The Savory Side of Nuts

July 11, 2006

12 Min Read
The Savory Side of Nuts


Photo: California Walnut Marketing Board

Nuts are the new ingredient darlings, not only for their nutritional role, but also for the rich versatility that lets them adapt to a broad range of products. Not so long ago, the health-conscious considered them high-fat taboos. But the new emphasis on healthy mono- and polyunsaturated fats and increasing fiber in the diet—which nuts deliver on both counts—have increased the appeal surrounding nuts.

While nuts are often seen in confectionery applications and desserts, their savory application is increasing. Nuts are appearing in many more products— and in forms not widely used in the past. The creative food technologist can find many new possibilities to include nuts in savory products.

Inside tree nuts 

The nuts most often used in savory applications include tree nuts, like almonds, walnuts, pecans, hazelnuts and pistachios, as well as peanuts, soy nuts and coconut, which, technically, aren’t nuts but are treated as such in food products.

The crunchy texture and rich flavor of nuts help them add value to a wide variety of products. Because of their oil and fiber content, they add satiety value to foods, help foods retain moisture and, while lending their own flavor, also help carry other savory flavors.

Almonds. Almonds blend well with other ingredients. The subtle, yet distinctive flavor of the almond provides a buttery, nutty taste—still light enough to lend richness to a formulation without overwhelming it. Blanched almonds provide a milder flavor, while roasted almonds lend a higher flavor intensity.

The crunchiness of almonds stays with a product across a number of applications. They work well in entrées as a coating for meat and seafood, and can thicken sauces. Common forms include whole, slices or flakes, slivers or halves, diced or chopped, and meal or flour— all available in natural or blanched forms—and paste or butter. Whole almonds are most used as roasted or flavored snacks. Slices or flakes work as topping for salads, ingredients in cereals and as a coating for savory entrées. Slivers are also used in snack foods or as a topping for prepared foods and salads. Diced almonds find their way into prepared entrées as crusts for seafood and meat items, and meal is used as a sauce thickener or as a coating for fried food.

“Broken, chipped, and visually off-grade or mixed-grade chopped almonds are best and most economical for general use where they would have to be diced anyway, such as encrusting protein or in sauces or fillings, or as part of a composed product such an energy bar,” says Robin L. Schempp, research chef, Right Stuff Enterprises, Inc., Waterbury, VT. She also prefers to work with raw versus roasted almonds for value-added products since she can then roast to her own specifications and doesn’t have to worry about rancidity. “Size matters only to the extent that visual appeal is required, such as placing one perfect almond atop something,” she says. “The visually ‘damaged’ ones are perfect for manufacturing applications.”

Walnuts. Walnuts have a higher oil content than most nuts, and are also higher in omega-3 fatty acids. As such, they are also softer and easier to chew than other nuts. Walnuts also have a low moisture content (approximately 3.2%) and low water activity (measured at 0.64 at 4% moisture). These properties and others make walnuts ideal for including in bread formulas where they add texture, depth of flavor and color. The phenolic acids in walnuts complement spicy flavors, and adding high concentrations provides extra flavor.

The most popular walnut today, the English or Persian walnut, is an off-white, two-lobed nutmeat with a tan skin enclosed in a tan shell. Ninety percent of walnuts produced in the United States are marketed as kernels, or as a shelled product. Walnuts come in many forms and sizes useful to product designers. They are available in halves and pieces, small pieces, and meal. Small pieces and crushed or finely ground walnuts can be used in meat analogues and work well with rice and grain formulations, or with whole grains. Different color grades are also available for formulation, depending on the usage.

Walnuts come to the food processor raw. “Manufacturers do roast walnuts for the market to be used in nut mixes and the like, but it’s not necessary to roast walnuts in order for the flavor to come out,” says Duane Lindsey, technical support, Walnut Marketing Board, Sacramento, CA. “The texture of walnuts works well with anything. It just depends on what you are looking for in a product.”

Pecans. Pecans have extra flavor that can add a rich, meaty taste to many savory prepared main dishes, and are tasty when salted or spiced. Pecans have a characteristically sweet odor combined with a distinct flavor that lends uniqueness to products. The texture is delicate and tender with a slight chewiness and mild crunch. Pecans are classified according to the predominant skin color and range from “light” to “light amber” and “amber” to “dark amber.”

Shelled pecans can be purchased in halves and in pieces. They come in several sizes (from largest to smallest): mammoth, junior mammoth, jumbo, extra large, large, medium and “topper.”

