What is sesame oil?
Sesame oil is a type of vegetable oil that is golden in colour and has a distinctively nutty aroma and taste. It is predominantly used in Chinese, Korean and Indian cuisine (think, stir-fries, marinades and curries) although it has featured in Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years.
What is it made of?
Sesame oil is derived from the crushed seeds of sesame; a herb from the Pedaliaceae family. It is extracted using a variety of different methods, including cold-pressing (which helps preserve the oil’s nutrients and antioxidants), hot pressing or toasting the seeds. It also comes in two varieties: clear or pure and dark.
Pure sesame oil is light golden in colour and has a pleasant flavour. It’s pressed from uncooked sesame seeds and can be refined or unrefined. The refined version has a higher smoke point and is mostly used for cooking meats and vegetables, while unrefined oil is more robust in taste and is best added to salads and marinades.
As you’d expect, dark sesame oil is darker than pure sesame oil. It’s made from toasted sesame seeds and has a coffee-like hue. By toasting the seeds, it also gives the oil a greater intensity in flavour – and as such, dark sesame oil shouldn’t be used for cooking. Instead, it works best as a condiment (like a dip or sauce) or added to a dish just before serving.
As a large volume of sesame is required to produce a single bottle, sesame oil can be more expensive than many of the other cooking oils out there (e.g. canola and sunflower oil).
Is it healthy?
Sesame oil has many antibacterial, antiviral and antioxidant properties that have been proven by science.
“After olive oil, sesame oil is one of the healthiest vegetable oils you can have,” practising accredited dietician Natalie Von Bertouch tells New Idea Food. “Firstly, it’s loaded with mono and polyunsaturated acids – the good fats that help reduce cholesterol and may decrease your risk of developing cardiovascular disease or stroke. Secondly, sesame oil contains very little saturated fat – the kind that can lead to health problems like obesity and high LDL cholesterol.”
In addition, some of the chemical compounds in sesame oil (like sesamol and sesamin) have been found to reduce certain types of cancer cells. Plus, sesame oil stimulates antibodies which are your body’s natural way of attacking foreign invaders to the body.
Sesame oil is packed with minerals that improve bone quality (including copper, zinc, and calcium) as well as vitamin E and K. Its high copper content helps the production of red blood cells and acts as a natural anti-inflammatory, reducing swelling of the joints and muscles. It also contains tyrosine – an amino acid that directly affects serotonin levels and helps boost the mood.
“Sesame oil is relatively low in calories, containing 120 calories per tablespoon,” Von Bertouch adds. “It is safe to cook with and use in salads, although it’s best to consume in moderation as oils are still a fat.”
What are the best substitutes for sesame oil?
- Olive oil
- Peanut oil
- Canola oil
- Sunflower oil
- Avocado oil
- Walnut oil
1. Olive oil
Olive oil comes in two main varieties: Extra Virgin or EVOO (made from the first press of the fruit) and Virgin Olive Oil (made from the second press). EVOO is has a strong olive flavour and green colour, but Virgin Olive Oil is much lighter on the palette and in hue. Both have a smoke point of 210 °C and are good sources of monounsaturated fats and antioxidants.
Olive oil can be consumed at room temperature (i.e. salad dressings and dips) or hot (i.e. for roasting vegetables and general-purpose cooking.)
Best for: salad dressings, dipping bread.
2. Peanut oil
Known for its sweet, nutty taste and aroma, Peanut oil is the perfect accompaniment to Asian dishes. It has a smoke point of 227°C and doesn’t absorb the flavour of foods you cook with it, meaning you can fry many ingredients at once without tainting them.
It is also rich in vitamin E (just one tablespoon contains 11 per cent of the recommended daily intake), however, it is much higher in saturated fat than some other vegetable oils.
Best for: stir-fries, curries.
3. Canola oil
Canola oil has a light, neutral flavour and is commonly used as a moisturising agent in baking due to its moderately-high smoke point (220°C). It is also quite affordable, making it a great choice for recipes that require a lot of oil, including grilled meats and sautéed veg.
It is high in omega-3s and vitamin E and has the lowest levels of saturated fats and trans fats of any other cooking oil.
Best for: barbecues and cakes.
4. Sunflower oil
Sunflower oil is extracted from the pressed seeds of sunflowers. It is virtually flavourless and can withstand temperatures up to 230°C. Because of this, it is a great oil for recipes that require cooking at high temperatures, such as pan-fried and deep-fried dishes.
Sunflower oil is nutrient-rich, containing vitamin E and antioxidants like choline and phenolic acid. It is also trans-fat free and is effective at lowering LDL cholesterol levels.
Best for: roasting meats and vegetables, deep and shallow frying.
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5. Avocado oil
Avocado oil is made from the pressed pulp of the fruit and has a mild grassy flavour that reduces in intensity when cooked.
It’s rich in oleic acid (a good fat) that research shows may help reduce high cholesterol levels. It also has high levels of the antioxidant lutein, as well as heart-healthy phytosterols and vitamin E.
Avocado oil can be heated to 271°C and is perfect for grilling, baking or garnishing dishes.
Best for: vegetable marinades and grilling meat.
6. Walnut oil
Made from pure ground walnuts, this oil is packed with omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants and polyunsaturated fats.
It’s rich in both texture and flavour, but can become bitter when heated so is best served chilled or at room temperature (e.g. drizzled over fish or dessert.)
Best for: garnishing seafood and salads.
Tahini is a paste made from toasted ground sesame seeds. It is most often used in dishes throughout the Mediterranean, North America and Middle East (such as hummus and baba ganoush.) It has high amounts of magnesium and phospherous – which may assist bone density and lower the risk of osteoperosis – as well as plenty of omega-3 fatty acids.
Tahini is creamy, nutty, slightly bitter to taste and can be used on its own as a condiment or added to salad dressings and marinades. It even works well as a cooking sauce for meat.
Best for: dips, salads.
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