Roasting Nuts 101

posted: January 20, 2017 - 12:34pm
It’s hard to resist the allure of piping hot roasted nuts fresh from the oven. If you’ve been to New York City, you’ve likely smelled the scent of roasting nuts wafting from the carts of street vendors. If you’ve tasted these, you know there is a world of difference to fresh-roasted nuts compared to the vacuum-sealed ones you buy at the grocery store. Do you know how simple it is roast nuts at home? It’s one of the simplest cooking techniques to learn, and has great payoff in the tastiness and usefulness of the technique. Once you learn this indispensable cooking technique, you’ll find yourself using it time and time again. Roasted nuts are great to have on hand to throw on desserts or salads, they can be used in candies, or even as a last-minute hostess gift which will taste like you spent a lot of time in the kitchen, when you really didn’t. To learn all about roasting nuts, please read on.
To roast nuts, you’ll need three basic ingredients. Raw nuts of course, are the most important. To have the best finished product, you’ll want to look for high quality nuts. Choosing them from bulk bins at stores in always a good option, as you can see exactly what you are getting. Avoid off-colored, shriveled nuts, as well as ones that feel soft. If you buy bagged nuts, you can still examine them through the package. Pay attention to any expiration or “best buy” date, as they will give you a clue as to freshness. What type of nuts can you roast? Just about any kind, but I’ve had the best luck with pecans, walnuts, almonds, and hazelnuts. Feel free to experiment with all different kinds, though…cashews, peanuts (which are technically a legume instead of a nut, but will roast like nuts), even Brazil nuts. 
You’ll also need a fat or oil for roasting. There are many different options here as well. Probably my favorite is either butter or ghee (clarified butter). These add a very good flavor to roasted nuts. Other good choices would be coconut oil, sustainable palm oil, avocado oil,  or a nut oil like almond or walnut. I try to avoid using vegetable oils such as canola oil, soybean oil, corn oil, and their related margarines in my cooking. Although you may have seen these touted as healthier choices, they are actually more likely to lead to inflammation in the body (look for an article soon on healthy vs. unhealthy cooking fat choices).
Finally, good quality salt, such as unrefined sea salt, RealSalt, or himalayan pink salt will round out the flavor of your nuts. And once you get the basic technique down, you can experiment with all kinds of different spices and additions - herbs, spices, maple syrup, honey, cacao powder, and more.
Now let’s talk technique. The two basic ways to roast nuts in your kitchen will be in your oven, or on your stove. Both can turn out delicious roasted nuts. The oven will take more time, but will not require quite as much constant attention, and is better for larger batches. You can roast nuts on the stove much more quickly, but you’ll need to stay with them the whole time so they don’t scorch. The stovetop method is better for smaller amounts of nuts.
To roast nuts in the oven, you will need some type of baking dish. It should have a lip to prevent the nuts from heading overboard, but shouldn’t be too deep or you’ll lose crispness. There should be plenty of room to spread the nuts out in a single layer. Baking trays or pans with small lips are great for this (here’s one I really like) - you can also use shallow pie plates or cast iron or other ovenproof skillets. Preheat the oven to anywhere from 250 to 325 degrees, and use convection if you have the option. Temperatures on the lower range will obviously take more time, but will require less checking/stirring, while higher temps are the opposite. If I don’t have to worry about the temperature for another dish I’m making (in other words, if I’m just roasting nuts by themselves), I generally go with about 285 convection, which strikes a good balance. 
If your roasting fat is solid at room temp, it’s easy to melt it in your dish while the oven is preheating (you can also melt it in the microwave).  I never really measure my fat, but eyeballing about 1 TB per cup of raw nuts is a good rule of thumb. Once you’ve got melted or liquid oil/fat, toss your nuts in the fat to coat well. I  usually just do this right in the roasting pan. No need to mess up another bowl. Make sure the nuts are spread out well across the pan in a single layer, and then pop them in the oven.  The timing of the nuts will depend on several factors including the oven temp, the pan, the type of nuts, etc. At first, check your nuts every five minutes or so, giving them a quick stir. Pull them out once you notice them darkening from their original color. You want them to be dark, but not black/burnt/scorched. The more you roast nuts, the more you’ll learn the times that work best for your nuts/cooking factors, and the best time to pull them out. Sprinkle them well with salt while they’re still hot in the pan. Then let them cool. Try to resist eating them as soon as they come out of the oven. First, you’re bound to burn your tongue, and second…they will crisp up even more as they cool. Once they’ve cooled enough to eat, enjoy!! I find that we often eat them so quickly that they don’t go stale, and just put them in an uncovered bowl at room temp. If you’re going to want them to stay fresh longer than a day, though - you’ll want a covered container. And for really long storage (more than several days), they’ll stay freshest in the freezer. 
The stovetop method is very simple. Just heat a skillet over medium heat, melt your fat if necessary, and pour the nuts in, stirring to coat. Don’t crowd your nuts…make sure you use a pan large enough to comfortably stir them and keep them in a single layer. Work in batches if necessary. Stir very frequently and stand by - this will only take a few minutes. Like the oven method - timing is variable depending on the type of nut, type of pan, etc. But they will cook much more quickly on the stove. Don’t leave them unattended, or you’ll probably end up with disappointingly scorched nuts. Follow the same method as above for knowing when to take them off the heat, and for salting, cooling, and storing them.
Ok, so those are the basics! Once you get them down, you’ll find it a breeze to roast nuts any time you want. Now you can experiment! The internet is full of recipes for adding herbs and spices to nuts to jazz them up. Or play around with different flavors on your own. I’ve generally found that spices and herbs stick best when they’re either added before roasting, or when they’re fresh out of the oven. You can also try fruit juices, vanilla extract, honey, maple syrup, brown sugar. If you add anything sugary, be sure to check more frequently, as they may scorch more easily. Dusty ingredients such as raw cacao powder, parmesan cheese, or nutritional yeast are best added after roasting.
Here are a few recipes to get you started:
Finally, I think you’ll find that the roasted nuts make an amazing snack, and won’t last long in the kitchen. But what are some other ways you can use them? The possibilities are plenty:
  • add to salads
  • top baked sweet potatoes or casseroles
  • use in homemade candies (such as my dark chocolate candy recipe coming in a future article)
  • use in baking such as muffins, banana breads, cookies
  • top ice creams or other desserts such as cobblers and crumbles
  • add to smoothie bowls
  • top greek yogurt
  • throw in homemade (or store-bought) granola
  • add to trail mixes
  • put in a pretty containers to give as holiday gifts, teacher gifts, hostess gifts
  • serve at parties
Of course, the simplest use is eating them right out of the oven - so good, and so hard to resist. Have fun and enjoy!

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