Shawn Williams prepares tubs of hummus at Trillium Catering in Belfast on July 7, 2020. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

Hummus is a versatile Mediterranean treat used as a dip, spread and condiment. It’s also easy to make — and customize — at home.

Classic hummus is made with cooked chickpeas, a sesame seed paste called tahini, olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, salt and spices like cumin.

Once you know the classic, you can create variations. There are two main schools of thought about switching up hummus, according to Rob Dumas, food science innovation coordinator at the University of Maine. You can either add ingredients to the basic hummus, or you can swap in some of the ingredients and take, as Dumas said, some “creative license” with what hummus fundamentally is.

Dumas said that he prefers to just add things to the original recipe.

“I think it’s helpful to remember that hummus comes from the Middle East so it has a natural affinity for Middle Eastern flavors, like preserved lemon, pine nuts, cilantro, mint [and] roasted red peppers,” Dumas said. “What I have been doing recently is elaborate garnishing of hummus [with] interesting things like Greek yogurt, labneh, pine nuts, browned, seasoned lamb sprinkled over it with a nice healthy topping of sumac, tangy red paprika [and a] healthy amount of grilled vegetables.You end up with something not only really delicious but really beautiful.”

You can also swap out chickpeas for many other beans for a twist on the classic hummus, like black beans and cannellini beans.

“You could use any legume to make a hummus in theory, though it would be a loose interpretation of hummus,” Dumas said. “You can do something where you take a local heritage bean like a yellow-eyed pea or a Marfax or Jacob’s cattle and you can cook those like you would a chickpea.”

You can even use a mix of beans. Courtney Jean Perry, co-owner of Shovel and Spoon in Limington, said that though she and her husband, Tomer Kilchevsky, are committed to “authentic flavor” in their hummus, they do add the untraditional lima bean to their specialty Middle East Coast hummus.

“The lima bean is my favorite bean,” Perry said. “They’re so buttery and a little bit sweet and really creamy. We use the same procedure as if we did it just with chickpeas. We might balance the lemon juice or the salt level a little bit differently but I think it would be safe to swap out another bean one-to-one if people wanted to experiment with a different bean.”

Certain starchy roasted vegetables, like beets, sweet potatoes and carrots, have also been used as a swap for chickpeas.

Dumas said that he is generally not a fan of the roasted vegetable substitutions for chickpeas in hummus, which he sees in some ways as “disrespecting the history of hummus.”

“Call it roasted beet dip,” he said. “If you are going to call it hummus, maybe have some chickpeas and tahini in there.”

However, he does make an exception for cauliflower.

“Cauliflower can be roasted or boiled and pureed to make a carbohydrate-light version of hummus that’s also ethereally light in texture,” Dumas said.

Dumas said to take a whole head of cauliflower, trim away the foliage and stem so it can sit on its base and heat it up on a cast iron skillet with a neutral oil like vegetable oil.

“Allow it to reach a sizzle over medium heat and put in a preheated 375 degree [Fahrenheit] oven and roast it until caramel and tender,” Dumas said. “Take it out and puree. You can also cut it into large florets, toss that with oil and salt in a rimmed baking sheet and [roast] 375 [degrees Fahrenheit] and you’ll get a nice tender roasted cauliflower like that as well.”

Tahini can be replaced with nut butter or even pumpkin seed butter, which has a similar consistency and savoriness. However, Dumas thinks that veers more into non-hummus territory.

“It’s almost not hummus if it doesn’t have tahini,” Dumas said. “It gives it that fat, that richness, that nutty flavor.”

No matter what kind of hummus you are making, there are certain tips to make the final product smooth, creamy and delicious.

“People struggle to make good hummus at home,” Dumas said. “I struggled for a little while.”

One of the biggest tips Dumas learned was that tahini is hydrophilic, which means it is water loving.

“There’s no water in tahini, so you add it and it seizes up,” Dumas said. “It will eventually relax but you have to add quite a bit of water. The trick is to exclude the tahini until the very end.”

Perry said to make sure you get a quality tahini, too, not one that has “been sitting on the grocery store shelf for months and separated.”

Dumas also recommended using an immersion blender rather than a food processor to get a truly creamy blend of ingredients.

“Food processors, in my approximation, also yield a somewhat more coarse puree than a Vitamix or immersion blender,” Dumas said. “I encourage everyone to invest in an immersion blender.”

If your hummus is a little thin, leaving it in the refrigerator for a little while might help, Dumas said. Also, add moisture incrementally.

“You can always add more but you can’t take it out,” Dumas said. “That’s the most important thing about getting a good puree.”

When it comes to the right balance of ingredients and flavors, you might need to experiment a little bit — especially if you are switching up the beans.

“There’s also just getting the balance right of salt and lemon juice,” Perry said. “If your hummus isn’t tasty yet it’s probably because you haven’t added enough salt.”