Halves are good for snack mixes, roasted and salted, or spiced. Pecan pieces work well in snack foods, salads, and vegetable and main-dish recipes. Using pecan pieces subdues the typical pecan aroma. Pecan granules are most often used in bakery formulas, but can also partially replace fats in a formula. Pecan meal can partially substitute for wheat flour, since it has excellent humectant properties that enhance finished products.

Hazelnuts. The flavor of hazelnuts is earthy and goes well in savory applications. Most food processors that use nuts in a savory application opt for roasted hazelnuts in their products. “Roasting increases the crunch of the nut and gives it a more-nutty flavor,” says Bonnie Gorden-Hinchey, director of culinary services, Hazelnut Council, Jersey City, NJ. “Hazelnuts do hold a crunch better than other nuts.”

Hazelnuts can be purchased in natural form—with the shell removed and the brown skin intact—or roasted form. Natural whole nuts are most used in premium nut and snack mixes. When diced, they appear in breads and in snack foods since their size provides good distribution of the nut for uniform texture. Sliced natural hazelnuts show up as garnishes or in breads and snacks, including low-calorie types where the nuts add fiber and bulk. Natural hazelnut meal is used in snack foods and in health foods as a flour replacer, binding agent or flavoring agent.

Dry-roasted, whole hazelnuts with the skin removed or loose are used in snacks. Diced, roasted hazelnuts show up in gourmet sauces, and the roasted meal is used in breads and in snacks in much the same way as the un-roasted version. Hazelnut butter, basically finely ground nuts with a consistency similar to natural peanut butter, adds flavor, richness and increased protein content to entrées and sauces.

Pistachios. Pistachios have a rich, buttery taste and a unique, green color. In retail snack application, pistachios are most often packaged in the shell and roasted, since they do not pick up as much moisture in the shell. Roasted nuts, if stored properly, have a crunchy texture. Since pistachios are more expensive than other nuts, the meal is rarely used in manufacturing.

Pistachios are used as toppings for savory dishes, as coatings for fish and pork to help keep moisture in, and in many snack products.

Nutty contributions 

Although these ingredients aren’t actually nuts, product designers often treat them as such, and they have some nutlike characteristics, including texture and flavor.

Soy nuts. Soy nuts have become a popular snack food. Roasted soy nuts are soybeans that have been soaked in water and then baked until browned. Soy nuts can be found in a variety of flavors. High in protein and isoflavones, soy nuts are similar in texture and flavor to peanuts. They are often used as an ingredient in the new savory-snack types of energy bars.

Peanuts. Botanically, peanuts are legumes, but they have properties of both tree nuts and legumes. Like true nuts, they are relatively high in fat, and like legumes, they are good sources of protein. Peanut butter is the leading use of peanuts in the United States, followed by snack nuts and in-shells. Most often, snack peanuts are shelled, roasted, blanched and salted. They may be roasted in oil or by a dry-roasting process. Dry-roasted peanuts are cooked in a large oven by dry, hot, forced air, after which spicy seasonings are applied.

Specially processed, defatted peanuts are available as roasted snack peanuts and can also boost protein levels and add flavor to peanut sauces like those traditionally served with Indonesian satay. Partially defatted peanuts can be flavored to taste—and look, when chopped—like other nuts such as pecans, almonds and walnuts for use in cooking. Peanut milk—aqueous peanut extract—can also be used to make a type of peanut “cheese.”

Coconut. Coconut is really a dry fruit known as a fibrous drupe and not a true nut. The biggest savory applications of coconut are in sauces and in Indian or Thai curry dishes. In both of these cases, either the coconut milk or the creamed coconut form is used. To get coconut milk, the coconut meat is squeezed. For creamed coconut, the entire coconut meat is milled. Spray-dried coconut is also used for dry soup mixes or to coat potato chips.

“If you look at coconut in general, it can be used as a nut replacement. It has a sweet nutty taste to it and does not contain allergens like many nuts,” says Carl Ledgerwood, sales and business manager, Baker’s Coconut, Kraft Foods, Inc., Northfield, IL. “Coconut enhances and rounds out the flavor of many foods.”

One popular application is coconut shrimp where the coconut adds texture and flavor. Other savory foods where coconut can play a key role include toppings for Asian pork appetizers, in some Asian soups like spicy Thai coconut soup, and ceviches.

