We all know ‘sesame seeds’ from the McDonald’s Big Mac ad :"Two all beef patties… on a sesame seed bun". Many are familiar with the phrase “Open, Sesame” from Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. We have had fresh baked bread garnished with sesame seeds, and tasted tahini (sometimes called the butter of the Middle East), a ground toasted sesame seed paste used in hummus, baba ganoush, halvah and other traditional Middle Eastern dishes.
Sesame (Sesamum indicum) is a high value, ancient oilseed first recorded as a crop over 4,000 years ago. Sesame seeds have twice the oil of soybeans by seed weight. The oil is more stable than most vegetable oils due to high antioxidants; sesame is also high in protein, about 25%. The nutty tasting sesame oil is used almost exclusively for human consumption. After oil extraction, some of the spent meal becomes a high protein animal feed supplement and the rest is ground into sesame flour and added to health foods.
About 5 million acres worldwide are said to be in commercial production, with the U.S. growing only about 20,000 acres mainly in Texas and some southwestern states. (We import 5 times what we grow.)
Thomas Jefferson saw the potential in sesame and grew it 200 years ago at Monticello in Virginia. He called it ‘benne’ and Benne Wafers (a thin cookie made with toasted sesame) are still a prime delicacy in the low country of South Carolina and in New Orleans. The benne (or sesame) seed was thought to bring good luck, and was brought here on the slave ships from Africa more than 300 years ago.
Growing Sesame in your Garden
Sesame commercial crops are grown mainly in the hot climates of Mexico, Central America and China, but since it is an annual you can grow it in your own garden.
Sesame needs well-drained and fertile soil, without too much nitrogen added or you will get lots of plant growth with not much seed production. You can direct-seed sesame after all danger of frost is past. Sesame must be planted shallow, preferably 1/2" deep, and does best just after a rain, or if the soil has been irrigated to slightly damp. Germination is 1-2 weeks, and sesame matures in 80-125 days on average. (Sesame is indeterminate so maturity is spread over time.) This herb will tolerate dry conditions once the seedlings are well established. Sesame grows 2-4 feet tall but can reach as much as 9 feet! The hairy, single stem needs space so plant seedlings in rows 2-3 feet apart. Sesame flowers white (and rarely pink) before becoming seed capsules with 8 rows of seeds in each 1 to 1-1/2 inch fibrous seed capsule. The seeds are tiny, flat and pointed, averaging 15,000 seeds per pound.
Sesame oil, high in Vitamin E, is believed to improve skin diseases, soothe sunburns and benefit the cardiovascular system. The fat in sesame is 82% unsaturated fatty acids. Eating sesame seeds relieves constipation and aids digestion.
Sesame seeds are available hulled or unhulled, and toasted or untoasted. The unhulled are often used on bakery goods because they adhere better. Black sesame seeds are used as a dramatic garnish in Asian foods although the taste is said to be the same as the off-white seeds most familiar to us. Seeds are easily toasted in an ungreased skillet over medium heat for a minute or two.
Sesame oil added to a dish at the very end of cooking adds a zest to stir-fries and a splash is delicious on a salad, giving it an oriental flavor. You can roll confections in sesame seeds for a nutty taste and delightful presentation. Sprinkle some on baked dishes and breads. There are many recipes on the internet for party dips made with sesame tahini (commonly found in hummus); dishes like Baba Ganoush, and Falafel all are traditionally made with a sesame paste, plus all the confections made for generations with sesame.
Tahini (Sesame Seed Paste) with Pita Chips & Veggies
Black Sesame Seeds
Sesame Seed Cookies
Benne Wafers Recipe
1 cup sesame seeds 3/4 cup butter, melted 1 1/2 cups packed brown sugar 1 egg 1 teaspoon vanilla extract 1 cup all-purpose flour 1/4 teaspoon salt 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
Place the sesame seeds on an ungreased baking sheet and toast for about 10 minutes, watching closely, until lightly browned. In a large mixing bowl mix the brown sugar, melted butter or margarine, egg, vanilla extract, flour, salt, baking powder and toasted sesame seeds together until blended.
Drop dough by half-teaspoonfuls onto a lightly greased baking sheet, leaving about 1 1/2 inches between cookies. Bake benne wafers in preheated 375° oven for 4 to 6 minutes, or until lightly browned. Let cookies cool for about 2 minutes on baking sheets; remove from baking sheets to a wire rack to cool completely. Store cooled sesame seed cookies in an airtight container. Makes about 72 Cookies
Seed Sources: The only significant source of sesame varieties and seeds currently in the U.S. is the Sesaco Corporation (1-800-527-1024). Their plant breeder has developed several varieties. Every year or two they update the variety or varieties recommended to their contract producers.
A few public varieties of sesame were released decades ago but are no longer available. Occasionally, specialty seed houses will have some sesame available in garden-sized packets, of unregistered varieties that are probably not good agronomic performers (sold, for example, by Seeds of Change, New Mexico, phone 888-762-7333, in small packets by mail order).
Footnotes  http://www.vegparadise.com/highestperch41.html Thomas Jefferson Agricultural Institute http://www.jeffersoninstitute.org/pubs/sesame.shtml ,  http://www.vegparadise.com/highestperch41.html
About Darius Van d'Rhys
I have a 'growing my own food' obsession that comes from my overlapping interests in cooking, nutrition and gardening. I am also a "teacher", a writer, a builder… and a craftsperson and... and… and many other things, LOL. In fact, I guess I am a generalist, and a Seeker.
I live in the southern Appalachian Mountains on a hillside with a creek in front, and drive a 15 year old truck I lovingly call “My Farmer’s Ferrari.”