Tzatziki is one of those universal dishes that no self-respecting cocktail party, buffet table, or park picnic spread should ever be without. You can pick up a tub in most supermarkets and delis, but beware; many imposters are lurking in those coolers, bearing little resemblance to the authentic Greek dip—made of thick, garlicky sheep's yogurt flavored with salty cucumber and fresh dill or mint.
This dish is found throughout the Eastern Mediterranean and surrounding areas, with different regional varieties and names: we have thinner-textured tarator in the Balkans, Turkish cacik made with cow's milk rather than sheep's milk, and the delightfully pretty and tasty Persian mast-o khiar, with walnuts or even rose petals added to the mix.
Making tzatziki is super easy and takes minutes, though leaving it overnight will develop the flavor even further. For a truly authentic taste and texture, only use full-fat Greek yogurt—you know, the one that is so thick you have to shake it off the spoon and once it lands in the bowl, stays firm yet creamy? Low-fat types lack the oomph needed for a full-on tzatziki.
To salt, the cucumber or not is up to you, but given its high water content, you risk it leaching into the yogurt, making it soggy and weak. Salting, draining, and squeezing will not only remove the water but also neatly season the tzatziki. Though peeling the cucumber isn't necessary, it does make grating easier and the cucumber softer, though leaving the skin on adds a little color.
The flavor of garlic should be assertive but not dominant, and this is helped by first mixing the crushed garlic with olive oil to soften and round out the taste. The herbs must, where possible, be fresh. Which herb to use is divided though dill is more traditional and brings astringency to the tzatziki; some prefer mint for its cooling properties. I like using a bit of both.
A note on serving: The home of tzatziki is truly on mezze and its must-have bedfellow, freshly baked pita. But don't leave it at that. Serve over fish or with roast lamb, add a spoon (or two) to a sandwich or a salad. If you have never dipped hot French fries into a tzatziki sauce, I recommend you try it. —Elaine Lemm
- Prep time 15 minutes
- makes 3 cups
large cucumber, peeled, halved, and seeded
cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
extra-virgin olive oil
full-fat Greek yogurt
freshly squeezed lemon juice (from about 1/2 lemon), divided
small bunch fresh dill, mint, or a half-bunch of each, stemmed and leaves roughly chopped
- In a medium-size bowl, coarsely grate the cucumber (a Microplane extra coarse grater does this perfectly). Sprinkle the salt over the grated cucumber, stir, and set aside for at least 20 minutes.
- In a small bowl or ramekin, mix together the crushed garlic and olive oil and leave to one side.
- Tip the yogurt into a large bowl. Give the cucumber a good squeeze over the sink to remove most of the water (do not rinse it; we want some of that saltiness to stay) and stir it into the yogurt. Add the garlic and oil mix, stir, then add half the lemon juice and stir again.
- Cover the bowl and place it in the fridge for few hours so the flavors can mingle—even better if you can give it overnight.
- When ready to serve the tzatziki, remove from the fridge and gradually add the herbs a little at a time until the flavor is to your liking. Taste and adjust salt and lemon juice as desired, then serve with warm pita.