The holidays and winter months are here, so nuts will probably show up several times on your shopping list. Traditional fall and winter ingredients, most nuts are at peak freshness and availability right now. Nuts add rich flavor and crunchy texture to both sweet and savory dishes—tossed whole into salads, chopped for breads and pie crusts, ground for Southeast Asian sauces, stirred into cake or cookie batters, and folded into ice cream. And a big bowl of mixed nuts on the table to crack seems to stimulate after-dinner conversation.
Taste before buying, if you can
Nuts in the shell are usually the very freshest and best-tasting. The shell keeps out light, insects, air, and mold, all of which cause nuts to dry out, turn rancid, or both.
When choosing nuts in the shell, look for whole, clean shells with no blemishes, holes, or cracks. Pick up a nut and shake it. Brazil nuts, hazelnuts, walnuts, pecans, and peanuts rattle freely in the shell if they’re old and dry.
When choosing nuts out of the shell, look for plump, unbroken nutmeats. Avoid those that are discolored or shriveled. Airtight containers preserve freshness and flavor, but they make it impossible to taste the nuts until you leave the store.
When you are able to taste, choose nuts that are sweet and crunchy. Rancid nuts have a bitter, unpleasantly oily taste. A rancid nut can ruin an otherwise perfectly prepared dish, so always taste several nuts from the batch before you use them. But be careful when you taste black walnuts. Their characteristically strong, exotic flavor may seem wrong if you’ve never had them before (and black walnuts have rock-hard shells that are hard to crack, so they’re always sold shelled, in broken pieces).
Store all nuts in a cool, dry place. Shelled nuts, unless they’re vacuum-packed in cans, should be wrapped tightly and stored in the fridge or freezer. Nuts keep best in the shell, but all nuts gradually turn rancid, even when frozen, so don’t store them for more than a few months in the freezer.
Roasting brings out flavor
A light roasting in a moderate oven until fragrant and lightly golden will accentuate the flavor of most nuts. Just be careful not to overdo it because darkly roasted nuts will be bitter and dry. Roasted nuts turn rancid more quickly than raw ones, so use them within a few days after roasting.
Skinning isn’t always a must; it’s more a matter of aesthetics. If you’re grinding almonds or hazelnuts for pastry, the skins incorporate into the mixture, and many cooks like the look of tiny specks of skin. With coarse chopped nuts like hazelnuts, which have a loose skin, pieces of skin tend to separate from the nut, so skinning them results in a cleaner look and taste.
To skin hazelnuts and even walnuts, roast them lightly and then remove the loose skin by rubbing a handful of nuts at a time in a dishtowel. For almonds, pour boiling water over the nuts, let them sit for several minutes, and then slip off the skins.
Grinding is easiest to do in an inexpensive drum-type nut or cheese grater. Nuts have a high fat content, so if you use a food processor, pulse briefly and pay close attention or you’ll end up with nut butter.
Shelling peanuts doesn’t require a nut-cracker, but for hard-shelled nuts, I still rely on my old-fashioned hinged nut cracker. A nut pick helps coax out reluctant walnut or pecan meats. And freezing Brazil nuts for a few hours seem to make their hard shells easier to crack.