Sesame oil is an edible vegetable oil derived from sesame seeds. Besides being used as a cooking oil in South India, it is often used as a flavor enhancer in Chinese, Japanese, Middle Eastern, Korean, and Southeast Asian cuisine.
The oil from the nutrient rich seed is popular in alternative medicine – from traditional massages and treatments to the modern day. The traditional Indian medical practice of Ayurveda uses sesame oil.
The oil is popular in Asia and is also one of the earliest known crop-based oils, but world-wide mass modern production continues to be limited even today due to the inefficient manual harvesting process required to extract the oil.
White sesame seeds, mostly unshelled.
Historically, sesame was cultivated more than 5000 years ago as a drought-tolerant crop and was able to grow where other crops failed. Sesame seeds were one of the first crops processed for oil as well as one of the earliest condiments. Sesame was cultivated during the Indus valley civilization and was the main oil crop. It was probably exported to Mesopotamia around 2500 BC. The Assyrians used sesame oil as a food, salve, and medication.
Manufacture of sesame oil
Bottling sesame oil at Moran Market, Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province, South Korea.
Oil pressing at a Tamil village, India
Sesame seeds are protected by a capsule which only bursts when the seeds are completely ripe. The ripening time tends to vary, so farmers cut plants by hand and place them together in an upright position to continue ripening until all the capsules have opened. The discovery of an indehiscent (nonshattering) mutant by Langham in 1943 began the work towards development of a high yielding, shatter-resistant variety. Although researchers have made significant progress in sesame breeding, harvest losses due to shattering continue to limit domestic US production.
Sesame seeds are primarily produced in developing countries, a factor that has played a role in limiting the creation of large-scale, fully automated oil extraction and processing techniques. Sesame oil can be extracted by a number of methods, depending on the materials and equipment available.
In developing countries, sesame oil is often extracted with less-expensive and manually intensive techniques such as hot water flotation, bridge presses, ram presses, the ghani process, or by using a small-scale expeller. In developed countries sesame oil is often extracted using an expeller press, larger-scale oil extraction machines, or by pressing followed by chemical solvent extraction.
Sesame oil can also be extracted under low-temperature conditions using an expeller press in a process called cold pressing. This extraction method is popular among raw food adherents because it avoids exposing the oil to chemical solvents or high temperatures during extraction.
While some manufacturers will further refine sesame oil through solvent extraction, neutralization and bleaching in order to improve its cosmetic aspects, sesame oil derived from quality seeds already possesses a pleasant taste and does not require further purification before it can be consumed. Many consumers prefer unrefined sesame oil due to their belief that the refining process removes important nutrients.
Sesame oil is one of the more stable natural oils, but can still benefit from refrigeration and limited exposure to light and high temperatures during extraction, processing and storage in order to minimize nutrient loss through oxidation and rancidity. Storage in amber-colored bottles can help to minimize light exposure.
Sesame oil is a polyunsaturated (PUFA) semi-drying oil. Commercial sesame oil varies in colour from light to deep reddish yellow depending on the colour of the seed processed and the method of milling. Provided the oil is milled from well-cleaned seed, it can be refined and bleached easily to yield a light-coloured limpid oil. Sesame oil is rich in oleic and linoleic acids, which together account for 85% of the total fatty acids. Sesame oil has a relatively high percentage of unsaponifiable matter (1.5-2.3%) in India and in some other countries of Europe. It is obligatory to add sesame oil (5-10%) to margarine and generally to hydrogenated vegetable fats which are commonly used as adulterants for butter or ghee.
Sesame seed market
As of 2012, sesame seeds sold on the global market for roughly US $0.67/lb. This relatively high price reflects a worldwide shortage. Though the market for sesame seed is strong, domestic US production awaits the development of high-yielding nonshattering varieties. About 65 percent of the annual US sesame crop is processed into oil and 35 percent is used in food. The market for sesame oil is mainly located in Asia and the Middle East where the use of domestically produced sesame oil has been a tradition for centuries.
There are many variations in the colour of sesame oil: cold-pressed sesame oil is pale yellow, while Indian sesame oil (gingelly or til oil) is golden, and East Asian sesame oils are commonly a dark brown colour. This dark colour and flavour are derived from roasted/toasted sesame seeds. Cold pressed sesame oil has a different flavour than the toasted oil, since it is produced directly from raw, rather than toasted, seeds.
Sesame oil is traded in any of the forms described above: Cold-pressed sesame oil is available in Western health shops. Unroasted (but not necessarily cold pressed) sesame oil is commonly used for cooking in the Middle East and can often be found in halal markets. In East Asian countries, different kinds of hot-pressed sesame oil are preferred.
Despite sesame oil's high proportion (41%) of polyunsaturated (Omega-6) fatty acids, it is least prone, among cooking oils with high smoke points, to turn rancid when kept in the open. This is due to the natural antioxidants present in the oil.
Light sesame oil has a high smoke point and is suitable for deep-frying, while dark sesame oil (from roasted sesame seeds) has a slightly lower smoke point and is unsuitable for deep-frying. Instead it can be used for the stir frying of meats or vegetables, sautéing, or for the making of an omelette. East Asian cuisines often use roasted sesame oil for seasoning.
The Chinese use sesame oil in the preparation of meals for women during postpartum confinement
Sesame oil is the traditional oil used for frying tempura in Japan, particularly in the Tokyo area.
Sesame oil is most popular in Asia, especially in Korea, China, and the South Indian states of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, and Tamil Nadu, where its widespread use is similar to that of olive oil in the Mediterranean.
In South India, sesame oil is used in almost all pickles and condiments. It is often mixed in with a special spice powder that accompanies Idly, dosa as well as rice mixed with spice powders ([Paruppu Podi]). It is used particularly in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh mixed in with foods that are hot and spicy as it neutralizes the heat. It is not used for frying as the oil is heavy by itself.
Traditional uses in India
Sesame oil is reputed to penetrate the skin easily and is used in India for oil massage. Sesame oil (Til Tel) is specially used for massaging as it is believed to rid the body of heat due to its viscous nature upon rubbing. It is also used for hair and scalp massage. Sesame oil is used in the manufacture of Ayurvedic drugs. It is also used in many cosmetic applications, including as a carrier oil.
In Hinduism, sesame or "til" oil is used in deepa or oil lamps kept in front of shrines for the Deities. Sesame oil is used for performing puja in Hindu temples. Also, particularly in South India, sesame oil is applied to the stone deities in the temple's shrines. It is only used on Deities made of black granite.
In industry, sesame oil may be used as
a solvent in injected drugs or intravenous drip solutions,
a cosmetics carrier oil
coating stored grains to prevent weevil attacks. The oil also has synergy with some insecticides.
Low grade oil is used locally in soaps, paints, lubricants, and illuminants.
Sesame oil is a source of vitamin E. Sesame oil also contains magnesium, copper, calcium, iron, zinc, and vitamin B6.
Like the sesame seeds it is derived from, sesame oil may produce an allergic reaction, including anaphylaxis. Approximately 1% of the population are allergic to sesame-derived food products.