Sesame seeds have an exterior coat that can be removed. This coat is also known as the hull or the husk. Hulled sesame seeds are seeds with the hulls removed. You can tell which one is which by the fact that unhulled sesame seeds are brown. Hulled sesame seeds are completely white. Hulled sesame seeds are relatively easy to find, especially in the US. The unhulled variety is mainly used in Japanese cuisine and is not as widely available. Are they dramatically different in terms of flavor and nutritional value? Can you use one in place of the other? These questions and more will be examined in this SPICEography Showdown.
Do hulled and unhulled sesame seed differ in flavor?
The big difference in flavor between hulled and unhulled sesame seeds is the result of oxalates in the hulls. Oxalates are compounds also found in kale, rhubarb and a variety of other vegetables. These compounds can have a bitter flavor. As a result of them, unhulled sesame seeds are slightly bitter. Hulled sesame seeds have a milder flavor that is more nutty than it is bitter, which is why they are a popular topping for hamburger buns. The bitterness of unhulled sesame seeds is appreciated by some who may consider hulled sesame seeds relatively bland.
Nutritionally speaking, both are similar in terms of the range of nutrients they provide. Both are rich in antioxidants like lignans and other polyphenols. These compounds make them beneficial for reducing the risk of heart disease and can help to promote healthy cholesterol levels. Whether sesame seeds have their hulls or not, they are rich sources of calcium and fiber though you will get more of each from the unhulled variety than from hulled seeds. The seeds are also high in B vitamins and vitamin E, but you will get more vitamin E from an ounce of the hulled seeds than you would from the same serving size of the whole seeds. This is because most of the vitamin E is on the inner part of the seed.
If you are on an oxalate-restricted diet, you will want to avoid the unhulled variety.
Can you use one in place of the other?
Hulled sesame seeds can serve as a substitute for unhulled in most preparations, though they may not offer quite as much flavor. Pungent spices in the dish may mask their flavor completely. They will still provide benefits in terms of a crunchy texture and nutritional value. To compensate for the reduction of flavor, you may want to use more of them. Likewise, you can use unhulled sesame seeds as a substitute for the hulled; however, keep in mind that the mild bitterness may be off-putting for those who prefer simpler flavors. Those who like stronger flavors may appreciate the more robust taste. Note also that the brown color of unhulled seeds can give baked goods a different appearance and they have a firmer texture, which can be either a benefit or a drawback.
When should you use hulled sesame seeds and when should you use unhulled?
Because of the flavor and texture differences, there are different ways to use each of these seeds. The mild taste of the hulled sesame seeds makes them best for desserts and breads where they provide toasty flavor notes and crunch. Their nuttiness goes well with sweetness. Unhulled sesame seeds offer a complexity that works better in savory preparations like Japanese stir-fried dishes.