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Food & dining

Taste Kitchen

Hummus tasting is a study in neutrals

Hummus with a swirl of olive oil and a sprinkle of spice.

DEBRA SAMUELS FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

Hummus with a swirl of olive oil and a sprinkle of spice.

The Middle Eastern spread hummus is a simple affair, made with boiled chickpeas that are pureed and mixed with tahini, a ground roasted sesame seed paste, and little else besides lemon juice, olive oil, and salt. Once available only in Middle Eastern markets, hummus has become so wildly popular, it’s everywhere now, ready for dipping crisp vegetables or triangles of pita. In the Middle East, there are shops called hummusia, where the spread is often served with a swirl of olive oil and a sprinkle of spice.

To taste the plainest, unadorned flavor of hummus available in this region, we brought seven brands to 13 gastronomy students at Boston University. These classic versions included lemon juice, garlic, oil, salt, and pepper. Served with fresh pita for swiping through the dip, the hummus, noted the students, was a study in neutrals — from the light beige-y white of Pikante Hummus Classic (imported from Israel) that one taster described as “tapioca color” to the goldish hues of Sabra Classic Hummus, called “mustard-ly” by another taster.

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There was no overwhelming winner (most brands got two thumbs up), but Sabra had three votes with comments like “great full-bodied flavor,” and “smooth, golden color.” Nor was there a big loser, though Tribe, Arev, Joseph’s, and Trader Joe’s each got three votes for least favorite.

Hummus is a dish where personal preferences for acidity and texture are big factors. For comparison purposes only (not part of the test) we also tasted the hummus made daily at Rami’s, a glatt kosher Middle Eastern restaurant in Brookline, and another version from The Sizzling House of Kabab, a Persian, Middle Eastern, and Mediterranean spot in Lexington. It was easy to see the difference between the small-batch hummus and the commercial brands. The restaurants’ versions were whipped and airy. Students favored the Sizzling House of Kabab, where Persian owner Farhad Salemi uses canned chickpeas, bottled lemon juice, and olive oil. “We don’t eat this in my area of Iran, but Americans love it,” says Salemi.

Cedar’s Hommus Classic Original

$4.49 for 8 ounces

This brand is made with the thickener guar gum, which was not lost on the tasters. “It resembles a smooth yogurt, rather than hummus,” “reminds me of a gravy commercial — no lumps. Easy to eat.” “Looser whipped texture. Strong flavors of citrus and tahini.” “Beige, smooth. Smells of chickpeas and warm spice.” Another one picked up and identified the spice: “Cumin-like flavor. I am not a fan.” Others praised “very light bright citrus notes, well balanced with acidity, sesame, and garlic.” “Lemon and sunshine.” Some found it “tasteless and dull.” “Would like more tahini.” “This was boring. May be good on a sandwich with tomatoes.”

Hommus Arev

$5.49 for 16 ounces

This is the in-house brand from Eastern Lamejun Bakers in Belmont, a Middle Eastern grocery. Many objected to the lack of body as well as too much tahini. Water is the second ingredient in the list (in most others it is fourth or fifth). “Thin. Soupier than others, nice tang.” “More liquid-y than other brands, strong taste of tahini and lemon.” “This has a lot of sesame flavor — too much. Overpowers.” “Soupy enough that I could take a swim in it.” Others found it lacking in taste and smell: “Gerber baby food anyone?” “Almost no scent. I had to make the sample almost touch my nose.”

Joseph’s All Natural Original Hommus

$3.79 for 8 ounces

Many tasters referred to this brand as “balanced” and used the words “lemony, “tangy,” and “acidic” in tandem with “creamy.” One described it as “smooth as can be.” Another found the texture “gooey.” And still another said the “feel was upsetting.” “This has chunks. Hummus should be smooth! I thought something fell into the container.” One noted the salt: “Felt a salt burst around the mouth.” Others didn’t agree. “Seemed grainy but when scooped, smoother.” “Smell of garlic and lemon — good and rich with a bitter aftertaste.”

Pikante Hummus Classic

$6.99 for 17.6 ounces

Appearance garnered the most comments from this Israeli import purchased at The Butcherie, a kosher market in Brookline: “White, creamy, lovely texture. Off-taste. Something funny- sour?” “Almost a tapioca color. Just looks bland even before tasting. Not much body.” “Beautiful creamy sheen.” “Very pale, not very appetizing but creamy and fluffy.” Apparently beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Others found it “heavy on the tahini, which I normally love. Seems out of balance.” “Nutty flavor, a little bitter aftertaste.” And one almost delighted: “This has the smoothness I look for in a hummus and is not overly beany (my 2d favorite).”

Sabra Classic Hummus Winner!

$4.49 for

10 ounces

Although Sabra refers to a native-born Israeli, this hummus is manufactured in the United States. Several commented on assertive flavors: “Garlicky hit. Quite yellow. Thick consistency.” “Lumpy. Taste goes to the back of the throat.” “Grainy yellow-beige. Very garlick-y. Little chewy. Good.” “Nothing stands out; a good basic hummus.” “Strong tahini flavor. More viscous and mealy than others.” “Kind of rustic mouth-feel. A little bit chunky. Flavor of chickpea is kinda overwhelming. In your face perhaps?” “Predominant flavor is chickpeas. Not worth taking another taste.”

Trader Joe’s Smooth and Creamy Classic Hummus

$2.99 for 10 ounces

The taste of citrus jumped out. “They seem to have gone crazy with the citric acid on this one. Overpowering.” “Sour flavor, almost too tart.” “Made me pucker, but not in a good way.” On texture and smell: “Whipped light texture and earthy undertones from sesame.” “Nutty smell,” “nutty taste,” and “peanut butter-like smell.” “Oily,” pronounced one and another pointed out that it was “not quite garlicky enough.” Two chose it as favorite: “Whipped mousse and the sweetest of the bunch.” (Good call; it was the only one that had cultured dextrose-a natural preservative.) Another said, “Well balanced, rich, and sultry on the palate.”

Tribe Hummus Classic

$3.49 for 8 ounces

Many used the word “powerful,” to describe this brand, the only one listing dried roasted garlic as an ingredient. “Roasted — fire-y in a smoked way.” “The smell is heavily garlic. Tastes almost vinegary, a pungent paste.” Another: “Sour taste, unpleasant. Off tahini?” “Thin texture but strong flavor.” “The chickpea is really dry. It’s like a smoothie made of cardboard and overly cooked chickpeas.” “It has an odd aftertaste I can’t place,” wrote another. It was a favorite for two, who noted “creamy texture.”

Debra Samuels can be reached at dgsamuels@gmail.com.

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