If I could spread the gospel of a single, tiny cooking trick that will immensely improve outcomes of an entire category of recipes, I wouldn’t even have to pause for a second before shouting from the highest rooftops: TOAST YOUR NUTS!
Of course, I live with boys, which means that this leads to all sorts of fits of giggling, and of course, I’m just blaming them, it’s mostly me. What? I never promised you maturity.
But once the snickering dies down, do know I am as serious as can be about this. Nuts — almonds, I’m especially looking at you — that have not been toasted taste like waxy nothingness. Those same nuts, spread on a tray and roasted until they’re faintly beige within and a toasty brown on the outside taste heavenly, with a depth of flavor, intensity and nuanced aroma unimaginable 10 minutes earlier. Think of the difference between granulated and caramelized sugar, or between straight-from-the-package and browned butter and you’ll begin to get the idea.
Toasting improves the texture of nuts too, so that they stay crisp whether buried in baked goods or on top of a salad.
And the best part is, it doesn’t cost a thing. You don’t have to buy “the best” or “artisanal” nuts for this to work for you at home; this is about taking a simple, everyday ingredient an amplifying it. You won’t believe the way it can transform the most bland, no-name grocery store pecans until something that reminds you of pie, even before you add the butter, sugar, eggs and vanilla.
So, here’s how to do it:
Heat your oven to 350°F (175°C). Spread nuts (almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts or whatever you like to cook or eat) in a single layer on a baking sheet. Roast for 5 to 10 minutes, and up to 12, tossing the nuts around occasionally to ensure even cooking. Nuts are done when they appear a shade darker and smell toasty. Let cool completely before using.
More specific cooking estimates: For pine nuts, you’ll definitely be done at 5 minutes. Thinly sliced or slivered almonds often take just 8 minutes. Whole almonds, walnuts and pecans are usually good at 10. And for hazelnuts, especially if I hope to skin them when I’m done, I find a couple minutes extra, sometimes even as long as 14 minutes, watched carefully, can really make the difference in both flavor and in skin that easily flakes off.
A few more tips:
- I always toast nuts in the oven. I have had less luck doing so in skillets. I find that toasting nuts on the stove requires a lot of attention, as the nuts often scorch before they develop a good flavor inside. Seeds, however, work well on the stove.
- I have not tried toasting nuts in the microwave, but I’m very curious to!
- I toast nuts dry. I don’t find that you need to add any oil to improve texture or flavor when you’re done; in fact, I find that if there is a coat of oil on the outside, I have a harder time keeping the nuts crisp once cool.
- You can toast nuts in advance. If I’m going to open a one-pound bag of nuts but only need half, I often just toast the whole of it and keep the rest in an airtight container until I use them again — or for snacks. The flavor and texture keeps if they were fully cool before you stored them.
- That said, if I don’t plan to use nuts within a week or two of buying them, I store them in the freezer. Nuts are very oily, and that oil is eager to go rancid. The freezer will stop this from happening any time soon.