Almond butter

Health-conscious people tend to love their nut butters. And what's not to love? They're creamy, fatty, satisfying, and equally delicious on toast, apple slices, or a spoon.

I recently ate the last of the peanut butter I brought with me to St. Louis from Colorado - my favorite peanuts-only brand in a massive but surprisingly affordable 36-ounce jar - and it was a sad afternoon when I found out that this particular brand is not sold in St. Louis. A very sad afternoon.

America's most classic nut butter is made from peanuts, but in recent years, peanuts have faded into the background while almonds have rapidly gained in popularity. Unfortunately, almond butter can get crazy expensive, so do your wallet a favor by buying almonds in bulk and making your very own almond butter for a fraction of the cost. It's insanely easy, insanely delicious, and you'll have the satisfaction of knowing you made it yourself.

Keep in mind that from 1 cup of almonds, you will get a 1/2 cup of almond butter. All that blending breaks down the volume pretty substantially, so if you're looking to make a pint-sized jar of almond butter, begin with 4 cups of almonds.
To soak or not to soak?

Grains, beans, nuts, and seeds are common sources of phytates: antioxidant compounds that hinder or block absorption of iron, magnesium, zinc, and calcium. Sounds bad, right? It is thought that soaking these foods in water, milk, or vinegar before consumption can help break down the phytates and make the minerals more absorbable. While it is true that high amounts of phytates can keep your body from utilizing all the nutrition from these common foods, let's look at the full story.

People who eat plant-based diets commonly include many of these phytate-containing items in their meals each day; they tend to be excellent alternative sources of protein, after all.  If you are a vegetarian or vegan who struggles to get enough iron, magnesium, zinc, and calcium, or if you have a history of anemia, consider soaking some of your grains, beans, and nuts prior to eating, or eat your phytate-containing foods with foods that are rich in vitamin C, like berries, bell peppers, citrus fruits, pineapple, and cruciferous vegetables. The ascorbic acid significantly counteracts the mineral-blocking mechanism of phytates. However, do keep in mind that it is extremely unlikely that phytate consumption would cause mineral deficiencies unless you happen to be following a diet comprised completely of bran. In that case, we need to talk for several reasons. Don't go there.

Let's check out the positives of phytates: they are antioxidant compounds, remember? It is thought that phytates can help inhibit the development of several cancers and help chase down disease-causing free radicals in the bloodstream. Free radicals are destructive little molecules that mess with your bodily tissues and cause aging, heart disease, cancers, asthma, diabetes, arthritis, and dementia. We want to fight them. Including plants in your diet is the way to do it. Phytates happen to be one source.

My conclusion on soaking? If you've got the time and patience, do it. There's no reason to fear phytates, but as far as I can tell, there isn't a downside to letting almonds sit in some liquid for a while to make the minerals more usable. A balanced diet will contain antioxidants from many sources, so there's no need to rely on phytates for free radical-fighting power.
I encourage you to try adding extra flavors to your almond butter to fit your tastes. Personally, I'm dreaming of a flaxseed and cinnamon version. Smeared on a banana. Vanilla extract would be an excellent addition, but keep in mind the almond butter will spoil faster if extra liquid is added.
Almond butter
Makes 1 cup

2 cups almonds
1 3/4 teaspoons salt, divided
  1. Measure almonds into a large bowl. Cover the almonds with water (make sure there is about 2" of water over the almonds as they will swell and absorb the liquid). Stir 1 1/2 teaspoons salt into the bowl and allow the almonds to soak overnight. 
  2. Get out your oven thermometer and set your oven to its lowest setting, ideally 150-170 degrees. Drain and rinse the almonds, then scatter them on a baking sheet. Let the almonds dry in the warm oven until they are crisp, 12-15 hours. You don't want to skimp on this step or you'll end up with soggy almond butter that spoils quickly. I recommend putting them in the oven in the morning and going about your day.
  3. When the almonds are completely dry and very crisp, dump them into the bowl of a food processor. As you run the processor (this will take 10-15 minutes depending on how powerful your machine is), you'll see the almonds transform first into a meal, then grainy crumbles, then a ball, then a smooth puree. When you reach the smooth puree stage, add the remaining 1/4 teaspoon of salt and process another 2-3 minutes. Transfer to a clean jar and store your creamy almond butter in the fridge. 

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