Sesame oil has a unique taste that sometimes you don’t want to do without, like when you’re cooking Chinese dishes, Korean stir-fries, or Indian cuisine. But, as with other vegetable oils, sesame oil is often highly refined, meaning it has a high smoke point (good) but has also been stripped of all its nutrients (bad). We have the details on what makes vegetable oils problematic, which oils should be kept to a minimum or eliminated from your kitchen, plus the top 10 sesame oil substitutes you can use in classic Asian recipes and more.
Vegetables are good for you, seeds are good for you, but vegetable and seed oils such as sesame oil are not necessarily healthy. Why? It has to do with the manufacturing: how the source foods are grown and how the cooking oils are processed.
Here are some quick facts:
Long story short: sesame seeds are perfectly healthy in your granola bars and salads, but sesame seed oil may have a detrimental impact on your health, along with these other highly processed seed and vegetable oils:
If you’re looking for a healthier substitute for sesame oil, read on.
If you’re looking for the best substitute for sesame seed oil for cooking traditional Asian dishes with deliciously nutty flavors, review this list to find your best fit.
Rich in monounsaturated fats, avocado oil is naturally cold-pressed from avocado flesh: no boiling, bleaching, or refining. While it won’t replace the nutty taste of sesame oil, it can serve the same utility as a cooking oil and is stable under high heat and deep-frying temperatures, making it a good substitute for a hot skillet and for drizzling over a cold salad.
Another cold-pressed oil, extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) is a common kitchen staple and one of the healthiest oils around. Full of natural fats and versatile thanks to its mild yet buttery flavor, olive oil can be used 1:1 in exchange with sesame oil without having to adjust your recipe, and makes a perfect base for DIY salad dressings.
One more cold-pressed, natural oil: coconut oil. The health benefits of coconuts are pretty far-reaching, from coconut water, coconut milk, coconut cream, and the concentrated MCT oil used in keto coffee and for making healthy homemade sauces and condiments. The coconut is the nut/seed/fruit that keeps on giving, and it, too, can stand in for sesame oil when cooking, plus it’s especially good for baking.
Now we move into flavor territory with oils that can better approximate the nutty taste of sesame oil. First up is unrefined walnut oil, which is full of omega-3 fatty acids much like avocado oil is, plus has a nutty flavor that can work as a cold marinade or dressing. The only caveat is that it’s not good at high heat—walnut oil has a smoke point of 320 °F compared to olive oil’s 468 °F or avocado oil’s 520 °F smoke point, so cook with a more stable oil and flavor with this one.
You may not be as familiar with perilla oil as the others on this list, but it can be found in most Asian grocery stores and is well-suited to regional recipes. Deep, earthy, and rich, perilla oil is made from toasted perilla seeds and is a common dipping sauce in Korean cuisine, up to and including being used in 5-star Michelin restaurants like Soigné in Seoul, South Korea. The only downsides are that it’s high in calories and has the potential to cause allergic reactions (as would any nut oil).
As we mentioned at the top of this article, nuts and seeds are healthy foods—it’s the refining processes of vegetable and seed oils that are not. Peanut oil is on the no-go list, but roasting your own peanuts in healthy oil along with the rest of your ingredients will add that nutty flavor so crucial to many Asian dishes, without the downsides of chemical processing.
The same principle as with roasting peanuts, if you want sesame flavor, toast some sesame seeds and add them to your dish. It’s more natural (just toast them on high heat in your own skillet) and best of all a little goes a long way: it’s recommended you add and taste-test the results 1 teaspoon at a time, lest the sesame seeds overwhelm your dish with their rich, intense flavor.
Tahini, of course, is made from ground sesame seeds, so if you don’t want to spend extra time toasting your own sesame seeds, get some tahini and add that to a healthier oil (the MCT oil derived from coconuts is tasteless on its own, making it perfect as a flavor vessel). Not just for hummus recipes, tahini can be used to perfectly replace refined sesame oil without losing an ounce of flavor.
Distinct from regular sesame oil, dark sesame oil is made from toasted sesame seeds, is more aromatic, and closer in appearance to soy sauce. While it isn’t stable enough for deep-frying dishes, it is nevertheless a sesame oil you can use to get the exact flavor you’re looking for to top off any dish. More of a condiment than a cooking oil, dark sesame oil, also known as toasted sesame oil, actually resists rancidity and oxygenation better than regular untoasted light sesame oil, making it suitable for long-term shelving and storage. Basically, it’s there when you need it, and it’s healthier too.
You can make your own sesame oil if you want to know exactly what you’re eating. It’s simple: combine a quarter cup of toasted sesame seeds with a full cup of whatever healthy, neutral oil you prefer (avocado, olive, coconut, or MCT), and put that mixture in a skillet over medium heat until the seeds start to brown. Be sure to remove the pan from heat ASAP when they start to brown so they don’t burn, then let cool for an hour or two, strain, and use that oil as you see fit to sauté, flavor, or marinate.
When you first begin to hear about the unsavory refining process of so many popular oils, it can be a real let-down to give up the unique flavors of oils like sesame seed oil. However, as this list hopefully illustrates, there are plenty of sesame oil substitutes so you can have your sesame oil and eat it too, all without the detrimental health impacts of refined oil.