Open sesame

Hull-on sesame seeds taste better

March 26, 2010

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about hulls.

No, I’m not pining for the nonexistent seafaring days of my youth. My mind is on sesame seeds and their tiny, tasty little hulls.

Until recently, however, I wasn’t even sure how to tell whether my sesame seeds had their hulls on. Even if it says “hulled” on the package, what does that mean? Hull on or off? And who cares?

You should, because hull-on sesame (I’m going to stick to the terms “hull-on” and “hull-off” for clarity) tastes better. And hull-on seeds are quite lovely.

“The hull varies from white to buff-color all the way to brown to light gold to gray to dark brown,” says Ray Langham, the director of research for Sesaco Corporation. “A [hull-off] seed, it’s a lot whiter, almost translucent. If you look carefully at the seeds on a McDonald’s bun, they almost have a shiny appearance.”

Sesaco is a commercial sesame grower in Texas and environs, and Langham is a font of sesame knowledge. In addition to the color of the hull, he explained, there are two other ways to identify a hull-on seed: most hull-on seeds have a black tip, and all have a seed line on one side of the seed.

hulled and unhulled sesame seeds
Hull-on sesame seeds, left, and hull-off sesame seeds, right.

And if your sesame seeds are black — more about this in a minute — you’re definitely looking at hull-on seeds.

Roasty and toasty

“It is probably in Japan that the use of sesame seeds has been most highly developed,” writes Alan Davidson in The Oxford Companion to Food. What’s he talking about? Japanese cooks take hull-on sesame seeds, toast them, then coarsely grind them — traditionally in a mortar and pestle (suribachi,) but a spice grinder works fine. There’s no better way to maximize the flavor and texture of a sesame seed.

Coarse-ground toasted sesame is the basis for gomashio, a simple mixture of sesame and salt that is good on everything. It’s used to make goma ae, a delicious dressing for spinach or other vegetables.

And it is fabulous on noodles. I learned this from Kentaro Kobayashi, a Japanese TV cooking-show host who has written five delightful little cookbooks in English. The guy cannot restrain himself: he puts sesame in just about everything, and he always describes it as “roasty,” “toasty,” or both. His recipe for miso-sautéed udon uses several tablespoons of coarse-ground black sesame seeds.

black and white sesame seeds
Black and white sesame seeds.

I don’t mean to put down all hull-off sesame products or to imply that Japanese food is the beginning and end of the discussion. Tahini is made with hull-off seeds. However, Langham explained, the seeds in this case are usually water-dehulled, a process that leaves some hull in place. (So what’s the more common way to remove the hull? Soak the seeds in lye.)

Over on the Chinese side, jarred sesame paste is made from hull-on seeds. If you want to experience the power of sesame hulls, try tasting some tahini and (slightly diluted) Chinese sesame paste side by side.

Like most nuts and seeds, sesame tastes better when toasted. And, like most nuts and seeds, sesame is easy to burn. The best way to toast it, I find, is in the oven. Spread the seeds out on a baking sheet and put them in a 350-degree oven for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until golden brown. Yes, you will probably burn the first batch.

In black and white

Now, what about those black sesame seeds? They’re common in Japanese and Indian cuisine and should be more common here. They’re always hull-on (the seed inside is white). You can toast them, but you need to be careful, since it’s impossible to tell by sight when they’re on the verge of burning.

Black sesame seeds don’t taste fundamentally different from white. But I find that black seeds sold in Asian markets tend to be higher quality and less often rancid. (They also cost more, of course.) And when you make them into a sauce, it looks fabulous, speckled with black dots of ground sesame that resemble the vanilla seeds in premium ice cream. Seriously, try Kobayashi’s udon recipe. It will remind you of your nonexistent salad days as a sesame farmer.

Speaking of which, sesame seeds are also great on salads.

Matthew Amster-Burton writes about cooking and culture from his home in Seattle.

Related recipe: Miso-Sautéed Udon with Shiitake Mushrooms

There are 16 comments on this item
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1. by anonymous on Dec 18, 2011 at 3:32 PM PST

black means it has a black hull
brown means it has a brown hull
white means the hull is off.

how do you know if a seasame seed has gone rancid? will it taste bitter? how do you know if a seasame is fresh, will it taste sweet?

i tried a white and black seasame seeds but taking a spoon full and eating them. they tasted very bitter. were they rancid?

