What Is Smen?

published Mar 18, 2016
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Our choice of cooking fats that we employ in the kitchen seem to be constantly growing and evolving. Gone are the days when our choices were just butter or a bottle marked “vegetable oil.” Even all-purpose olive oil (extra-virgin or otherwise) is receiving some tough competition. Inspired by traditions from all over the world, we’re now experimenting with cooking fats like ghee, niter kibbeh, and coconut oil.

But here’s another one you should get to know that originates from North Africa. It’s funky, flavorful, and unlike anything you already have in your kitchen.

What Is Smen?

Smen is salted fermented butter that hails from Morocco. To make it, sheep, cow, or goat’s milk butter is heated and strained to become clarified butter. Then the clarified butter is poured into a ceramic jar and salt is added. Herbs like thyme or oregano are also sometimes mixed in. The jar is then sealed and left to age in a cool, dark place (traditionally buried underground) for at least a month, but often for years.

What Does It Taste Like?

The butter is noted to have a very strong, stinky, and almost blue cheese-like aroma and flavor. The longer the smen ages, the more intense it becomes. In fact, it’s considered a delicacy in Morocco, and it’s traditionally been said that the stinkier the smen is, the more prized it is, which is a reflection on the wealth of the family who produced it.

How to Use It

Smen is an essential ingredient in Moroccan cuisine. It’s used as both a cooking oil for dishes like tagine and couscous, but also simply spread on bread as a snack. It’s even put in coffee.

If you’re a fan of the funkiness of blue cheese, give smen a try on its own on bread or crackers — but remember that a little goes a long way. Otherwise, try incorporating it into your cooking. Most definitely give it a try in a traditional tagine, but also don’t be afraid to get a little creative: Use it to sear meat, fry eggs, or add a little to homemade harissa.

Curious to give it a try? It’s not particularly easy to get ahold of outside of Morocco, but there are a few online sources. Otherwise, you can also try to make it yourself. It’s actually not as hard to make as it may seem — no, you don’t have to bury it underground!

Have you ever tried smen? How do you like to use it?