A Guide to Sesame Oil for Cooking

Learn everything you need to know about sesame oil. Find out how it's different from toasted (dark) sesame oil, how to cook with it, and whether you should pick up a bottle.

Organic sesame seed oil

Alison Bickel

If you’ve already got olive oil, canola oil, avocado oil, and more in your pantry, you may be asking if you really need to add sesame oil to your life. The answer largely depends on the type of recipes you love to make.

Sesame oil is extracted from sesame seeds. The seeds can either be toasted, yielding a brown oil that’s nutty in flavor with a strong roast-y aroma, or raw, which results in a lighter color oil that is more neutral in flavor.

Raw, untoasted sesame oil is most often used for cooking due to its higher smoke point.

Untoasted Sesame Oil

Also known as: Raw sesame oil, expeller-pressed sesame oil, or simply sesame oil

Color and flavor: Light in color, like canola oil; neutral flavor

Best uses: High heat cooking, or in any application where you'd use canola, sunflower, or blended vegetable oil.

Bottle of organic sesame seed oil

Alison Bickel

Untoasted (Regular) vs Toasted (Dark) Sesame Oil

Regular sesame oil vs dark sesame oil is the biggest point of confusion when it comes to this ingredient. Both varieties are made from the same single ingredient: sesame seeds. But they have different uses and flavor profiles.

Untoasted sesame oil is light in color and flavor and it’s used like any other neutral cooking or salad oil. You may see it labeled as “raw sesame oil,” “expeller-pressed sesame oil” or simply “sesame oil.” You will know it by its light color—it looks like canola oil.

Dark sesame oil may also be labeled as “toasted sesame oil,” “roasted sesame oil,” or simply “sesame oil.” You’ll know it's a toasted sesame oil by its dark color. It’s generally added off-heat to avoid diminishing its bold flavor.

If you’re inspired by Asian recipes, you’ll probably want a bottle of toasted sesame oil around. “[Toasted] sesame oil has a warm, toasty aroma that can change the flavor profile of a dish with just a few drops,” says Hsiao-Ching Chou, author of "Chinese Soul Food and Vegetarian Chinese Soul Food."

In fact, she includes it on her short-list of MVP pantry staples, as does Hetty McKinnon.

What Does Sesame Oil Taste Like?

Untoasted sesame oil has a barely noticeable nutty or completely neutral flavor. Dark sesame oil, on the other hand, has a deep, rich, nutty flavor that gives your dishes an instant upgrade. If you enjoy the flavors of roasted nuts or tahini you’re likely to love having a bottle of toasted sesame oil in your pantry, especially if you like Chinese and other Asian-inspired recipes.

If you’re wondering why your noodles and stir-fries don’t taste as good as what you get at restaurants, sesame oil may be the missing link.

Light colored regular untoasted sesame oil in white bowl

Alison Bickel

Where to Buy

Sesame oil comes packaged in a glass or plastic bottle and is available at most well-stocked supermarkets. Chou suggests buying it from a place that sells a lot of sesame oil, such as an Asian market, for maximum freshness. “The longer the oil is on the shelf, the higher the chances the oil could be rancid,” she says.

In some American supermarkets, it’s sold in the aisle with all the other oils and vinegars, but you’ll sometimes need to look in the international aisle. Because it’s typically used in smaller amounts, dark sesame oil is often sold in 5- to 10-ounce bottles while raw sesame oil comes in larger 12- to 16-ounce packages. 

Don’t forget to read to the ingredients listed on the label. “When you buy sesame oil, be sure to look for 100 percent pure sesame oil,” says Chou. Sometimes it can be blended with other ingredients, she says. You don’t want that.

How to Store

Once you open a bottle of untoasted sesame oil, store it in the refrigerator. This extends the shelf life for up to one year and prevents off or rancid flavors from forming. Sesame oil will thicken and appear cloudy when cold—that’s OK. Take it out of the refrigerator 30 minutes before you want to use it.

Cubed tofu in a wok to make Healthy Stir Fry.
Jessica Gavin

How to Use Sesame Oil

A light, untoasted sesame oil can be used in the same ways you’d use canola, sunflower, or blended vegetable oil. It has a slightly nutty but basically neutral flavor that works well in a wide variety of cuisines.

Use dark sesame oil to add a pop of nutty, toasty flavor and aroma to salad dressings, marinades, and sauces. “[Dark] sesame oil is a finishing oil that you would use at the end of making a stir-fry or soup,” says Chou. “It’s great for cold salads. Because the dishes are cold, the aroma of the oil is preserved.”

Sesame oil is also wonderful drizzled over simply steamed fish, chicken, and vegetables. Pro tip: try it instead of butter on your next batch of popcorn.

Sesame oil is a mainstay in Asian-inspired recipes such as stir-fries, noodle dishes, and soups. If you’ve been cooking without it, you may find that these dishes taste more like they do at your favorite restaurants with a little sesame oil in the mix. Here are three great recipes to put your secret-weapon ingredient to good use:

Sesame Oil Substitutes

If you want to substitute regular sesame oil, reach for any other cooking oil that’s light or neutral in flavor. Good choices include canola, sunflower, rapeseed, and pure olive oil.

It’s a little harder to find the perfect sub for dark sesame oil. Roasted peanut or walnut oil can be substituted if you have those. In some cases, you might want to use whole toasted sesame seeds to hit the right flavor notes. Other times, tahini (sesame paste) can fill in.