Sesame shows up in the cuisines of so many different cultures: the seeds top your ramen, the oil flavors your dressing, and tahini is the essential that turns chickpeas into hummus. The tiny seeds—nearly 10,000 of them make up a single ounce—grow across India, China, Mexico, and Sudan and appear in dozens of distinctive dishes, from snacks to desserts. But they often get overlooked for the subtle crunch and rich toasty flavor they deliver, with many home cooks still unsure of what to do with them beyond observing how nicely they decorate a hamburger bun. Here’s a rundown on the many forms that sesame seeds take—and how to use each in your cooking.
Raw sesame seeds come in colors from pale gold to jet black and have a delicate crunch. Once exposed to heat, the seeds’ nutty, coffee-like aroma and flavor comes out. The longer you toast, the stronger they taste. To easily toast them, heat the seeds in a dry skillet over low heat until fragrant. The seeds are versatile in cooking: You’ll see them as a garnish in Middle Eastern cuisines, often as part of the sumac-thyme-sesame mixture known as za’atar. In Europe, especially Greece, the seeds coat small pastries,while chefs in Japan slightly mash them into a sauce traditionally paired with cooked spinach. In both India and the West Indies, cooks mix sesame seeds with melted sugar to produce brittle, a popular street snack.
How to use it: In the U.S. we mainly see sesame seeds on our bagels and hamburger buns, but take inspiration from these delicious global recipes: Toss seeds into granola for extra-nutty clusters or mix them into a sugar cookie batter for an exotic twist. Or top them on tacos (Mexican molé recipes often call for sesame), stir-fries, salads, or fried rice.
By weight, a sesame seed is half oil. By heating and pressing the seed, you can extract the fragrant, shelf-stable oil from toasted seeds (or a more neutral oil from raw ones). The toasted version is the one you want in your pantry.
How to use it: Swap it in for olive oil and use it as the base for salad dressings with soy sauce and lime juice, drizzle it over just-cooked grains, fry an egg in it, or use it in a stir-fry sauce.
When ground, sesame seeds become the oily paste known as tahini, which comes in different varieties whether the seeds are white or black, toasted or untoasted, with hulls or without. An essential ingredient in hummus and baba ganoush, tahini is responsible for the dips’ ethereal texture and rich, buttery flavor. In Japan, black tahini is prized for its richness and so used very simply, often spread on toast.
How to use it: Combining a few spoonfuls of tahini and lemon juice produces an addictively creamy sauce or dressing—without the cream. (Some home cooks insist on adding a tad of tahini to any salad dressing they make.) Try following in the footsteps of the Japanese and spread black tahini on toast with a drizzle of honey) or mixed into ice cream for an enigmatic, intense taste. You can even make tahini at home in the food processor by grinding 1 cup of toasted sesame seeds, then adding a few tablespoons of oil until smooth.