Off the Beaten Aisle: Sesame Oil

By: J.M. Hirsch

Maybe it’s time to look beyond claims of virginity in the oil aisle.

Because, you see, our 20-year love affair with olive oil has had fallout. We’ve forgotten that there’s a whole world of oils that don’t come from the olive tree.

And they can do a heck of a lot more than just sauté and make a fine dressing.

OK, maybe we didn’t forget. It’s not as though prior to the EVOO revolution we were all swilling avocado and grape seed oils.

But olive oil has done a fine job of elbowing out other up-and-comers.

Sesame, for instance. You may have never purchased it, but chances are you’ve had it. It’s what gives many Asian dishes a nutty, savory, richly aromatic flavor.

Most sesame oil is made by pressing roasted sesame seeds. The oil tastes deeply nutty, almost smoky, and pairs well with anything salty. There are cold-pressed varieties, but skip them; while fine for frying, the flavor is unimpressive.

A high smoke point (420°F) means this amber-colored oil can handle the heat of the fry pan. But its flavor shines brightest when used raw. Which means that getting the deepest, richest sesame flavor will mean using a bit of the oil in the pan to sauté, then drizzling a bit more over the finished dish.

When shopping for sesame oil (sometimes labeled “toasted sesame oil” and often hidden in the Asian aisle), the darker the color, the richer the flavor. And while loads of antioxidants give sesame oil a long shelf life, refrigerating it will make it last even longer.

What to do with it? It’s obviously a natural for stir-fries (remember to drizzle a bit more on the finished dish for best flavor) and makes killer marinades for steak.

  • For an Asian dipping sauce or marinade, combine equal parts sesame oil, soy sauce, rice vinegar and honey, then spike with hot sauce.
  • Make a bold salad dressing by blending 2 tablespoons canola oil, 2 tablespoons sesame oil, 1 tablespoon rice or cider vinegar, a clove of garlic, a bit of grated fresh ginger, and salt and pepper.
  • Toss chopped root veggies (carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes) in sesame oil, salt and pepper, then roast until tender. Or toss roasted asparagus with it.
  • Drizzle sesame oil over chicken soup. That’s it. Really. It’s so delicious.
  • Think pizza. Top a white pizza with shiitake mushrooms and mozzarella. As soon as it comes out of the oven, on goes the sesame oil.
Sesame Pulled-Pork Sandwiches
Start to finish: 50 minutes (15 minutes active)
Servings: 6
12-ounce bottle beer
6-ounce can tomato paste
¼ cup brown sugar
½ cup rice vinegar
3 tablespoons sesame oil, divided
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1½ teaspoons garlic powder
1½ teaspoons mustard powder
1 whole star anise
3 pounds pork tenderloin, cut into 2-inch chunks
1 to 2 teaspoons hot sauce
Salt and ground black pepper, to taste
6 bulky rolls or other burger buns
Sesame seeds, to garnish
Sliced scallions, to garnish

In a large saucepan, whisk together the beer, tomato paste, brown sugar, vinegar, 2 tablespoons of the toasted sesame oil, the soy sauce, garlic powder and mustard powder. Add the star anise and pork. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, then cover and cook until very tender, about 40 minutes.

Discard the star anise, then use 2 forks to shred or pull apart the pork into bite-size pieces. Stir in the remaining tablespoon of toasted sesame oil and the hot sauce. Season with salt and pepper.

Divide the pork between the buns, sprinkling each serving with sesame seeds and scallions.

Nutrition information per serving (values are rounded to the nearest whole number): 563 calories; 128 calories from fat (23 percent of total calories); 15 g fat (3 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 147 mg cholesterol; 48 g carbohydrate; 55 g protein; 2 g fiber; 923 mg sodium.

J.M. Hirsch is the national food editor for The Associated Press. He is author of the recent cookbook, “ High Flavor, Low Labor: Reinventing Weeknight Cooking .” He also blogs at jmhirsch.

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