Super Food Nerds: In Pursuit of Hummus
Hi, I'm Jonathan, librarian, Super Food Nerd, and man in the grips of an obsession -- an obsession with chickpeas. Or rather with hummus, the highest end a chickpea can aspire to.
In New York City's Chelsea Market, several floors below Food Network and Cooking Channel's offices, there is a lunch counter for Ronnybrook Milk Bar, famed for its ice cream. For those in the know, however, there is only one thing to order: hummus with egg. The Milk Bar, it turns out, is helmed by a bonafide hamsani (Middle Eastern hummus vendor), Aylon Hadar, originally from the outskirts of Tel Aviv; a man who, I am absolutely certain, turns out some of the absolute best hummus in NYC.
Aylon's hummus is everything store-bought hummus is not: light as mousse, smooth as pudding. It is served just a bit warm and made fresh daily, both customary in the Middle East. Aylon begins with a shockingly large quantity of hummus, spread in a concave layer across a rimmed plate. A generous quantity of olive oil is then poured into the center. Atop this, he drizzles a thin white tahini sauce, and finishes with a splash of color in the form of sweet paprika and chopped parsley. The final result is layered, sophisticated, beautiful; a far cry from dense, monochromatic store-bought hummus.
So, with Aylon's hummus as my grail, I attempted to hack his recipe. Here are some lessons I learned along the way.
The primary challenge was a matter of texture: I wanted the whipped consistency of serious Israeli-style hummus and figured it must involve extraordinary measures of some sort. So I read and read and read. Paula Wolfert swore the secret was in removing the tough outer skins from the chickpeas after cooking. I tried; it took an hour. Paula also claimed there was a shortcut: shock the chickpeas in ice water post-cooking to magically separate skin from bean. Tried that, too. Didn't happen – instead, the flavor of my beautiful chickpeas got terribly diluted by all that water.
Others, such as Cook's Illustrated, claimed the key was in pureeing the ingredients in a precise sequence, to form an emulsion. Still others -- Ruth Reichl among them -- preached the wisdom of allowing the chickpeas to cool before grinding, on the logic that, as with baked potatoes, the starch in the chickpeas needed some time to resettle for a truly fluffy texture.
I tried them all, side by side, applying something as close to the scientific method as a lone food nerd can muster. None produced anything resembling Aylon's dish. I marched downstairs, straight to the source. I asked Aylon.
His answer? Baking soda. Use a lot of baking soda when soaking the chickpeas. Puree the bejesus out of the final mixture, 5 minutes in a food processor, at least. The skins? Don't worry about the skins.
I ran upstairs and gave his method a try. For the sake of comparison, I tested 1 tablespoon of baking soda alongside three other soaking methods: water-only, water and less baking soda (1 teaspoon), and brining. Water was as expected; less baking soda cut the cook time by more than an hour; brining produced nutty chickpeas that I would happily use in a salad or stew – but the clear winner for hummus was lots of baking soda.
The baking soda broke the chickpeas down such that their skins nearly dissolved in cooking and the beans themselves became downright creamy. Cook time went from 2 1/2 hours (with plain water) to a mere 40 minutes. And the intense pureeing yields exceptionally smooth hummus but also seems to have a purpose beyond texture. My theory is that the heat generated during the extended processing time "cooks" the mixture just the slightest bit, magnifying the flavors of chickpea, garlic, tahini, and lemon, and binding them into a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Know that the baking soda produces in the cooked chickpeas an unpleasant, distinctly sulphurous aroma, reminiscent of hard-boiled eggs. Don't fret it. The stench doesn't carry over to the final product.
Aylon was adamant about this. And it really is crucial. If your tahini tastes bitter, so will your hummus. You may need to sample a couple of brands before you find one that works. Look for the lightest colored raw tahini you can find. Dark tahini -- made by roasting sesame seeds a little further -- is nutty and absolutely delicious, but hummus is not the place for it.
I am convinced that a major difference between the flavor of commercial hummus and that of hummusia hummus is the amount of tahini used. Which should come as no surprise; good tahini is the most expensive component of the dish. If you want the real deal, you have to go all in.
Some web sources claim the blender produces a fluffier, more aerated hummus. That wasn't my experience. The narrow blender jar didn't allow for sufficient contact with the blender's blades to make for a silky smooth puree.
Another Aylon commandment. I was a little dubious, since Reichl's point about the starch in chickpeas made a lot of sense. But Aylon won again. Creamier, tastier hummus: that's what you'll get from grinding chickpeas warm.
A little heat blooms all the flavors in the dish and keeps the texture light and loose. Great hummus starts out a little runny. Keep this in mind when making it. Even if you're not making your own, you'll increase your enjoyment of the store-bought stuff immeasurably if you warm it up a bit. Let your microwave help.
Aylon recommends: Tear off a generous piece of pita, fold it into a miniature garden trowel, and drag the pita through the center of the hummus plate, gathering a little of each of the dish's elements along the way. Eat and repeat. And repeat again. And again.
Though the recipe doesn't call for it, sliced hard-boiled eggs or sauteed mushrooms are traditional finishes to the dish. Personally, I find them extraneous, but by all means give them a try.
Literally. In both Hebrew and Arabic. I sound the geek alarm only to suggest that, while purees made from white beans or black beans are unquestionably delicious, real-deal hummus is chickpeas only.