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Enjoying Sesame's Earthy, Nutty Appeal

Fine Cooking Issue 27
Photo: Scott Phillips
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I’m addicted to sesame. Almost no Chinese dish feels complete to me without it. Sesame is also widely used in Japanese, Middle Eastern, and Indian cuisines. Sesame seeds add a nutty, slightly sweet flavor and a subtle crunch to sweet and savory foods. A few drops of rich, amber sesame oil go a long way in flavoring marinades, sautés, and dressings. And sesame paste makes a flavorful base for sauces and dips.

Sesame seeds add texture and depth

The sesame plant is an annual herb that grows to about four feet. It thrives in warm climates and is cultivated in China, Japan, the Middle East, Mexico, and Central America. The seeds can be white, brown, or black with little difference in flavor. The slightly more earthy black ones lend a pretty, playful contrast, especially when used in breads and light-colored dishes.

Buy sesame seeds in small plastic bags or glass jars from supermarkets or Chinese grocers. Because they’re 50% oil, the seeds can become rancid quickly if exposed to heat and light. Stored in an airtight glass container in a cool, dry place, they should keep for many months, but do smell and taste them for freshness before you add them to a dish.

Toast sesame seeds for a deeper flavor. Raw sesame seeds are pretty bland, so I almost always toast them. This is especially important if you’re adding them to a cooked dish. Toasting works magic in bringing out flavor, and when white seeds are toasted, they take on a del ight ful golden hue.

Toast sesame seeds in a dry skillet over low heat, stirring occasionally. White seeds brown in three to five minutes. Keep your eye on them: they burn easily. When toasting black seeds, you won’t see any color change, so just warm them over low heat, listen for one or two to pop, and then pour them onto a plate to cool.

A little sesame oil can go a long way

Sesame oil can be pressed from raw or toasted seeds; each produces a very different result. The oil pressed from toasted seeds is thick, rich, and deep amber, and it’s best used sparingly as a final flavoring. The lighter colored oil from raw seeds doesn’t have the perfume or flavor of dark oil, but its subtler, lighter taste makes it better suited for general cooking.

Buy sesame oil in glass bottles, which protect it far better than plastic. You can find sesame oil at most supermarkets. For toasted sesame oil, look for brands from Asia. My favorite is the pure, fullflavored Kadoya from Japan. Keep sesame oil in a cool, dry place, away from direct light. If you don’t go through a bottle quickly, store it in the fridge

Sesame paste is a great base for tasty sauces

Sesame paste, made from ground seeds, thickens sauces and adds flavor. In the Middle East, the paste is made from raw seeds and is called tahini. Tahini is lighter in color and taste than Asian sesame paste, which is made from crushed toasted seeds. Tahini is the base for traditional dips such as hummus and baba ghanouj. Asian cooks use their toasted paste as a dressing for cold dishes, or as a sauce or main flavoring for hot dishes.

Kept in the refrigerator, sesame paste will stay fresh for quite a while, but check it periodically for freshness. If the paste has separated in the jar, remix it by hand or in a blender before using it.

Experiment with sesame

  • Sprinkle toasted sesame seeds on steamed vegetables or green salads for added flavor and texture.
  • Fold raw seeds into bread dough for a nutty flavor and heartier texture.
  • Roll dropped cookie dough in raw sesame seeds just before baking for a toasty, crunchy exterior.
  • Use sesame seeds in place of nuts for an unusual brittle.
  • Add a few drops of toasted sesame oil to your favorite marinade or vinaigrette. Or add some to a hot soup just before serving.
  • Mix toasted sesame paste with vinegar, soy sauce, and chile paste or hot sauce for a great Asian dipping sauce.

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