2. by Matthew Amster-Burton on Dec 18, 2011 at 7:53 PM PST

If it tastes lousy, it’s rancid. You can sometimes smell if it’s off, but you can’t beat a taste test.

White sesame seeds with hulls aren’t particularly brown, more beige.

3. by anonymous on Dec 18, 2011 at 9:52 PM PST

1. where is a good source to buy farm fresh whole sesame seeds and even freshly pressed oil? (i was spelling sesame wrong the whole time)

2. why they remove the hull, is it not edible? or you can eat it it’s a matter of taste? or with the hull it will taste rancid without less rancid or same?

4. by anonymous on Dec 18, 2011 at 10:01 PM PST

let me clarify, is the bitterness in sesame seeds due to the oxalic acid in the seed coat which is either on the hull or on the seed without the hull and that is why it is removed? or that is how it is naturally and there are ways to remove it. i ask due to what i read here. i might be misunderstanding this book, so please help me.

5. by Matthew Amster-Burton on Dec 19, 2011 at 6:57 AM PST

Anonymous, a good source for sesame seeds is an east or south Asian market with finicky customers and lots of turnover. Sesame seeds have the hull removed for appearance, mildness of flavor, and better storage properties, but I prefer seeds with the hull on. A little bitterness is fine with me.

6. by anonymous on Dec 21, 2011 at 4:17 PM PST

okay i went to a japanese market and they the largest variety, however everything was roasted, both black and white whole unhulled. why roasted? is it to prolong shelf life, to impart flavor, to remove the oxalic acid?

7. by Matthew Amster-Burton on Dec 21, 2011 at 6:20 PM PST

Why roasted? Because they taste better. Freshly roasting your own is the tastiest, but commercially roasted seeds can be quite good. Also, you can lightly toast them again to bring out the flavor.

8. by anonymous on Oct 6, 2012 at 1:35 PM PDT

You can soak and sprout sesame seeds with the hull on and dry them in a dehydrator - this way the enzymes are easier to digest.

9. by anonymous on Nov 23, 2012 at 11:13 AM PST

you wrote:
“An unhulled hull-off seed, it’s a lot whiter, almost translucent. If you look carefully at the seeds on a McDonald’s bun, they almost have a shiny appearance.”

but i think hulled means hull off, correct?
unhulled doesn’t mean hull off, i think hulled
means hull off.

10. by anonymous on Feb 20, 2013 at 2:10 AM PST

I think you have got it around the wrong way. Hulled means the hull is off (as per above comment). Unhulled means it is on. So it is preferable to eat the unhulled seeds.

11. by Caroline Cummins on Feb 22, 2013 at 5:08 PM PST

Anonymous: To avoid further confusion, we took out the unhulled reference in the quote above from Ray Langham. Thanks!

12. by shrey virmani on May 19, 2013 at 1:27 AM PDT

how do you remove the hull?

13. by Matthew Amster-Burton on May 19, 2013 at 6:52 AM PDT

You don’t. It has to be done commercially.

14. by anonymous on Aug 8, 2013 at 11:23 PM PDT

I am looking for a good source of Japanese roasted black sesame seeds in reasonable quantities (like a pound). These seeds are a fabulous source of calcium if they are ground into a fine, shiny paste.

15. by anonymous on Aug 9, 2013 at 10:08 AM PDT

Thank you for thinking about hulls and giving us this lovely article.

I often think about hulls, but then the kids, bills, global warming and other thoughts take over and I never get to the bottom of the hulled vs unhulled thoughts. So this busy Mom thanks you!

16. by Matthew Amster-Burton on Aug 26, 2013 at 4:02 PM PDT

Hi, anonymous #14. Here’s a store that sells a 1-pound bag of black sesame seeds for $3.45 plus shipping:

They’re not from Japan, however. It doesn’t state the source, but they’re probably from India, which is by far the largest sesame exporter. They’ll work fine in Japanese cooking, though, I’m sure.

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Unexplained Bacon

Matthew Amster-Burton sniffs out the unexplained in the kitchen, the store, and the food world at large. He blogs at Roots and Grubs, podcasts at Spilled Milk, and is the author of the book Hungry Monkey.

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