Should your nuts be roasted, fried, salted or raw? Emulsified with coconut, walnut or groundnut oil? Do you need sweeteners and flavourings – what about the smooth v crunchy debate?
Peanut butter has taken a long time to melt the British market. It might have something to do with that claggy-mouth texture: the American author William F Buckley Jr, who was at school in London in the 1930s, recalled his classmates’ revulsion at his stash of Skippy, but the ban on it in our household only made my heart grow fonder.
Until relatively recently, peanut butter was, like my equally beloved fish fingers, a distinctly childish pleasure. In time, you were expected to give it up in favour of more sophisticated toast toppers. Marmalade, perhaps, with its chunks of bitter, chewy peel, or an ancient porcelain pot of Gentleman’s Relish. But no longer. The spread was always highly nutritious, and the emergence of sugar-free, organic, “all-natural” varieties aimed more squarely at the health-conscious adult market has seen it push past its citrussy rival to make it into the top three spreads for the first time (behind honey and jam), thanks perhaps to some adjustment to suit adult tastes.
The smooth, sweet stuff I remember as a rare childhood treat is still available, of course, but as someone who never returns from the US without at least one jar in my suitcase, they no longer hit the spot. And, though there are a few decent ones on the British market, it is so simple to make to your exact tastes that it seems silly to pay more – especially when so many of them contain the contentious palm oil.
The nuts and bolts
Like all nuts, peanuts (which aren’t a nut at all, but a legume, just like last week’s peas) are immeasurably improved by heat: raw, they’re frankly underwhelming. Food writer Molly Sheridan bakes them in an 180C/350F/gas mark four oven, while presenter Alton Brown fries his in a wok, explaining: “Although peanuts are often roasted, believe it or not, frying is going to bring out even more of those toasty flavours and aromas.” They are nicer eaten on their own, hot from the pan, but I’m not convinced that this translates into a better-tasting peanut butter – and it’s far easier to burn them this way, too.
The other recipes I try call for them ready-roasted and unsalted, which prove incredibly hard to come by in this country, for some reason: either I’m going to have to pick them out of a fruit and nut selection, or roast them myself. I also try them dry-roasted in a pan, which is a good alternative if you don’t want to turn the oven on, but which inevitably means they brown less evenly, as well as requiring you to stand over the stove, prodding them so they don’t burn.
Jack Monroe uses salted peanuts because they tend to be cheaper, then roasts them again “to deepen the flavour”. As she rinses them afterwards, they are not overpoweringly salty, and are certainly a better choice flavourwise than blogger Averie Sunshine’s honey-roasted ones or the Brown-Eyed Baker’s dry-roasted variety, both of which taste just as you would expect: delicious with a pint on a Friday night, less suited to slapping on toast the morning after. That said, the first might appeal to the sweet-toothed, with its pleasingly crunchy, sugary texture, and the latter feels as if it might make a decent base for a savoury sauce.
I’d prefer to start from scratch, however, so I have more control over the oil and salt levels. If you can’t find raw peanuts, or are on a strict budget, go for salted ones. Raw peanuts are also often sold with the skins on, which I think adds flavour as well as fibre, but I concede that may be a hippy step too far for some.
One of the problems with worthier nut butters is their tendency to separate. I’m interested to note that the versions made from ready-roasted nuts do not suffer from this problem. When I look at the ingredients lists, I realise that they all have oil added, which explains a lot. Recipes that roast them from raw, such as Sheridan’s, add extra fat. “In my experience,” she writes, “using a small amount of coconut oil and transferring the finished product to the refrigerator immediately results in a butter that holds together without getting oily on top or dry on the bottom. I like its texture as well, because it spreads smoothly when totally cold, but isn’t runny on the knife. Though the oil is not completely neutral, I don’t find that it overwhelms the taste of the nuts.”
It doesn’t, but I can taste it, and I’m not sure I want coconut for breakfast every single morning. I also try the walnut oil suggested in food writer Rosie Birkett’s book A Lot on Her Plate, which is an interesting combination, but in the end I decide that Brown’s groundnut oil is the most versatile choice, though sunflower or vegetable would also work. If you can get to an Asian supermarket, Chinese semi-refined peanut oil has a stronger, more peanutty flavour than the standard stuff.
You don’t need huge amounts: Birkett’s, designed to go in a rather delicious-looking ice-cream, is quite runny, but for spreading on toast, a more moderate slug is advisable. After all, peanuts are hardly short of fat themselves.
This is a very personal thing. Despite having long been a fan of no-added-sugar peanut butter, I find myself rather taken with the honey and maple syrup in many of the recipes, though brown sugar would also work well. Other, more outlandish, suggestions include cocoa, vanilla and Baileys from Sunshine, and cinnamon-raisin from the Brown-Eyed Baker – which may well be the most American thing I have ever tasted – as well as Brown’s suggestion of chilli oil “for a kind of south-east Asian thing”.
I am pleased to find that, although you’ll need a food processor to make peanut butter, it doesn’t have to be a fancy one: my old Kenwood is quite up to the job. (Make sure you allow the nuts to cool completely before use, or you’ll end up with pourable peanut butter.) Monroe soaks hers in water for 20 minutes to soften them (and get rid of some of the excess salt), which may well be necessary with a blender, but I find it gives the butter an odd, almost fluffy, texture, so I’d advise against it if you’re lucky enough to have a food processor.
You will need faith, though: initially the nuts will gather in a gritty, unpromising-looking ball. Keep going, however, and eventually the oils released by the blades will smooth things out. This means that scooping some peanutty rubble out towards the beginning of the process, as Brown suggests, then returning it to the creamy end result, is the best way to achieve the crunchy texture preferred by all right-thinking people. All complaints should be addressed below.
The perfect peanut butter
500g raw peanuts, preferably skin-on
1 tbsp groundnut oil, preferably the semi-refined Chinese variety
½ tsp salt, or to taste
1 tbsp honey, or to taste
Heat the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark four and spread the nuts out in one layer on a baking tray. Roast for about 10-20 minutes until evenly browned. Allow to cool completely.
Whiz in a food processor to coarse crumbs then, if making crunchy peanut butter, scoop out a quarter and set aside.
With the motor running, add the oil, then whiz again, pausing to scrape down the sides if necessary, until you have a smooth, creamy texture. Add any flavourings and taste, then stir in the reserved nuts and spoon into a jar. It will keep in the fridge for a couple of months.
Peanut butter: are you a lover or a hater? With surveys suggesting most British consumption takes place at breakfast and most Americans enjoy it for lunch, when do you eat yours, and what with? And what else can you do with this versatile condiment? I’ve heard great things about Ghanaian peanut stews.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010