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.
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