Real Food Encyclopedia | Almonds

Lately, almonds have gotten a bad environmental rap (more on that below), but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn more about their culinary and agricultural history. Only you can decide if you want to keep eating them (in moderation, maybe?) — but at least you’ll be informed.

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Fun Facts about Almonds: 

  • The word almond comes from the Greek amygdala. Those of you up on your anatomy also know that the amygdala is a part of the brain (almond-shaped, of course) important for emotional behavior and motivation.
  • Think almond milk is just another trend perpetuated by modern hipsters? Think again: the nut milk was a vital component of medieval European cookery. One of the most famous dishes in the Middle Ages in Europe was blancmanger, today a dessert, but back in the day a savory (-ish?) dish made with chicken, sugar, rice and almond milk.

What to Look for When Buying Almonds

The nuts are generally classified into “sweet”, the type we eat out of hand, and “bitter”, which are used to make some almond extracts and oils. Almonds are processed into a dizzying array of shapes and sizes. Here’s a quick rundown:

  • Raw: as The Salt explains, raw almonds in the US aren’t actually raw. That’s because, by law, almonds must be pasteurized — either by steam or by fumigation with a chemical called propylene oxide.
  • Roasted: almonds can be dry-roasted (without oil) or coated in oil. It’s super easy to roast almonds at home.
  • Blanched: these are raw almonds that have been covered in boiling water for a few minutes, which makes their brown skins easily slip off.
  • Slivered: almonds that have been blanched and sliced into thin sticks.
  • Sliced: these are roasted or raw (skin on) almonds that have been cut into very thin slices.
  • Green: almonds that have been harvested early. Green almonds can be eaten whole (i.e., the entire fruit) or can be hulled to get to the seed inside.

Sustainability of Almonds

Compared to many other nuts, almond production is water-intensive, taking nearly 500 gallons to grow a 4 oz serving of almonds.  Almonds are mainly produced in water-stressed regions and the orchards can be a major consumer of both surface water and groundwater, which can lead to a number of problems: wild salmon and other fish can suffer from low water levels in rivers after the orchards have had their fill, and quickly-depleting groundwater can become undrinkable due to arsenic contamination as water levels drop, forcing communities to pay for expensive filtration.

Still, the fact that people usually consume almonds in small quantities means that they can have a place in a healthy and sustainable diet. Beef and other meats are nearly as water-intensive, and many people eat those in far larger amounts than the small amount of nuts most people consume. If you’re concerned about your overall water footprint, try to cut back on meat, dairy and other water intensive foods.

Pesticides and Almonds

Unfortunately, water isn’t the only environmental issue when it comes to almond production. Growers rely on honeybees to pollinate their almond crop. As Tom Philpott reported, 60 percent of the US’s managed honeybees pollinate almonds in California — and these bees are being exposed to, as Philpott put it, a “cocktail of pesticides,” which are likely causing large die-offs.

Almond Seasonality

Almonds are harvested in California from mid-August through October.

Almond Geography

The US (and California in particular) is the top almond growing country in the world. According to the USDA, California accounts for 80 percent of the world’s almonds. Spain, Australia, Morocco and Iran are the other top global producers.

Almonds and Cultivation

Nonpareli, Butte and Mission are the most common varieties of almond grown in the US, chosen due to their size and ease in blanching. Unfortunately, this has left less popular almonds, like the Princess almond, vulnerable to going extinct because of its unreliability for large-scale production. Princess almonds are ideal for home growers since they have the convenience of thin shells, making them easy for a gardener/chef to peel. And as they are an especially sweet variety, they perform delectably in a dessert or pastry.

Eating Almonds

Storing Almonds

Store almonds and almond products (like oil) in the refrigerator to hold off rancidity.

Cooking with Almonds

Almonds are a versatile nut, making themselves at home in both savory and sweet dishes. There are so many almond products, like:

  • Almond butter is usually made from roasted almonds (but sometimes from raw) that have been ground into a peanut-butter like paste. Use as a sub for peanut butter in your favorite recipes.
  • Almond paste and marzipan are both made from ground almonds mixed with sugar to form a paste. The difference between the two has to do with the ratio of sugar to almonds.
  • Almond milk is made from almonds blended with water (and sometimes sugar) and strained. It’s used as a replacement for dairy or soy milk.
  • Almond meal is made from almonds ground with their skins on, while almond flour is made from ground, blanched almonds. Here’s more on the difference between almond meal and flour.
  • Almond oil: Pressed from the sweet almond seeds, almond oil is pleasantly nutty tasting.

Almond Nutrition

Almonds are loaded with fiber, fat, calories and protein. They’re an excellent source of Vitamin E, Riboflavin, Niacin and Thiamin. They contain a great deal of minerals, too — and are great sources of magnesium, manganese, calcium, iron, phosphorus and potassium. Bitter almonds contain some hydrogen cyanide, and are difficult to obtain in the US.