When I was a child, I used to sneak into the pantry to enjoy an illicit snack: peanut butter, straight from the jar, usually scooped with a spoon but just as often dug out with my sticky kid fingers. I wish I could say that I left behind the snacking habit behind in the halcyon days of my youth, but I haven’t.
As I have matured, though, so have the nut butter offerings. Almond, cashew, hazelnut and pistachio nut butters — just to name a few — have emerged on the scene, and in the grocery aisles. As my snacking has elevated, though, so has its price point. A petite jar of these hot new nut spreads is often double or triple the cost of a jar of peanut butter. At the rate that I slurp them down, making homemade nut butter would help me save money on groceries so I can further fund my snack habit.
Even if you don’t eat jars of peanut butter like they’re pudding snack cups, there are a number of other benefits to creating homemade nut butter. If you buy nuts in bulk, for example, you can reduce your kitchen’s contribution to the waste stream.
Homemade nut butters are also generally better for your health. Conventional store-bought nut butters often contain added sugars and salt to boost the flavor. Preservatives are also added to extend the spread’s shelf life. Hydrogenated oils, which are present in over 80 percent of peanut butter brands, add extra hydrogen atoms to solidify and stabilize oil molecules, but they also add artery-clogging saturated and trans fats that have been linked to an increased risk of heart disease, obesity and diabetes.
Between the benefits to my health, budget and kitchen sustainability goals, making homemade nut butter seemed as natural an addition to my regular routine as snacking on said spreads.
Learning to try
First, I recruited a homemade nut butter expert: Natalie Williams, a Bangor Daily News digital editor, nutritional yeast enthusiast and our office’s most vocal vegan. Natalie is extremely committed to a low-to-no-waste lifestyle, and makes many of her kitchen staples from scratch. I’ve noticed her eating homemade peanut butter at her desk at work, and figured I’d have a compatriot in both sustainability and snacking.
I wanted to try a variety of nut butters, so in addition to Natalie’s famous homemade peanut butter, I also picked out this recipe for raw almond butter from Eating Vibrantly (“raw vegans,” Natalie told me, not only exclude animal products from their diet, but cooked and processed foods as well) and this tutorial from Beaming Baker for homemade cashew butter.
I also didn’t want to exclude people with nut allergies. My sister and father are deathly allergic to nuts, so I’m that person labeling every dish at the office potluck as “nut-free” or “contains nuts.” Recently, they have discovered a few nut-free spreads that have a similar consistency and flavor to nut butters. Their favorite — and perhaps the most prevalent in the nut-free community — is sunflower seed butter.
Sunflower seed butter has been offered in schools as an alternative to peanut butters in nut-free school districts as part of the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Management Act, which calls for voluntary national guidelines to help schools better serve students affected by allergies and anaphylaxis. As an added bonus, sunflower seeds are a good source of protein (though less than the nutty alternatives), fiber, vitamin E, zinc, iron and alpha-tocopherols, which have been linked to a reduced risk of certain types of cancers.
Natalie was game, so I chose a recipe for sunflower seed butter from The Healthy Foodie. We went to the Natural Living Center in Bangor to buy our ingredients in bulk. We purchased roasted (but unsalted, Natalie cautioned) peanuts and cashews, and raw almonds and sunflower seeds. I noticed Natalie’s bulk jars — and the quantities of nuts she was buying — were much larger than mine.
“When in doubt, buy more,” she explained, filling an enormous mason jar with peanuts. “That was my learning curve when I first started making homemade nut butters.”
I asked her if we should soak the nuts overnight, like with making nut milks like almond milk, but she insisted that there is no soaking required. In fact, the recipes often require little more than the nuts and a pinch of salt and sweetener. The naturally fatty and oily nuts alone will, apparently, do the work themselves.
I grabbed my food processor from home — the only tool, Natalie insisted, needed to make spectacular homemade nut butters, besides a quality spatula — and headed to her apartment to get to work.