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A Toast to Sesame Oil

By Lisa McManus Published

Nutty and fragrant, a good-quality toasted sesame oil can enhance all kinds of dishes, but bad ones just taste oily or burnt. How do you guarantee great flavor?

We love toasted sesame oil in the test kitchen. Just a teaspoon or two adds a burst of distinctive toasty, nutty, roasted flavor to any number of recipes, from meats to vegetables to salads and stir-fries. Sesame seeds contain more than 50 percent oil, and sesame oil is one of the oldest foods made by humans; archaeologists have found evidence of its production going back thousands of years. Today, it’s widely used throughout Asia, and the United States is one of its biggest importers.

There are two types of sesame oil, and they can’t be used interchangeably. Plain sesame oil, which is pressed from raw sesame seeds, has almost no color, flavor, or scent. It also has a high smoke point, which makes it a good cooking oil. By contrast, toasted sesame oil is deep amber to brown in color, with an intensely toasty, nutty aroma and flavor and a much lower smoke point. We generally don’t cook with it but use it as a finishing oil, adding a teaspoon or two at the end of cooking or incorporating it into a dressing or sauce. 

Because it’s such an important element in so many of our recipes, we chose to focus on toasted sesame oils, and bought eight top-selling products, priced from about $0.40 to about $1.60 per ounce, to discover which tasted best. Twenty-one staffers at America’s Test Kitchen sampled them in two blind tastings, first plain and then in Rice Salad with Peas and Mushrooms.

We compared the colors of the oils in our lineup to see if they corresponded to their flavors. There was a loose correlation, with the darkest oils tasting a bit more char-like and the lightest having a delicate, less-developed nutty flavor.

Big Differences in Flavor

We were surprised by how much the oils differed in taste. Tasters described flavors that ranged from “nutty, toasty, tasty,” and “a touch smoky,” with an “almost oaky or bourbon quality,” to “a bit too delicate” or, worse, “fishy” and “too intense.” To understand these flavor variances, it helps to know how toasted sesame oil is made. Before milling or pressing whole sesame seeds to extract oil, manufacturers roast them. The roasting step is key: Just as when nuts or coffee beans are roasted or bread is toasted, the application of heat kicks off the Maillard reaction, which creates new flavor compounds and turns the seeds deep golden brown. After the seeds cool, they’re pressed, and the new amber-colored oil is filtered to remove seed particles before being bottled for sale. No other treatment, additives, or enhancements are needed.

Where Does Sesame Oil Come From?

  • Sesame oil comes from the seeds of the Sesamum indicum plant, which is native to Africa and India but now grows in many other countries. It's a hardy flowering plant that grows well even in dry climates. The seeds, which grow in pods, are composed of more than 50 percent oil. This oil is easy to extract by mechanical pressing, so sesame is one of the earliest known sources of cooking oil in the world. For toasted sesame oil, like the ones we tasted, the seeds are toasted first to develop their nutty, toasty flavors before being pressed.

According to experts, including a 2016 article published in the International Journal of Food Properties, the biggest factors causing the different sensory qualities of toasted sesame oils are the seeds’ roasting times and the temperature at which they’re roasted. Just like when you toast a slice of white bread, depending on the heat setting and the length of the toasting time, the resulting color and flavor will range from unchanged and pale to golden and sweetly caramelized to black with a burnt taste. There’s brinkmanship involved in toasting sesame seeds, where higher, hotter temperatures and/or longer roasting times yield more than 240 volatile aroma and flavor compounds, with pyrazines, which provide roasted, nutty flavors, being one of the most prominent. But roasting increases the presence of compounds such as pyrazines only up to a point. When the roasting continues too long or at too high a temperature, other, less favorable flavors appear.

Here's the best way to store sesame oil.

Moving it off the kitchen counter is only the first step. Here's how to prolong the life of the oils in your kitchen.

 While manufacturers keep their exact roasting times and temperatures a trade secret, it was easy for our tasters to perceive whether the seeds for these oils had been toasted too much, too little, or just enough, and the resulting flavors clearly influenced our rankings. One oil had a pale color and “delicate” toasted flavor that some tasters found delicious when plain but too subtle when we mixed it into rice salad. Another was fairly fierce, with bitter, burnt notes when tasted plain, but the unfavorable impressions disappeared when we used it to dress the rice salad, leaving behind the intense roasted nuttiness and just a hint of char. But the lowest-ranked oils had stronger off-flavors that persisted in the rice salad, leaving acrid, bitter impressions with our tasters. Because we add toasted sesame oil specifically for its flavor, whether it’s in a simple dressing or dipping sauce or in another application where it is not cooked, we preferred oils that tasted great both plain and in a recipe.

The Best Toasted Sesame Oil: Ottogi Premium Roasted Sesame Oil

While we recommend most of the oils we tasted, our favorite was Ottogi Premium Roasted Sesame Oil. It won over our tasters with its well-developed rich, deep toasted sesame flavor and aroma that reminded some of peanut butter or tahini while avoiding the bitter, acrid notes of less-favored oils. Tasters gave it high marks when they tasted it plain, and they also enjoyed the way it added depth and complexity to the rice salad. It is also one of only two oils in our lineup sold in dark-colored, nonreactive bottles that protect the oil quality, and tasters appreciated the resulting fresher flavor. One final note: We’ve learned that Ottogi is sold in two different containers that are made in two different countries. The glass-bottled version, which we tasted and recommend, is made in China. The version sold in metal tins is made in South Korea and has less nuttiness and more charcoal notes; we prefer the glass-bottled oil. We’ll be stocking it in our pantry.

Taste Test Toasted Sesame Oil

Nutty and fragrant, a good-quality toasted sesame oil can enhance all kinds of dishes, but bad ones just taste oily or burnt. How do you guarantee great flavor?

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JC
JOHN C.
16 days

Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too. I've done this using a rimmed sheet pan instead of a skillet and put veggies and potatoes around the chicken for a one-pan meal. Broccoli gets nicely browned and yummy!

Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too.

MD
MILES D.
JOHN C.
9 days

Amazed this recipe works out as well as it does. Would not have thought that the amount of time under the broiler would have produced a very juicy and favorable chicken with a very crispy crust. Used my 12" Lodge Cast Iron skillet (which can withstand 1000 degree temps to respond to those who wondered if it would work) and it turned out great. A "make again" as my family rates things. This is a great recipe, and I will definitely make it again. My butcher gladly butterflied the chicken for me, therefore I found it to be a fast and easy prep. I used my cast iron skillet- marvellous!

CM
CHARLES M.
11 days

John, wasn't it just amazing chicken? So much better than your typical oven baked chicken and on par if not better than gas or even charcoal grilled. It gets that smokey charcoal tasted and overnight koshering definitely helps, something I do when time permits. First-time I've pierced a whole chicken minus the times I make jerk chicken on the grill. Yup, the cast iron was not an issue.