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Za’atar Flatbread

Behold the strangeness of za’atar.

Za’atar is an herb. Sorry – it’s not a specific herb, but one of any number of herbs in the hyssop family. Scratch that: it’s a combination of herbs. But wait, sometimes there are sesame seeds. Actually, it’s a paste made with some type or type of herbs, sesame seeds, and lots of olive oil.

Confused? Join the club.

In reality, za’atar is all of these things. There is a bush that grows in the deserts of Israel known as za’atar. The bush is most likely a member of the hyssop family, though some call it savory or wild oregano. Za’atar leaves are small and somewhat rough, and their flavor is a fusion of wild oregano and thyme. 

The za’atar you buy in the supermarket is most likely a blend of different herbs. According to Lior Lev Sercarz, owner and spice blender behind the New York-based spice shop La Boîte à Epice, the most traditional elements of a za’atar blend are za’atar leaves, sumac, sesame seeds, and thyme. The color of these blends varies
from forest green to dark, deep red-brown, and the flavor ranges from woodsy and deep to tangy and a bit nutty. It all depends on the balance of herbs in the blend, and every country — nay, every spice blender — makes it a bit differently.

Za’atar has many uses. Food carts and hole-in-the-wall lunch joints use it as flavoring for labneh, a thick sheep’s milk yogurt. In Lebanon, the traditional salad of tomatoes and ripped pita called fattoush is topped with a dusting of za’atar. The Druze, a community living primarily in the north of Israel, use za’atar in a salad of red onions, lemon, and olive oil. But in countries across the Middle East, from Israel to Egypt to Syria and Lebanon, za’atar’s most common application is as seasoning for bread. If you order a “laffa im za’atar” from one of the stalls in the Israeli shuk (open-air market), the stout man behind the counter will hand you a hot, floppy flatbread shmeared with a layer of za’atar paste, made of crushed herbs, sesame seeds, salt, and plenty of olive oil – an addictive combination.

Here’s the irony: pinning down the origins and uses for this mysterious herb was actually more complicated than making that delicious flatbread. Laffa im za’atar is a snap to make, no two ways about it. If you can’t find a za’atar blend at a specialty or Middle East grocer, I’ve provided a recipe for homemade za’atar, which is my take
on the Israeli za’atar blend I ate regularly during my time in Jerusalem. The restis simple: make flatbread dough, stretch it on a sheet pan, drizzle it with olive oil and sprinkle with za’atar, and bake in a piping hot oven until bubbly and browned. If you’re staying really traditional, you’ll let the thing cool and eat it as an on-the- go snack. That’s if you can resist a bite of za’atar-coated bread right out of the oven, which I cannot.

Laffa Im Za’atar (Flatbread with Za’atar)

Za’atar blend:

3 tablespoons sesame seeds, toasted
2 tablespoons dried thyme
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon sumac
1 tablespoon sea salt

For the Flatbread:

1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon instant yeast
¾ teaspoon salt
¾ cup water

Olive oil, for drizzling

In a large bowl, mix flour, yeast, and salt. Add water and stir until blended. The dough will be quite sticky. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let rest in a warm place for about 2 ½ hours. 

Preheat oven to 500.

Spread 1 tablespoon olive oil on each of 2 rimmed baking sheets. Separate risen dough into 2 pieces, and using a light touch, start to spread dough into circles on baking sheets.  When the dough balls have been spread into circles about 8 inches wide, sprinkle 1 1/5 tablespoons of za’atar onto each. Drizzle 1 tablespoon olive oil overtop.

Bake flatbreads for 10-12 minutes, until browned and crisp. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Nick (Macheesmo) January 24, 2011,

    Ohh… That looks like some good flat bread. I love all the spices in it… which I had some for lunch today! 🙂

  • Dan January 24, 2011,

    Your bread looks excellent. I’ll ask my baker (I’m the dinner chef) if she’d like to try it.

    On a trip to Israel, I made za’tar from scratch from fresh hyssop – tastes different from the thyme-based variety. I made that small sample last me a year!


  • Dana January 24, 2011,

    I’ve always wondered what za’tar was. I’ve had it before, on a very similar flatbread, but had no idea. Who knew it would be such a hard to define ingredient?

  • I bake a lot of bread and I have enjoyed Zaatar when eating out, but I’ve never tried it at home. I can’t wait to try this. 500 degrees seems SO hot! I don’t know if I’ve ever even turned my oven up that high! Did you have any problems with fumes or smoke detectors going off? Did the zaatar burn at all?

    • rivka January 25, 2011,

      Hey Rivki, idea is to bake this flatbread as you would a pizza, so a nice char forms on the crust and the bread blisters a bit. If you find that the za’atar is burning, feel free to turn down the oven, but I didn’t have this issue at all. enjoy!

  • Kat January 25, 2011,

    Going to make that IMMEDIATELY. I love za’atar.
    As soon as I’m done cleansing, that is (not allowed to eat bread while cleansing).

  • Sprinkling of Sugar January 25, 2011,

    I love za’tar! I have a heavenly memory of eating it at a middle of nowhere “bus stop” (as in not an actual legitimate bus stop) somewhere in the north of Israel. Steaming warm fresh lavash style Arabic bread, slathered with labaneh and za’tar on top. Thanks for sharing this recipe!

    • rivka January 26, 2011,

      Yes indeed! That is very close to my best memories of laffa im za’atar — hot, floppy bread, za’atar and labneh slathered on top. There is nothing better.

  • Gluten Free DivA January 26, 2011,

    I just recently made a gluten free flatbread and I was thrilled with how it came out. But, I have to say, I’m going to see if I can adapt yours to be gluten free. Yours is a simpler recipe and it looks wonderful! Love the za’atar!

    • rivka January 26, 2011,

      If you do create a GF version, please share it with us!

  • Aliza S. January 27, 2011,

    I have got to make this! A friend brought me some Za’atar from Israel and I haven’t used it yet. Would be great with some hummus and Israeli salad for lunch or dinner!

  • Peggy January 28, 2011,

    Oh man, I definitely need to invest in some Za’atar! This flatbread looks like a delicious treat!

  • Laura January 28, 2011,

    I love this. Sometimes I bake it with feta, too. There was a restaurant I went to called Bisselah, and they served a pizza with caramelized onions, olives, za’atar, and feta. It was so good . . . I have made it at home, too.

  • Simcha February 9, 2011,

    Ä° love Zaatar. I am in Turkey and it is available here as well. I have lived in a few areas and now live in Antep, it was interesting to find that the zaatar here has watermelon seeds as one of the main ingredients. Sometimes I crave this on bread or with olive oil and sometimes I sprinkle on top of our morning eggs.

  • Irma S. M. February 14, 2011,

    I am in Tel Aviv and just came back from the Hatikva market where I bought fresh hummus and beautiful produce. Then stopped at the bakery just outside the market for the most amazing za’atar pita bread….I have become addicted. And their plain pita, which comes off the oven every few minutes, is to die for. Then headed back to Reuth Medical Center where I am a volunteer.
    What could be better!

  • Simcha February 14, 2011,

    NOTHÄ°NG!!! sounds good particulary with hummus