlic and oil into a light spread, which anyone who has tried knows is truly an achievement. And here she likes toum just as much if not better when the emulsion doesn’t take!
What made me happy about this was how it corrected my own head for my failed toums. The saucy toum is absolutely delectable, drizzle-able garlic to lavish over shish kebab and shawarma and anything you can possibly think of.
The toum-as-spread, or if you’re all in like I am, toum-as-bread-dip, can still be what it is: the ultimate expression of garlic. Not just because its garlic flavor is addictive and you can’t stop even after having eaten your share of the buffet and pulling a plate for a huge piece of cake, but also because its texture is so ethereally light and smooth. Plus, it takes something, true grit, from deep within the cook to get that toum done.
So I dove into toum-making again after that, having not made it in a while. My initial batches were what I would have called a fail in the past, but I now simply dub them “saucy toum” and keep that sauce in the refrigerator in a jar. Hint: drizzle saucy toum on hot pasta mixed up with some of the pasta cooking water and a shower of parmesan. You’re back on carbs again.
That I couldn’t reach an emulsion out of the gates was frustrating, to say the least, because of all of the garlic peeling and slicing and the time and focus it takes to make a batch of toum. I was going to just put the whole enterprise aside when I remembered something that I knew would help me understand the soul of toum much, much better.
In culinary school, we learned to do everything the old-school way before we were allowed to do it the current (a.k.a.: easier) way. The best example of this was learning to make mayonnaise, which at the time, I had not made from scratch before.
We learned that this emulsion of egg and oil required a very slow introduction of oil into egg while the cook whisks like a maniac, so that the molecules would suspend and form a thick spread. If the two don’t marry and emulsify, the result is a separated, oily scrambled raw egg. No “saucy” save can be had here.
In learning to make toum years ago, I realized right away that the same method I learned in culinary school is employed: a very slow introduction of oil into garlic creates a thick, creamy, light emulsion of a spread or dip that eaters of Lebanese cuisine go bonkers over.
But I had taken the easy route from the start with my toum, using the food processor from the first. I knew, though, that in the old world, in the villages of Lebanon, toum was originally made using a mortar and pestle. They pounded the daylights out of the garlic, using salt to give garlic’s natural wetness some traction under the pestle, then ever so slowly added oil until the emulsion formed and the spread was born.
Armed with my own mortar, pestle, and a handful (5) of garlic cloves, I went for it. I grated the garlic on a fine grater to give myself a leg up on the pounding. As I got into dribbling the oil into the salted garlic and produced that telltale creaminess that suggests an emulsion is happening, I thought about how we made our old-school mayo, with the whisk. Why wasn’t I whisking?
I made more batches, starting with minced garlic, kosher salt, a whisk, and a slow dribble of oil. There it was, unfailingly every time, my toum!
The glory here is that you absolutely do not have to have a food processor to make toum! My friend Geralyn will be thrilled, since I’m forever telling her to get this or that appliance (she’ll never forgive me for the mandolin and the ensuing accident that took place, but the stand mixer for the talami a little tiny bit makes up for it). Toum made by hand is not as aerated as toum in the processor, but still, it is wonderful.
Now that I understood the soul of toum-making, I went back to the processor and had repeated success. Here are the tips I can share from the toum extravaganza that has been my kitchen, and that I keep updating as I refine:
- Toum can be made in three ways: By hand with a whisk (or mortar and pestle), in a small prep food processor, or in a standard sized food processor. The size of your instrument dictates the amount of garlic you start with.
- By hand: Any amount, but 8 garlic cloves, minced, is manageable
- Mini prep processor: 2 heads of garlic cloves
- Standard (7- to 11-cup) food processor: about 1 1/2 cups of garlic cloves (from 4 heads)
For the standard food processor, more garlic is needed because a smaller amount will get caught under the blade or fly to the sides of the bowl, making it impossible to get started. The smaller recipes, like the recipe in my cookbook and below, do better in a smaller processor. That little guy might get warm from all of the blitzing, but mine is surviving nonetheless.
- The bowl of the processor, large or small, must be scraped down constantly in between blitzing to keep the mixture together before much oil is added. No way around this. Whisking by hand, this happens naturally.
- The initial introduction of oil into the garlic is the most critical step in making toum. Once the garlic is minced by blitzing with salt in the processor (scraping down and processing a few times) or by grating and stirring with salt, it’s time to introduce the oil.