Storage considerations 

Because many nuts have a tendency to absorb moisture, most manufacturers do not store shelled nuts for long and only buy them as needed. Nuts with higher oil content, such as walnuts and pecans, will tend to go rancid fairly quickly if stored in too-warm conditions. The best practice is to store these nuts in a cooler or refrigerated environment. Toasted coconut has an 18- month shelf life since its moisture content is low. Store almonds under cool, dry conditions (under 10°C and less than 65% relative humidity).

Unlike other nuts, unshelled pistachios rarely go rancid since they have a lower fat content than other nuts, but they do pick up moisture from the air. “In the raw state, and maintained at room temperature, there is no obvious staling of pistachios. They will stay forever if kept in the shell,” says Bob Klein, director of research, California Pistachio Commission, Fresno. Raw pistachios will pick up more moisture than roasted nuts.

Keep all nuts away from strong odors, since nuts can absorb odors of other materials if exposed for prolonged periods. “The property that makes nuts absorb flavors is the same property that makes them great flavor carriers,” says Schempp.

Protect nuts from insects and pests. And keep roasted products away from too much oxygen exposure. Nitrogen flushing and/or vacuum packaging are two options that will prevent oxidation. As with all fresh food, it’s important to rotate stocks continuously and follow the “first in, first out” rule.

New and nutty 

The expanding positive nutritional profile of nuts has spawned a whole new cache of products, from simple whole-nut snack mixes with flavored and coated nuts thrown in with dried fruits and seeds to products like peanut “cheese,” walnut veggie burgers and nut-coated frozen fish.

Processing techniques have also advanced in step with this renewed interest in all things nutty. Tate & Lyle, Decatur, IL, recently introduced a panning coating process, used much like a candy or confection panning process, which can adhere flavors to soy nuts and peanuts. As a product is being tumbled, the adhesion syrup is added, then the flavors are added, then the adhesion syrup again. The adhesion syrup is bland, so it doesn’t contribute any flavor of its own. The coating works best with nuts that will tumble well, such as peanuts and soy nuts, and perhaps hazelnuts.

“It gives the nut a crisp or cracker-like coating, and you can bake or fry this coating,” says Doris Dougherty, senior food scientist, Tate & Lyle. “We prefer to bake it, because then we are not adding fat.”

Nut mixes have been getting a makeover of late, sometimes fusing sweet and savory. Sahale Snacks, Seattle, manufactures a variety of innovative nut snack mixes that go beyond the ordinary. One blend combines pistachios with pepitas (pumpkin seeds), figs and Moroccan harissa spice blend.

Another puts macadamia nuts, hazelnuts, mango and papaya together with chipotle, cumin and cilantro. Another new gourmet nut company, Fastachi, Watertown, MA, combines a number of roasted nuts together in innovative mixtures. One mix includes nuts coated with sesame seeds.

Be True To Your Flavor

Walnuts lend nutritious fats, juiciness and browning when combined with garbanzo beans and brown rice in vegetarian burgers and other nonmeat protein entrées. Many nut flours or meals, or finely chopped nuts, are now used in commercial coatings for chicken, fish and meats. The coatings add flavor and crunch and help retain the moisture.

Breads gain added value with the addition of nuts. Nuts add protein, fiber and other nutrients to bread, giving it a higher nutritional value and, thus, commanding a higher price.

Nut meals, butters and flours are often added to savory energy and snack bars. For example, the Clif Mojo Mixed Nut Bar has an impressive nut mixture of almonds, pecans, cashews, peanut butter and soy nuts formulated into a salty-snack flavored bar. These ingredients also can boost protein content in snack mixes and vegetarian entrées.

Nut meals have another recently discovered value in gluten-free products. Adding nut meals to gluten-free pie-crust formulas, for example, lowers the carbohydrate in the product and boosts the protein that is often lacking in alternative starches and gluten-free flours. Blue Diamond, Sacramento, CA, recently came out with new gluten-free nut and rice Nut- Thins in six flavors—four almond flavors, pecan and hazelnut. The crackers are low in fat and calories and are given a protein enhancement because of the nut meal content.

The wide variety of nuts, in their many forms, gives food-product designers creative license for new, exciting products. Now that consumers are favorably disposed to nuts and their nutritional powerhouse attributes, the path is clear for new nut products.

Nancy Backas is a Chicago-based freelance writer and chef. She has been writing about the foodservice industry for more than 20 years and can be reached at [email protected]

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