There are few things more all-American than peanut butter, and we're not just talking about those iconic jars of Jif and Skippy. Their cousins — the all-natural, coarse-ground peanut, almond, walnut and other nut butter brethren — have been around since the days of peace, love and tie-dyed T-shirts.
But something has happened in the nut butter aisles that goes far beyond that Italian interloper, Nutella. All of a sudden, nut butters have gone artisanal, with small-batch jars and intriguing flavor twists.
New York City's Lee Zalben of Peanut Butter and Co. might have been one of the first to start swirling upscale jam and maple syrup into his all-natural peanut butter. But he has been joined by legions of others, including a pair of University of Oregon students who launched their own Wild Squirrel line of coconut-raisin and vanilla-espresso nut butters last year.
But here's the thing: You don't need anything fancy to do that at home — just nuts, a pinch of salt, a food processor and a little imagination, says Alana Chernila, the farmers market expert behind the new Homemade Pantry cookbook (Clarkson Potter, $24.99).
Chernila is no fly-by-night DIYer. The Massachusetts mom and food writer makes her family's crackers, hot sauce, Pop-Tarts and 98 other comestibles. Nut butter, she says, is one of the easiest and most customizable do-it-yourself projects around.
"Everyone has different preferences. They want sweet or salty," she says. "You can create the nut butter of your dreams."
That sense of limitless possibility was what prompted Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough's nut butter experiments when they were working on their Ultimate Peanut Butter Book (Harper Collins, $16.99). Soon they were combining cardamom and pistachios, ginger and toasted cashews, and pumpkin seeds and pecans.
Along the way, these nut butter aficionados discovered a few key things too. There are ways to achieve that silky supermarket style, but it takes a little food processor finesse (see tips). And nut butter recipes are templates, not commandments.
"You have to play it by ear and be open to improvising as you go," Weinstein says. "Is this too stiff? What's going on in my food processor?"
Most nuts need a little help in the oil department. You can use canola oil, but it's better to use a flavorful oil that complements the nut: peanut oil in peanut butter, and walnut oil for walnut butter.
"It's the same calories whether it's tasteless or has a lot of flavor," Weinstein says. "There's a reason nobody canola oils their bread."
If you're using a blender, be forewarned, says Mollie Katzen, the James Beard award-winning author of The Moosewood Cookbook. Making nut butter is "a very cool thing to do," she says, "but the hardest work is getting the stuff out of the blender."
The Berkeley food writer gives her blender a spritz of non-stick spray before she starts. Homemade nut butters are a great project to do with kids: "You see the light bulb go off," Katzen says. "Oh my god, peanut butter is nuts!" But getting the nut mixture out of a blender or food processor's blades is a job for a grown-up.
Homemade nut butter
1 pound (3½ cups) shelled, raw nuts
½ teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
2 teaspoons honey
1-4 tablespoons canola or peanut oil, depending on nuts
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spread nuts on a baking sheet and roast for 10 to 15 minutes, or just until they begin to brown. Remove baking sheet from oven and allow nuts to cool slightly.
Place nuts, salt and honey in bowl of food processor. Blend for 20 seconds. With motor running, drizzle a tablespoon of oil into bowl through the chute in the lid, and process for 30 seconds. If the nut butter is still dry, continue to blend and add additional oil, a little at a time. Process for up to another minute to reach desired consistency. Taste and adjust for salt, if needed, and stir in any flavorings you wish.
Keeps refrigerated in a covered container for up to 1 month.
Makes about 1½ cups.
From The Homemade Pantry by Alana Chernila
This garlicky chutney is a staple in Maharashtra, India. Mix with softened, unsalted butter for a zesty sandwich spread, or smear it on a grilled steak or steamed vegetables.
Roasted peanut relish
1 cup roasted peanuts
½ teaspoon garlic paste (recipe follows)
1 teaspoon cayenne or ½ teaspoon each cayenne and paprika
In a spice grinder, pulse-grind peanuts into coarse powder. Scrape into small bowl. Mix in garlic, cayenne and salt to taste. The texture should be rather lumpy. Store in refrigerator.
Makes 1 cup.
4 ounces garlic cloves, peeled
1 tablespoon canola oil
2 tablespoons water
Place garlic in blender. With motor running, add oil, then water. Blend to a smooth paste, scraping down sides often. Transfer to clean glass jar, cover and refrigerate for as long as 2 weeks.
Makes ½ cup
From Quick-Fix Indian by Ruta Kahate (Andrews McMeel, $16.99)
Use raw walnuts for a very creamy and smooth texture that tastes like a just-shelled walnut. Walnuts that have been soaked overnight, then toasted at 350 degrees for 15 minutes to dry them out, offer a more textured walnut butter. Toasting unsoaked walnuts for 8 to 10 minutes at 350 degrees will result in a sweet, nutty-flavored, coarse-textured butter.
2 cups walnuts
¼ teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons walnut or vegetable oil, or as needed
Honey to taste, optional
Cinnamon to taste, optional
Place walnuts in bowl of food processor and grind them until they become sticky or pastelike.
Add salt. Add oil, a little bit at a time until walnut butter binds together. Add small touches of honey and/or cinnamon to taste.
Makes 1 cup.
From Mollie Katzen at Walnuts.org