Spice Hunting: Sesame Seeds and Oil


Though I may be pushing the bounds of this column, I can't help but write about black sesame, either the seeds or the oil made from them. Sesame seeds are as culinarily complex and versatile as coffee or chocolate, and several Asian cuisines are bound as strongly to toasted sesame oil as Mediterranean cooking is to olive. Sesame is cheap, texturally interesting, and wildly flavorful; it belongs on the front shelf of your pantry.

Sesame seeds are one of the earliest culinary spices around, first domesticated in India before spreading to the rest of Asia. There are two main varieties: the lighter, more floral white seeds and the complex nutty black ones. It's worth keeping both around: the black seeds are more assertive and flavorful, but not ideal in every preparation.

White Sesame Seeds

White sesame seeds have the aroma of lightly caramelized milk, roasted peanuts, vanilla, and honey. They are excellent with all those things, either scattered on top or puréed into a paste. White sesame seeds play well with a range of fruits, especially sweet berries, as well as light-colored vegetables like cauliflower. They're also the sesame of choice in Mexican cuisine, where they're pounded into mole sauces to thicken and lend a nutty flavor.

"I can't think of any spice to better compliment the flavor of a fat."

But most importantly, they play well with butter. Whether you fry the seeds in butter to serve atop white-fleshed fish or bake them into vanilla-flavored cookies, you'll draw out butter's nuttier attributes and rounded sweetness. I can't think of any spice to better compliment the flavor of a fat.

Black Sesame Seeds

Black seeds are my personal favorite, with a deep, rich aroma and a flavor somewhere between exceptionally dark chocolate and coffee. There are also faint notes of herb and spice, which I like to draw out with citrus and fibrous green vegetables. My new favorite winter salad is little more than thinly sliced kale tossed with raw garlic, green chile, and black sesame seeds. The vinaigrette is a simple mix of lime juice and toasted sesame oil. Never has raw kale tasted better.

Black sesame's assertive character pairs well with starches, like rice, noodles or rice cakes. Korean recipes, such as those for rice cakes often pair black sesame with chiles. They're also macho enough to stand up to chocolate; a sprinkle of toasted seeds can make a mediocre bar taste fantastic. Or you could add some seeds to a chocolate cake, either in the batter or a buttercream frosting. Traditionally, black sesame seeds are blended into a Chinese soup, served for dessert. But by far my favorite application is ice cream.

Whether you cook your seeds whole or puréed, toasting them first is essential to wake up their full range of flavors. 20 seconds in a skillet over medium-high heat is all it takes—just stir frequently to prevent burning. Because of their high fat content, sesame seeds have a tendency to burn. If you smell smoke, they're not worth saving. Toss them out and try again.

Sesame Oil

Stir-fried snow peas with Chinese sausage, drizzled with sesame oil.

A bottle of toasted black sesame oil will cost you all of three dollars and provide unparalleled flavor. It's a finishing oil, equally at home on sweet and savory items. I use it to dress salads, drizzle on toast, lubricate noodles before stir-frying, and finish all manner of stir fried green vegetables, especially snow peas. Where white sesame fares better on white-fleshed fish, sesame oil (and black sesame seeds) is perfect for more flavorful varieties like tuna and salmon.

Kadoya is my brand of choice for toasted sesame oil, and it's widely available in the ethnic food section of most supermarkets. No matter what brand you settle on, seek our dark oils, a sure sign of toasting (refined, flavorless versions are sold as a cooking fat). Like other high-quality oils, toasted sesame oil can go rancid easily, so store in a cool place away from light if it all possible. Or just go through the stuff really quickly. Not much of a burden, that.