Cashew butter used to conjure images of crunchy hippie communes, an ingredient on par with kale and flax. Yet, just like kale and flax, cashew butter is no longer a foreign food to many eaters. In fact, it is common to find jars of it – or tahini, or pistachio paste – vying for space alongside containers of commercially made peanut butter on supermarket shelves.
The popularity of nut and seed butters is a byproduct of the superstardom enjoyed by nuts and seeds themselves. Both are ancient staples, early, reliable sources of protein and fat. In fact, nut-and-seed-bearing plants were some of the first foods to be domesticated. People couldn’t get enough of the flavors, which range from buttery to spicy to earthy and floral.
Versatility led to their adoption in nearly every world cuisine: eaten whole; ground into flours; puréed into silky milks; added to breads, soups, stews and sweets; or pounded into sticky butters – something that’s back in vogue with contemporary taste-makers.
“I made a lot of nut butters at Wayfare Tavern in San Francisco,” says Mother restaurant’s Matt Masera, referring to his time working at Tyler Florence’s well-regarded Bay Area eatery. Masera’s repertoire there included a cashew butter that would be crafted into a cashew-butter mousse.
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The nut butter trend also has made its way to home cooks who realize that making it isn’t just easy, but also more fiscally sound than buying it at the store. All that’s required is patience, a food processor and plenty of nuts.
These homemade butters can offer more in terms of flavor than their store-bought counterparts. I find one of my most creative culinary outlets is in crafting unique nut and seed butters – think peanut butter blended with curry powder and coconut meat, or sunflower seeds blitzed with chai spices. The possibilities are nearly endless, as are the applications: Smear it over shortbread; add it to smoothies; use it for dips.
And eating of nut and seed butters can be relatively guilt-free (unless you’re smearing it on the aforementioned shortbread). Packed with nutrients and natural sugars that keep you full and provide energy, these tiny temples of healthy living have long been revered as nutritional powerhouses. It’s why they’ve become a mainstay in numerous diets, offering a simple and tasty way for vegans, vegetarians and paleo practitioners to eat thoughtfully and successfully.
While nuts and seeds have a considerable fat content, it’s the good, heart-healthy fats you always hear about – polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats such as omega 3 and 6. As part of a well-rounded diet, these fats (and their fatty acids) offer benefits such as reducing one’s risk for cardiac disease, stroke and heart attacks.
It’s probably no surprise that nut butters have become particularly popular here in California, where nearly 90 percent of the national nut harvest takes place. According to a report from the United States Department of Agriculture, domestic tree nut production in 2014 reached 2.56 million tons, with California producing the bulk of that measure in almonds, pecans, walnuts and pistachios.
Blue Diamond Growers, one of the state’s best-known agricultural cooperatives, makes its home off C Street in Sacramento, and growers such as Yolo Country’s Dewey Farms sell almonds and pistachios at nearly wholesale prices. The result? Sacramentans pay some of the lowest prices for the most accessibility.
Knowing all of this, why wouldn’t you make your own nut and seed butters?
A few things to know
Making nut and seed butters is shockingly simple. Still, knowing a few key things can make the process easier and the results more flavorful.
Nuts and oil content: Each type of nut or seed will result in a rather different butter: Macadamia nuts are full of oil, and the resulting butter is nearly a liquid that needs to be chilled before use, whereas pistachios have the lowest oil content and require an extra bit of oil to soothe its granular nature. I sometimes add a tablespoon of a neutral oil (such as coconut or sunflower oil) to ease things along.
Sweetening: Many people use honey or maple syrup. I prefer unprocessed sugars such as coconut sugar or dark muscovado for their husky flavors. White and brown sugar also will do. Add sweeteners only at the end of processing.
Soaking: Most nuts and seeds possess certain amounts of tannins, enzyme inhibitors and phytates that protect them and help them sprout as nature intended. These chemicals aren’t digestible and can taste bitter. Soaking nuts and seeds breaks down these chemicals making the meat easier to digest. But you don’t have to soak them (I don’t). Soaking takes about 6 hours on average, after which they must be completely dried in an oven or dehydrator for 24 hours.
