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Image from Wikimedia Creative Commons.

Pantry staples: sesame seeds

Everything you need to know about sesame.


Want to use sesame seeds as more than just garnish? Find out everything you need to know about these delicious seeds in our pantry staples guide.

Our pantry staples series sees us take a look at the ingredients that most people usually have in their presses – chickpeas, beans, noodles and the like. Today, we’re looking at sesame seeds.

Sesame seeds are considered to be the oldest oilseed crop known to man. The majority of sesame seed species originated in Africa, but the crop was first domesticated in India around 5,500 years ago. There are references to sesame being used by ancient cultures in a multitude of ways, such as the ancient Persians who used sesame for medicinal purposes and the ancient Egyptians who milled sesame seeds into flour. 

Sesame oil is produced from the seeds found in the flowers of the sesame plant, sesamum indicum. Pods are formed within the flower, in which the seeds are housed, and the pods burst when they are fully ripe, releasing the seeds which are then hulled to eliminate a bitter flavour produced by oxalic acid. Historically, sesame has been called a survivor crop as it is able to grow in areas that other crops cannot. It needs little farming and can thrive in areas of both drought and heavy rainfall.

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Sesame seeds. Image by: Demuths Cookery School on Flickr.
Sesame seeds. Image by: Demuths Cookery School on Flickr.

How It's Made

Often used as a garnish on breads and baked goods, sesame seeds are also widely used to produce sesame oil. Tanzania is the world's largest producer of sesame oil, which is massively popular in African and Asian markets. To make sesame oil, the seeds are pressed before the oil is refined. The seeds can also be cold-pressed under low-temperature conditions using an expeller press. The method is popular with organic and raw food enthusiasts as it doesn't involve using high temperatures or chemicals during extraction.

Nutritionally speaking, sesame seeds are surprisingly good for you. Per 100g, the seeds contain about 97% of your daily recommended allowance of calcium. Sesame seeds are also a good source of magnesium, iron, copper, vitamin B1 and dietary fibre. Sesame oil is polyunsaturated, so it is one of the healthier oils that you can introduce to your diet. With its nutty, toasted flavour, sesame oil is commonly used in Asian cooking, as well as dressings and marinades. 

Sesame seeds come in two different colours – black and white – which basically taste the same and are mainly used for aesthetic purposes. Black sesame seeds are very fragrant and were thought to have medicinal properties due to their high levels of antioxidants. White sesame seeds are the variety most seen in Western cooking, as they are often used as a garnish on burger buns. They have a slightly milder flavour than their black counterpart and are often toasted and added to sushi.

Tahini is used to make hummus. Image by Ella Olsson on Flickr.
Tahini is used to make hummus. Image by Ella Olsson on Flickr.

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Perhaps sesame's most well-known use these days is in tahini, which is a delicious, oily paste made from toasted, ground sesame seeds. Used alongside chickpeas to create the base for any good hummus, tahini is rich and creamy with a savoury, nutty flavour. Tahini has reached new levels of popularity over the past couple of years; you can see it used in salads everywhere, drizzled into brownies and cookies or even just by itself as a dipping sauce.

Tahini is super simple to make, so next time you have a glut of sesame seeds at home, why not try making it yourself? Toast a cup of sesame seeds on a pan or in the oven until lightly coloured, then grind with a food processor until a crumbly paste is formed. Slowly add the oil to the processor until the paste turns thick and smooth. If you prefer a thinner tahini, slowly incorporate more oil until the desired consistency is reached. If desired, add salt to taste, then store the tahini in your fridge in a sterilised jar where it will stay fresh for about 4-6 weeks. The tahini will separate a little when stored, so make sure you give it a good stir before you use it.

Looking for some more recipe inspiration? While we love a handful of toasted sesame seeds added to a salad for some extra crunch, we think you'll enjoy these sesame-based recipes:

  • Takashi Miyazaki uses sesame seeds to add extra crunch to his mackerel spine karinto, which is an addictive, zero-waste snack. You can make this dish with the spine of any flat fish – why not try it with a combination of black and white sesame seeds too?
  • Another recipe from Takashi, this tofu pudding uses black tahini paste to create a nutty, light dessert.
  • Hugo Arnold's falafel recipe uses both sesame seeds and tahini to create a crunchy moreish dish that's perfect for summer snacking. 

Takashi Miyazaki's tofu and black sesame pudding. Image: Harry Weir and Brian Clarke.
Takashi Miyazaki's tofu and black sesame pudding. Image: Harry Weir and Brian Clarke.

What do you use sesame seeds for? Let us know in the comments below.

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