Toasted sesame oil is a pantry staple in many Asian kitchens. You’ll find it in many meat marinades, from minced pork for wontons to shrimp and Chinese chives for dumplings; dipping sauces; or splashed last-minute into a searing hot veggie-dominated stir-fry.
For many people, toasted sesame oil is seared into our taste memories, as distinctive a flavor as truffle but a lot more attainable and ubiquitous.
How Toasted Sesame Oil is Made
Toasted sesame oil is an unrefined, hand-harvested specialty oil used to enhance Chinese, Japanese, Korean, South Indian, and Middle Eastern cooking. One of the earliest known crop-based oils and condiments known to man, exported to Mesopotamia around 2500 BC, it’s a labor-intensive ingredient due to a manual harvesting process.
Good thing, then, that a little bit goes a very long way with this relatively expensive but strong-flavored oil.
Toasted sesame oil is produced from sesame seed plants that are sun-dried, filtered through a screen, picked, and separated. After that, the miniscule seeds are washed to remove residual dirt that can taint the flavor, oven-dried to preserve its natural taste, then toasted to each manufacturer’s proprietary specification—which varies by brand and serves as the primary taste differentiator—before being pressed into its final form.
Toasted Sesame Oil vs. Untoasted Sesame Oil
Untoasted sesame oil is very neutral with a high smoking point and light golden color, which is the opposite of toasted sesame oil’s profile. This oil is actually used for cooking, particularly in South India where it’s also known as gingelly. High-end tempura restaurants in Japan may also use untoasted sesame oil instead of the vegetable oil it so closely resembles.
Toasted sesame oil can also be called dark, black, or roasted sesame oil.
What Does Toasted Sesame Oil Taste Like?
Quality toasted sesame oil is really unlike anything else. Cheap or refined toasted sesame oil cut with other oils can be greasy, bitter, or rancid, but good, toasted sesame oil is barely perceptible to the tongue when first tasted, its aroma taking the lead.
Toasting sesame seeds before pressing it into an oil instigates the Maillard reaction and creates new flavor compounds that are perceived rather than tasted. It’s highly fragrant with a deep, nutty, roasted impression that lingers in your mouth. It feels sweet without tasting sweet, rich without actually being full-bodied, and in another contradiction, thin and not oily.
Where to Buy
Good toasted sesame oil can be found in pretty much any supermarket’s international aisle with all of the other pan-Asian ingredients. The difference, however, between the toasted sesame you find there and what you’ll find in at an Asian grocery store will be in selection, brand, and pricing.
Conventional markets tend to carry more of the American market-facing brands, like Lee Kum Kee; gourmet labels like La Tourangelle and Eden Selected; and even international white labeler Roland. Asian specialty stores will offer a wide selection of typically more authentic Eastern imports, such as my family’s preferred brand, Kadoya.
To folks who grew up eating food made with toasted sesame oil, the differences in quality are noticeable and obvious, which makes choice important. Same goes for taste. Different brands harvest and clean to different standards and most importantly, toast to different levels. Incremental variations can have a direct and dramatic impact on flavor.
Above all, look for 100% toasted sesame oil. It should be pure and the only ingredient.
How to Store
One of the many wonderful things about toasted sesame oil is that it’s naturally resistant to rancidity. Keep it capped tightly and away from light in a cool, dry environment and it will literally last for years—up to two and a half, to be precise. The better packaged it is, like in a dark glass bottle, the longer it’ll keep.
In bulk, it may also come in a metal can that is fine for long-term storage, as long as you wipe it off periodically as it will get sticky and attract dust. For the best of both, buy the smaller glass bottle at first, then refill forever from bulk canisters after that.
In either respect, there’s no need for refrigeration. Toasted sesame oil is actually better at room temperature. Its flavors remain warm and open, ready for consumption. Chilled, it may get cloudy and will definitely be less fragrant and taste muted when consumed at a lower temperature.
How to Cook with Toasted Sesame Oil
I don’t remember the first time I’d ever had toasted sesame oil, but I do remember the many. My grandma would often drizzle it onto smoothly sliced cubes of silken tofu like maple syrup on pancakes, pouring out the deeply amber oil from its similarly hourglass-shaped glass bottle. It was the last but integral seasoning to this very simple room-temperature side dish, thinning out the thick oyster sauce and creating lovely glimmering haloes in the soy sauce. It tied everything together beneath a cloud of nutty fragrance that was unforgettable and unmistakable.
Unlike regular (untoasted) sesame oil, toasted sesame oil is a finishing oil. As such, it should not be used as a cooking oil, not only because it’s precious, but because it won’t perform well. Since the raw ingredient has been heated once already, bringing it to a high temperature yet again or for an extended amount of time can lead it to smoke, scorch and become otherwise bitter and unpalatable. Its signature flavor will also dissipate with open cooking, the aromas evaporating with the steam.
However, that’s not to say toasted sesame oil cannot be heated at all. It’s wonderful marinated into meat, as my mother did with her lightly breaded pork chops, or integrated into other closed ground meat applications like dumplings or wontons. The trick is to increase its temperature gently.
Otherwise, it’s delightful mixed into sauces and dressings, or tossed with hot or cooled cooked ingredients right before serving. You can also dress up a brothy soup with a splash of toasted sesame oil, elevating your instant ramen game immediately. Just remember to use it sparingly; it’s strong and can overpower other flavors.
Many top-tier toasted sesame oils are made by Chinese, Japanese, or Korean brands, so it should come as no surprise that recipes will often make use of this ingredient from applications that include sautés, stir-fries, dipping sauces, additional seasoning, salad dressings, and rice enhancements.
Middle Eastern and some Indian cuisines—specifically from Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, and Tamil Nadu in southern India—also feature toasted sesame oil in the traditional curries and gravies of those regions. It can also be mixed with spicy food to help neutralize the heat.
Have some toasted sesame oil on hand? Try these recipes!
- Shrimp Fried Rice
- Steak Noodle Bowls with Miso-Lime Dressing
- Broccoli Stir Fry with Ginger and Sesame
- Stir Fried Green Beans with Ginger and Onions
- Ginger Garlic Sesame Shrimp
- Sesame Cucumber Salad
Truth be told, there is no good substitute for toasted sesame oil. The closest you might be able to get is with Chinese sesame paste, but with the textural difference, it’s not exactly an even match. Tahini is made from raw seeds and won’t impart that deep, robust nuttiness our headline ingredient does. And forget about trying to use raw sesame oil.