Roasting and processing: While you can make raw nut butters, roasting your nuts brings out more flavor. The residual heat from roasting also helps in the processing. When you process your nuts, you’re generating heat that will cause them to release their oils. Without roasting beforehand, processing can take 20 minutes. With roasting? 5-10 minutes. Be sure to use a large food processor.
During processing, the nuts will go through numerous stages, looking like a loose nut meal or binding into a tight nut ball. This is all normal. Scrape down the sides and break up as needed. Don’t fret if the mixture gets warm or even hot. You’re done when it reaches an almost liquid state. Use right away or chill first to thicken.
Garrett McCord is a food writer and author of the VanillaGarlic.com blog. His cookbook, “Melt: The Art of Macaroni and Cheese,” was published in 2013 by Little, Brown.
Vanilla spiced almond butter
Makes 2 cups
The richness of almonds is best punctuated with simple pairings. Here it’s a dash of cinnamon and fresh vanilla bean seeds. It’s excellent on a sandwich of served with celery as a simple dessert.
2 cups raw almonds
1 tablespoon muscovado or brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 a vanilla bean, seeded (not vanilla extract)
Pinch of salt
Place the almonds on a baking sheet and roast in a preheated 375-degree oven for 10-12 minutes or until fragrant. Remove from the oven and allow to cool until just warm and easy to handle.
Place the almonds in a food processor and grind for about 10 minutes, scraping down the sides and breaking up any wads of nut dough that form. (If after 10 minutes the mixture isn’t beginning to liquefy, drizzle in a tablespoon of neutral oil.) At this point the mixture should be rich, nearly liquid and hot to the touch.
Add the sugar, spices and salt and process for another minute. Place in a jar and store in the fridge so it can stiffen up a bit. Will keep for up to four weeks.
Salted honey pistachio butter
Makes 2 cups
Pistachios have little fat content and form thicker butters that need a bit of oil and sugar to help them along. This pistachio butter is salty, sweet and terribly addictive. I love to serve it with cheese and salumi for a rustic meal.
2 cups raw pistachios
2 tablespoons neutral oil such as sunflower or coconut
1/2 teaspoon of fine flake salt (not kosher or iodized)
1 tablespoon of warm honey
Place the pistachios on a baking sheet and roast in a preheated 375-degree oven for 10 minutes or until fragrant. Remove from the oven and allow to cool until just warm and easy to handle.
Place the pistachios in a food processor and grind for about 10 minutes, scraping down the sides and breaking up any wads of nut dough that form. As it mixes, drizzle in the oil, very slowly, so it can carefully incorporate. At this point, the mixture should be rich, buttery and hot to the touch.
Add the salt and then continue to process for another three minutes, slowly drizzling in the honey. Taste and adjust salt as needed. Place in a jar and store in the fridge so it can stiffen up a bit. Will keep for up to four weeks.
Maple pecan butter
Makes 11/2 cups
I don’t really like my nut butters too sweet, but this is the exception. The woody flavor of toasted pecans matches well the maple syrup making this a perfect nut butter for smoothies or serving over fruit.
2 1/2 cups raw pecans
1 tablespoon neutral oil such as sunflower or coconut
Pinch of fine flake salt (not kosher or iodized)
2 tablespoons of maple syrup
Pinch of cayenne pepper
Toss pecans, oil, salt, cayenne and one tablespoon of maple syrup in a sauté pan and cook over medium-high heat for five minutes.
Place the pecans on a foil-lined baking sheet and roast in a preheated 375-degree oven for 10 minutes or until fragrant. Remove from the oven and allow to cool until just warm and easy to handle.
Place the pecans in a food processor and grind for about 10 minutes, scraping down the sides and breaking up any wads of nut dough that form, until the mixture is hot and liquidy.
Drizzle in the remaining maple syrup, very slowly, so it can carefully incorporate. Continue to process for another three minutes. Taste and adjust salt and cayenne as needed. Place in a jar and store in the fridge so it can stiffen up a bit. Will keep for up to four weeks.