Sesame Seeds

Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

  • About

Sesame seeds are the seeds of Sesamum indicum, a plant of the central African savanna that is now mostly grown in India, China, Mexico, and the Sudan. Sesame seeds are small, with 250–300 per gram and 7,500–9,000 per ounce, come in a variety of colors, from golden to brown, violet, and black, and are about 50% oil by weight. They’re usually lightly toasted (250–300°F/120–150°C for 5 minutes) to develop a nutty flavor, which has some sulfur aromatics in common with roasted coffee (furfurylthiol). Sesame seeds are made into the seasoned Middle Eastern paste called tahini, are added to rice balls and made into a tofu-like cake with arrowroot in Japan, and made into a sweet paste in China, as well as decorating a variety of baked goods in Europe and the United States. Sesame oil is also extracted from toasted seeds (360–400°F/180–200°C for 10–30 minutes) and used as a flavoring. The oil is remarkable for its resistance to oxidation and rancidity, which results from high levels of antioxidant phenolic compounds (lignans), some vitamin E, and products of the browning reactions that occur during the more thorough toasting.