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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?
Published Apr. 13, 2020. Appears in America's Test Kitchen TV Season 22: Bulgogi and Bokkeumbap
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What You Need To Know
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.
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.
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 o...
Everything We Tested
“Very roasted and toasted in flavor,” this oil “definitely tastes like sesame” and is “slightly bitter” with a “nice aroma.” It was “one of the more palatable stronger-flavored ones.” In rice salad it had “a nice toasty flavor” and was “very bold-tasting.” One taster summed it up: “Very nice level of toasting and flavor. I wanted to love this the most, but it had just a hint of a bitter taste in the back that made me dock points.”
“Nutty, toasty, tasty. The sesame flavor really shines,” wrote one taster, and many others agreed, finding it “a touch smoky,” with an “almost oaky or bourbon quality” and a “slightly bitter finish.” A few found it slightly too “delicate” or “muted.” The “flavor was nice, just not strong enough,” one taster concluded.
Tasters reported that this oil had “delicate, elegant, toasted sesame flavor.” It was “light, almost sweet, buttery,” and “a bit too delicate.” “I’m missing some toasted flavor,” one tasted noted. (“What sesame oil?” one quipped when tasting the rice salad.) But overall most tasters approved this sample as “mild, creamy, and rich.” We liked that this oil is sold in a nonreactive, light-blocking steel tin that helps preserve fresh flavor.
Featuring a “caramelly coffee aroma with nutty bitter tastes that are immediately apparent,” this “smoky,” “very toasty, and thick” oil was “a little too severe,” “way too bitter,” and “acrid” when tasted plain, but when served in the rice with mushrooms and peas, it was another story: “Fantastic! Tasted the sesame in every bite but not in a bitter way. Truly delicious flavor.” This sample was “a standout,” with “a bold, nutty smell. It was incredibly flavorful and really tasty.”
Tasters generally approved of this oil, but some had mixed reactions, commenting: “a bit too delicate but I still like it.” “Pretty subtle,” with a “pleasant nuttiness,” this oil was “toasty, nutty but not too much so.” It lost points for some “plasticky” off-flavors. In rice salad, it was “pleasant” but a bit too subtle: “I could hardly taste the sesame flavor at all; it was overpowered by the rice,” said one taster, and another remarked that they “wish this was toasted a bit more.”
Recommended with reservations
“This tastes burnt, like toast that got too dark or the way coffee beans smell when they’re roasting. It’s too much, too far, too intense,” wrote tasters when they tried this oil plain. Some noted a “fishy” flavor, and many gave it a firm thumbs-down. However, in rice salad it came across more mild, and off-flavors receded a bit. In the salad it was “Average. Nothing great but nothing bad. A bit lackluster.” Another taster commented that it had a “slight bitterness and a burnt aftertaste” but that the salad was “still enjoyable.”
This oil barely passed muster with our tasters in salad but completely failed when tasted plain. It had “very little sesame flavor. Just tastes like oil,” with “no aroma of sesame.” It was “bitter upfront . . . with a more mild finish.” Some said it tasted “a bit stale” or “fishy” and mentioned “crayons,” which are potential signs of oil rancidity, even though the “Best By” date was more than a year away. “I love sesame oil but didn’t love this,” concluded one taster.
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The mission of America’s Test Kitchen Reviews is to find the best equipment and ingredients for the home cook through rigorous, hands-on testing.
Lisa is an executive editor for ATK Reviews, cohost of Gear Heads on YouTube, and gadget expert on TV's America's Test Kitchen.