Photo by Janice Chang
Go ahead: Stand before the bulk section in the grocery store and try not to go nuts.
As any good discount shopper knows, you could spend hours scanning the vast rows of bins for what you came for or you could easily be distracted by the 50 shades of lentils, dried prunes, stray flakes of nutritional yeast, roughly 47 different flavors of granola, and endless free samples of crunchy, salty, tamari-coated, or chocolate-dipped nuts. (Listen, I know they’re neither free nor for sampling, but this is a safe space.)
If I had to choose just one nut, almonds would win hands down (though technically, we eat the seed that is housed inside the protective nutshell). No matter what you want to call them, they’re affordable and versatile, with a subtle, crowd-pleasing flavor that transforms their elegant shape seamlessly from a crunchy solid into butter, milk, cheese, smoothies, and ornate toppings that won’t overpower a dish.
In a nutshell, here’s everything you need to know to select the very best almond:
1. Know Before You Go
Not every nut makes the cut, so it’s important to have a strategy before embarking on your almond venture. While you’re not saddled to your choice of almonds for life, decide beforehand how you plan to use them so you get the best possible flavor.
Raw and unsalted work best in your culinary masterpieces or DIY nut-based milk and cheese. Roasted, salted, and flavored almonds are great to keep on hand as a savory snack to sneak into the theatre (again, this is a judgement-free zone) or as a protein-rich energy boost.
2. Find Good Chemistry
Buy organic almonds to avoid the GMO-based oils used for roasting and flavoring. Some styles have a ton of sugar, salt, and soy, so if you have the time to roast and season the almonds yourself, you can better control the ingredients and nutritional content.
If you're a raw nutaholic, I have some bad news: California law requires all nuts to be pasteurized due to the risk of salmonella that is present in soil from animal fertilizer. Raw almonds have to be steamed or treated with propylene oxide, a chemical compound, before being sold for public consumption. But don’t worry, there's a loophole for all of you purists out there: you can buy organic and truly raw almonds directly from nut farmers online—just keep an eye out to make sure the word “unpasteurized” is in the product description.
It’s better to be safe than sorry than sick with food poisoning, so if you buy the really raw version, avoid the risk of salmonella by pasteurizing them at home before consuming. Pasteurization kills off pathogens in food with heat and is commonly used in milk and juice production.
It sounds complicated, but here’s how you do it: Bring almonds to 160 degrees Fahrenheit (with steam or in the oven) for at least 15 seconds, or dehydrate them at 145 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 minutes. If you want to increase the absorption of nutrients or get rid of the seed’s brown hull, soak your almonds overnight, submerged in water with a little bit of salt, and flake off the hulls before storing in the refrigerator for the week.
3. Bulk Isn’t Always Better
There's a certain appeal of buying in bulk: you eliminate unnecessary packaging and can choose the exact amount you need. Unprocessed almonds last longer because the nutshell and brown hull protect the flesh of the nut from air, water, and light—all contributors to rancidity. The downside is that, despite their minimalist presentation, bulk nuts can be much pricier than their packaged counterparts. At Whole Foods, I compared almonds in bulk with their packaged 365 Everyday Value® brand equivalents. Organic raw almonds were about the same price, but conventional raw were $5 more per pound to shed the packaging. This translates into a much steeper cost at checkout, especially if you’re buying almonds often.
You want your nuts to be fresh, and depending on how often the bulk bins are refilled and stored, a foil-sealed container might be best if you’re not using them right away. The last thing you want are rancid nuts on your hands or in your cabinet, which happens when the fat or oil in the nuts oxidizes. You’ll know it immediately when they’ve turned rancid: the odor is something akin to musty Play-Doh and the taste is undeniably sour and rank.
4. “These Nuts Are Making Me Thirsty!”
There has been a wave of environmental grumbling over the last few years on the rise in almond consumption and its impact on California’s drought—The Golden State is short on water and harvests 80 percent of the world’s almonds, which require 1 gallon of water per nut.
Humans have been enjoying almonds for thousands of years, presumably guilt free up until now. Though the plant does requires water, it's not a particularly thirsty food compared to beef (1,800 gallons a pound, to be exact) or to chickpeas at 76 gallons an ounce; hummus could be the next drought-causing food target.
To minimize your water waste, buying organic is the best way to go. It supports responsible farming practices that eschew water-intensive inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides, which need to be diluted with water before being sprayed on crops and deplete the vital nutrients in the soil.
5. Keep Your Almonds Close(d)
The more processed almonds are (think slivered versus unshelled), the shorter their shelf life will be. Always store almonds in a dry, airtight container and stash them in the darkest, coolest cabinet you've got, because once they’ve been shelled, the clock starts ticking: up to six months for raw and around four months for chopped and roasted. Keep them in the refrigerator (or better yet, freeze ’em!) to increase their life span.
If you’re set on raw almonds, but the process in (2) left you exhausted from just reading it, you can always buy them in the shell, which somewhat protects the nut during the brief pasteurization process. Unshelled almonds are really in it for the long hull (wink), lasting for up to two years if kept cool and dry. Plus, shelling almonds can be a fun activity on a chilly night, so curl up next to the fireplace (or your apartment radiator) and crack away.
Remember to enjoy your almonds responsibly, source organically, store safely, and if you're feeling shame from the naysayers, remember, your nut love is always welcome here.