Start with very very very very little oil. Very. Use a teaspoon for better control to dribble one droplet, then two droplets, then three into the drip hole in the top of the processor or into the bowl, processing or whisking all the while. The less oil added here very slowly, stopping and scraping down the bowl to put the mixture back together after every few droplets (or whisking constantly by hand), the more success for emulsion you’ll have.
The garlic will begin to take on a slight creaminess as it accepts the oil correctly, then more and more creaminess as more oil is dribbled in. When the oil is introduced too quickly and/or too much, and the toum will fail/be saucy, the garlic does not look creamy but rather looks unchangingly like garlic coated with oil.
- Once creaminess is achieved, and the toum has taken and the emulsion is set, I’ve discovered that it really doesn’t matter how much more oil you add. Add much more or not a ton more, and it’s fine either way. I’ve been using one cup of oil to the cloves of one head of garlic in the mini-processor. By hand, I get tired after about ¼ cup of oil to 5-6 cloves of garlic, but I still have a good if strong toum.
- There are differing opinions about the inclusion of lemon juice and ice water in toum. Some believe it wrecks the emulsion. I started using ice water after a conversation I had with a salesperson a ladies’ dress department with my mom. She happened to be Lebanese, and of course we got to talking about food. She launched in about all things toum, and whispered that the secret to making the emulsion hold is a little ice water. You can believe we bought that St. John knit for mama….
- Lately I’ve been adding a squeeze of lemon juice and a few drops of ice water at the very end, after the emulsion is set rather than alternating throughout, realizing that the main move for toum success is at the start, focusing there on combining the oil and salted garlic. I think the addition of lemon juice, whether at the start or the end or alternating with the oil throughout the process, is important for balancing the flavor of the toum.
Who else makes toum and how do you do it? Whisper your secrets to us here!
Toum, Lebanese Garlic Sauce
- 8 cloves garlic, peeled
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 cup neutral oil, such as canola or safflower
- 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
- 1 to 2 tablespoons ice water
For small-batch, In a mini-processor:
- 1 cup garlic cloves, peeled (from 2 heads)
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 cup neutral oil, such as canola or safflower
- Juice of 1/2 of a lemon
- 2-3 tablespoons ice water
For large-batch, in a standard processor:
- 1 1/2 cups garlic cloves, peeled (from 4 heads)
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 2 to 4 cups neutral oil, such as canola or safflower
- Juice of 1 lemon
- To prepare the garlic, slice the cloves in half lengthwise and remove any green sprouts. Worth the effort here, as the sprouts contribute to burn and bitterness.
- If making toum by hand, mince or grate the garlic on a fine grater into a medium bowl. Set the bowl over a towel or use a non-skid bowl, to hold it in place as you whisk. If making toum in a processor, blitz the garlic with the salt until it is minced, stopping to scrape down the bowl as you go.
- Take your time here. Whisking constantly or with the processor running, use a teaspoon to drop a droplet of oil into the garlic. Stop and scrape down the bowl. Then add another droplet, stop and scrape, then another. Continue in this way even though at first it seems like nothing is happening.
- Once the garlic begins to look a bit creamy, you can add the oil a couple of droplets at a time, stopping and scraping the bowl down as you go. Stay with it.
- Continue in this way until the garlic becomes thick and spreadable. Once the emulsion is fully formed and what you have looks like a thick white spread, you can increase the speed of adding the oil. Rather than droplets, add the oil in a slow, thin, steady stream while processing or whisking. Stop and taste and keep adding more oil if the toum is too strong. Don't be surprised if this process takes up to 15-20 minutes.
- Finish by processing or whisking in the lemon juice and ice water.
Leave a Comment
I'm so glad you're here! You'll find among these pages the fresh and classic Lebanese recipes we can't get enough of! My mission is to share my tried + true recipes -- and to help our Lebanese food-loving community keep these culinary traditions alive and on the table. What recipes are you looking for? Let me know!
Maureen your recipe for garlic (Toum) spread is fun, elegant and delicious. Our family LOVES it.
The fact that it keeps so well in the refrigerator helps for a “make ahead “ recipe to keep on hand.
I will try your lemon juice suggestion for the next batch. Toum-alicious!
Diane, thank you for the toum-alicious inspiration! You’re such a phenomenal cook!
Thank you for covering all the angles with this wonderful toum recipe! This is why your recipes are always fail-safe, Maureen. I have never made toum, and now I can’t wait to give it a try. Thanks again.
Ah Carlos…thank you so much. I hope you do try it! Let us know how it goes!
