Like many bakers, when there’s an ingredient I love, I try to incorporate it into everything. Spoiler alert: black sesame is that ingredient. Each nutty, slightly bittersweet seed is a tiny powerhouse of flavor for striking garnishes, buttery fillings, rich cake bases, and so much more.
When black sesame seeds are used to top baked goods — everything from bagels to yeasted rolls — they’re a flavor enhancer and provide textural contrast. But black sesame is just as easily baked into desserts as well, infusing its pronounced nutty flavor into layer cakes or stirred into crumbly streusel to give coffeecake an upgrade.
“Black sesame seeds have a stronger aroma [than white sesame], so they're great in desserts,” notes Myo Quinn, the recipe developer behind our Black Sesame Halva Coffeecake and Bakers Box participant with With Warm Welcome, a nationwide organization that champions Asian Americans in hospitality. One of her favorite sweet treats with black sesame is “kyungdan, a Korean sweet, chewy dumpling made with glutinous rice flour. There's a version that's rolled in a mixture of ground black sesame seeds and sugar.”
Black sesame is also a flavor from my childhood that likely influenced my current-day obsession; for me, it came in the form of zi maa gyun, a popular dim sum dish of black sesame-flavored steamed rolls served cold. But whether you have a nostalgia-fueled craving for black sesame sweets or simply love its earthy, bittersweet notes (how could you not?), it’s a pantry staple worth stocking up on. Here, we’ve compiled a guide to all things black sesame to navigate its many forms and nuances.
What’s the difference between black sesame seeds, powder, and paste?
You’ll most commonly find packets or jars of seeds, which are the most versatile to bake with. It’s important to check if seeds are roasted or unroasted — just like nuts, roasting brings out a greater depth of flavor, aroma, and complexity. However, buying unroasted seeds gives you the flexibility to toast them yourself (as Myo does on a dry skillet until fragrant) for the freshest flavor. Seeds can also easily be transformed into powder or paste, if you wish.
If you’re looking to incorporate the aromatic qualities of black sesame seeds without the grittiness, black sesame powder (finely ground seeds) is a great candidate. Similarly, black sesame paste (also known as black tahini) boasts a smoother texture compared to seeds, delivering concentrated flavor and color to baked goods.
Luckily, you can make powder or paste yourself if you only have black sesame seeds. Pulsing seeds in a blender or food processor will pulverize them into a powder, and if you keep the blade running and add a bit of neutral oil, you’ll be left with a thick, spreadable paste.
Where can I buy black sesame products?
Black sesame seeds are widely available at supermarkets and online, though if you’re looking to buy in bulk, Myo recommends picking them up from your local Asian market for the best prices.
While there are ways to make your own black sesame powder or paste noted above, specialty retailers also sell these products. Yun Hai, which sources their products from Taiwan, sells paste, both sweetened and unsweetened, while black sesame powder is easily found online. (Heads up: At King Arthur, we only recommend the products that we, as bakers, truly love. When you buy through external links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission.)
How should I bake with black sesame?
Myo notes that its flavor profile is complementary to warm flavors like vanilla, cinnamon, and chocolate. In the form of seeds, it can add a new dimension to homemade granola; streusels for coffeecakes, muffins, loaves, or cobblers; and buttery cookies like sugar and shortbread. Finely ground, it’s also an excellent way to flavor custards and puddings.
More possibilities abound. “Finely ground black sesame seeds with some sugar and a little oil — this is basically what black sesame paste is — can be added to the dough for Japanese Milk Bread,” recommends Myo. Similarly, I’ve experimented with black sesame powder, sugar, and softened butter as a filling for sweet breads — using it in our Cinnamon Star Bread is a real winner.
The great thing about making your own black sesame butter is that you can season to taste. I typically start with 1 teaspoon of black sesame powder and 1 teaspoon of sugar for every tablespoon of softened butter and give it a taste once thoroughly combined. From there, I’ll adjust based on what I’m using it for — if it’s filling a sweet bread, I typically dial back the sugar; if it’s for spreading on toast, I’ll go sweeter; if it needs more balance overall, I’ll add a pinch of salt.
For a striking celebration cake that doesn’t skimp on the sesame, try this Black Sesame Layer Cake from King Arthur Senior Recipe Developer Susan Reid. Powder and tahini deliver an intense, rich hit of black sesame goodness that contrasts (both in flavor and color) with a classic white buttercream — though a riff with chocolate or matcha-flavored frosting would certainly work well here too.
Better baking begins with black sesame — it can start with a sprinkle of seeds here and there, but you’ll quickly realize how game-changing the humble ingredient truly is.
To celebrate AAPI Heritage Month, we're happy to be highlighting Bakers Box by With Warm Welcome, an organization amplifying Asian faces and voices in hospitality. King Arthur Baking has been a proud sponsor as the project travels across the country to highlight Asian American bakers. To date, Bakers Box has been curated across 12 cities featuring a total of 216 AAPI talents. Follow along with their nationwide journey and pick up a box this summer!