Key Ingredient

The Secret to Using Benne Seeds

By: Debra Freeman
Amethyst Ganaway whisking benne seeds with oil
Image by Paul Cheney

The best use of benne seeds is to keep it simple

Benne seeds were brought to the South along the Middle Passage in the late 17th century—the name means sesame in Bantu, a West African language. The seeds were planted in the gardens of the enslaved and were particularly popular in South Carolina.

Unlike sesame seeds, however, benne seeds are lighter and more aromatic, and were widely used throughout the South. By the late 1800s, though, cottonseed oil became more popular because it could be produced cheaply, and eventually benne seeds became almost obsolete.

Charleston-based chef and writer Amethyst Ganaway often sees the benne seed used in stews, soups, and sauces, because it is an ideal thickening agent and adds a nutty flavor. But for Ganaway, the best thing to do is to keep it simple. “Benne is a delicate flavor, even when toasted. It plays well with different flavors and has more of a nutty, honeyed flavor,” she says.

Amethyst Ganaway preparing her Southern Vegetable Salad with Benne Dressing
Image by Paul Cheney

In the 19th century, the oil from benne seeds was popular enough that it became the go-to salad dressing of the South, and Ganaway has created a nod to that history in her Southern vegetable salad with benne dressing recipe. She pulls ingredients and flavors from her hometown of Charleston, where a long growing season affords fresh produce well into the fall. “That’s the kind of thing I ate growing up,” she says. “I remember eating peppers or tomatoes off the vine, and that was a normal thing.”

However, the most important thing to Ganaway is encouraging people to not be intimidated if they aren’t familiar with the seed. “Try the recipe first, or experiment and try [benne seeds] on their own,” she says. “Toast it and taste it again. You just might be surprised.”

recipe heading-plus-icon

yields

Serves 4

    For the dressing:
  • 1 cup toasted benne seeds
  • 6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • Kosher salt to taste
  • Freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • For the salad:
  • Kale greens, thinly sliced
  • Neutral-flavored oil English cucumbers, sliced into ½-inch thick half circle
  • Cherry or grape tomatoes, halved
  • Red onions, thinly sliced or diced
  • Red chili flakes
  • Freshly squeezed lemon juice to taste
  • Toasted benne seed for garnish
steps
  1. Make the dressing: In food processor or high-powered blender, pulverize toasted benne seeds until they become powdery. Whisk seeds with oil 1 tablespoon at a time until dressing is smooth and runny but still coats the back of a spoon. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
  2. Make the salad: Massage greens with a small amount of oil until tender. Add in cucumbers, tomato, onions, and a small amount of benne dressing. Toss to coat well, then add chili flakes and a squeeze of lemon juice, and toss again. Add more dressing and additional benne seed for garnish.
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