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Toasted Sesame Oil

Published April 2020

How we tested

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, making 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.

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. Manufacturers roast whole sesame seeds before milling or pressing them to extract oil. 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. 

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 length of time you toast, 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 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.  

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 plain, but the unfavorable impressions disappeared when we used it to dress the rice salad, leaving the intense roasted nuttiness and just a hint of char behind. 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. 


Methodology

  • Taste 8 widely available toasted sesame oils, priced from about $0.40 to about $1.60 per ounce
  • Products selected from among the top-selling supermarket brands as compiled by IRI, a Chicago-based market research firm
  • Purchased in Boston-area supermarkets and online
  • Taste plain and in Rice Salad with Peas and Mushrooms 
  • Samples randomized in blind taste tests to eliminate bias

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The Results

Winner
Recommended

Skippy Peanut Butter

In a contest that hinged on texture, tasters thought this "smooth, "creamy" sample was "swell" and gave it top honors, both plain and baked into cookies. Its rave reviews even compensated for a slightly "weak" nut flavor that didn't come through as well as that of other brands in the pungent satay sauce.

$2.39 for 16.3-oz. jar (15 cents per oz.)*
Recommended

Jif Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The big favorite in satay sauce, this peanut butter's "dark, roasted flavor"—helped by the addition of molasses—stood out particularly well against the other heady ingredients, and it made cookies with "nice sweet-salty balance." Plus, as the top-rated palm oil-based sample, it was "creamy," "thick," and better emulsified than other "natural" contenders.

$2.29 for 18-oz. jar (13 cents per oz.)*

Reese's Peanut Butter

This is what peanut butter should be like, " declared one happy taster, noting specifically this product's "good," "thick" texture and "powerful peanut flavor." In satay sauce, however, some tasters felt that heavier body made for a "pasty" end result.

$2.59 for 18-oz. jar (14 cents per oz.)*

Skippy Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The only other palm oil-based peanut butter to make the "recommended" cut, this contender had a "looser" texture than its winning sibling but still won fans for being "super-smooth." Tasters thought it made an especially "well-balanced," "complex" peanut sauce.

$2.39 for 15-oz. jar (16 cents per oz.)*
Recommended with Reservations

Peanut Butter & Co. No-Stir Natural Smooth Operator

Though it says "no-stir" on the label, this "stiff" palm-oil enriched peanut butter was "weeping oil" and came across as "greasy" to some tasters. However, it turned out a respectable batch of cookies—"chewy in the center, crisp and short at the edge"—and made "perfectly good" satay sauce.

$4.49 for 18-oz. jar (25 cents per oz.)*

Maranatha Organic No Stir Peanut Butter

On the one hand, this organic peanut butter produced cookies that were "soft and sturdy" yet "moist," with "knockout peanut flavor." On the other hand, eating it straight from the jar was nearly impossible; its "loose," "liquid-y," and "dribbly" consistency had one taster wonder if it was "peanut soup."

$5.69 for 16-oz. jar (36 cents per oz.)*
Not Recommended

Smart Balance All Natural Rich Roast Peanut Butter

Besides being unpalatably "tacky" and "sludgy," this "natural" peanut butter suffered from an awful "fishy" flavor with a "weird acidic aftertaste" that tasters noted in all three applications. Our best guess as to the culprit? The inclusion of flax seed oil, an unsaturated fat that's highly susceptible to rancidity.

$3.59 for 16-oz. jar (22 cents per oz.)*

Smucker's Natural Peanut Butter

With its only additive a negligible amount of salt, the only truly natural peanut butter in the lineup elicited comments ranging from mild dissatisfaction ("needs enhancement with salt and sugar") to outright disgust ("slithery," "chalky," "inedible"). Cookies were "dry and crumbly" with a "hockey puck" texture, and the satay sauce was "stiff," "gritty," and "gloopy."

$2.69 for 16-oz. jar (17 cents per oz.)*