This is one of my favorites but I’ve never tried making it. Would it work in a blender or is food processor the way to go?
Holly, great question…I would need to test it out in a blender. I suspect the blade action just isn’t enough, though. Maybe in a Vitamix. If you have a processor, go with that!! Let me know what you think!
Always look forward to your recipes but even more so the stories that attach to them….(you really are a great writer, make the reader feel we are right there with you) . I’ve tried and tried to attempt this heavenly garlic spread of goodness and always comes out chunky and gooey, although still very edible not all that appealing. Lived in California for years before moving back home to MI, there was a restaurant called Zankou that served Toum with their rotisserie chicken that was just perfectly smooth, creamy and just the right amount of garlic, I could never replicate it, but I think you’ve done it with this recipe my friend….thank you so much for sharing your secrets and your whispers with us. Can’t wait to try it.
How beautiful Danielle! Thank you for your generous words. I’m excited for you to try the toum! Let us know how it goes!
Made this yesterday and it turned out perfect. Amazing that something so simple can be so delicious, it is very similar to Greek skordalia.Thanks for the recipe and detailed instructions.
I followed your instructions for the big batch of garlic and my whole family was obsessed with it! They even said it was better than the garlic spread we normally buy in Dearborn restaurants, which are heavily populated by the most authentic Lebanese restaurants. Thank you for a wonderful recipe!
Wonderful!!! We live for this toum too!
What a wonderful recipe instruction! Love how much detail you’ve put into this. I had toum the other night in Portland for the first time and fell in LOVE. Went back home to MT and made it today per your large batch recipe and it didn’t get very fluffy. The mix emulsified but wasn’t the same consistency as what we got at the Lebanese restaurant. I made sure to add in the oil per your instructions/very slowly, drip by drip. Also, the garlic taste was SUPER bitter in the final product…any tips for counteracting this? There were no green stems to remove. Your recipes look amazing! After eating at the Lebanese restaurant I immediately went online when I got home and bought your cookbook as it was so highly recommended! Really looking forward to trying more Lebanese recipes!
Hi Katherine! I’m happy you’re here and impressed you went after the toum! You aren’t alone in experiencing the bracing heat of that much garlic. This will subside and mellow out in the next few days, and after a week the toum is pretty near perfect, depending on your garlic. So I like to keep the toum on hand rather than making and using it right away, to give it time to calm down. You’ll want to try the elephant garlic that’s now more readily available; it’s not as strong as smaller garlic. As for the consistency, I’ve been doubling up the amount of garlic and find that the emulsion is much fluffier and stronger when I start with more garlic (2+ cups cloves).
I have a Lebanese friend who taught me how to make this many years ago. Her recipe has one large raw potato with those other ingredients and it it s fantastic. But unfortunately you can’t use olive oil for this one which would make it healthier. And in order for it to be fluffy you must use a food processor and slowly drizzle the oil in. Thank you for sharing!
Thank you Michelle!
I made this last night and it turned out fabulous as far as looks go and consistency. When I tasted it, I realized I had left out the salt! Yummy garlic taste, but definitely needed salt. Can I go back and add salt or will it break the
emulsion? Thanks for any help!
Hi Susan–so glad you have your toum ready to go! You can stir in a little salt at a time and the emulsion should be just fine.
I just made this. Perfect consistency…until I added the water and lemon juice. How do I save this? It went from paste to vinaigrette.
Oh Carlette, this sure can happen. Toum can be tough! I have not had luck trying to “fix” a broken toum emulsion. Best to start over. I’m not sure what your factors were that caused your broken emulsion but it is often to do with the speed at which the liquid is added–must add one drop at a time.
Maureen, thank you for explaining how emulsions work and for the wonderful recipe!
Carlette, I was able to save a previous batch of liquid Toum by putting the whole batch (still in the food processor cup) in the freezer for 10 mins or so – it thickened the oil enough to create resistance for the food processor blades and my Toum whipped back up to its fluffy state in no time. I used avocado oil but I’m sure this trick will work regardless of the type of oil you used.
I’m SO excited to try your freeze method to fix a broken toum emulsion! Also intrigued to try this with avocado oil. Thank you!
Hi thanks for posting this recipe and more importantly the discussing the method.
Too many people post this recipe and just say alternate back and forth slowly.
I found your method of salt plus garlic then oil and lemon at the end to take a lot of guesswork out the process.
I also used some others suggestions of refrigerating my olive oil, immersion blender blade half, and blending container as I live in a hot area. Thanks again!
Michael, thank you! Immersion blender, great idea!
hope you are doing fine in this quarantined phase of life ! a big hello from OMAN (muscat)
waiting to give your recipes a try this ramadan .
sending loads of warm hugs !
And warm hugs to you! Enjoy this absolutely delicious toum!
Hi Maureen. I just love garlic sauce..a chef had taught me to add the ingredients you have mentioned, he also added egg whites…what is the difference. Also, what is the alternative for kosher salt.
Hi. I do not have access to lemons.
Would white vinegar work?
Lisa, you could try vinegar, perhaps not as much quantity as the lemon juice. I have not tried this but if you do we’d love to hear how it goes.
I used a teaspoon of salt with the 5-6 cloves and it was way too salty, but I did get the emulsion with the whisk! And then I worked in more garlic and oil in the blender. Emulsion broke when used the lemon juice but saved the whole thing by restarting and adding more garlic and oil to start the emulsion and then adding in the broken toum and oil in very slowly, and then doing extra blender cycles if it looked like the emulsion was getting weak. Nice to know I can do this, but I think I need a food processor.
Thank you for the report!!!
Will this recipe work using immersion/stick blender ?
Worth a try! I suspect it will be difficult to get the emulsion though.
It works great with an immersion blender — better than my food processor. The trick with the immersion blender is to do it in a jar so that the blender at the bottom isn’t much smaller than the jar itself. Then the emulsification happens really quickly and gets thick. There’s a great article on how to emulsify from J. Kenji López-Alt (two-minute mayo recipe which I HIGHLY recommend). The mayo came out great and I applied the same vortex principle to my toum and it was amazing.
Great tip thank you! Fascinated about the immersion blender.
I just sent you a note on Twitter, but here goes: my toum has 8-10 garlic cloves, 2 tblsp chilled lemon juice, 1 tsp lemon zest, 1 tsp sea salt. 3 tblsp mild oil, 1/3 c cooked, mashed, cooled starchy white potato. I will email you the recipe I was given years ago from a dear friend.
Love it, I’ll try it, thanks so much!
I have had 3 failed attempts at making toum. It tastes wonderful but is too thin. I have tried all the “tricks” and still can’t get the correct consistency. I’m thinking that the problem is that I’m not Lebanese. I soooo want to be able to make a batch that looks like yours!
Maria, I hear you! But you can do this! Try starting with lots and lots of garlic cloves and just little drops of oil (with salt), by hand.
Thank you for all the tips and details .Fantastic recipe ,helpful description .Excellent! Thank ❤️ you.
Thanks so much Rumana!
I just made this and it emulsified great, but it tastes just a little oily. I used canola oil (at least I’m pretty sure I did). Any suggestions?
So glad the toum worked for you Danny! Add more lemon juice and/or ice water to loosen and give the toum sauciness. You can also mix the toum with yogurt and/or tahini when you turn it into a sauce to serve.
I’m so thrilled to read this recipe! In 1975 I was in Tegucigalpa, Honduras and loved what I now know was a serving of toum at a posh restaurant. I’ve hungrily thought about that spread ever since, and now I know what it was and that I can make it myself! Thank you so much for your extremely helpful and detailed recipe that I will make soon. I found my way to your site after reading an article about a new start-up, Annie’s Toum, which is exploding. You have other great recipes that I’d love to try, as well. Cheers!
Cora that is so exciting, to be making toum after all these years since first trying it! Thank you so much and we’ll love to hear how it goes!
Hello I fell in love with toum/garlic sauce years ago from a restaurant called Lamias in Mi, it was served on a chicken shawarma but I always got extra sauce thought I try to make it myself first time failed but tried again, came out so good even my picky 16 year old tried it and loved it . I don’t like the spicy so it was toned down a lot. I made it again yesterday and it was not as thick as last time because I added more lemon juice and some oil to mellow it out. My question is can I thicken it back up if I put it back in the food processor? And also since my kids love it I want to make a a larger batch, so to mellow it all the way out but still that garlicky taste should I add more oil or lemon? (Thanks In Advance )
Hi Cerise. Thickening completed toum can be a challenge. You could try pureed cooked potato (mashed potatoes). You can always increase the recipe for toum; more garlic is easier to make anyway! To soften the garlic flavor add lemon, yes, and more liquid such as ice water. Also you can try using elephant garlic (very large cloves) as these are not as pungent as standard garlic.
Also if to salty how to fix?
To fix over-salted toum, add more oil and more lemon juice. As noted below you can also add mashed potato.