What Is an Almond?

Buying, Cooking, and Recipes

Whole almonds

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The almond is often thought of as a nut, though it's technically a drupe fruit produced by the almond tree (Prunus dulcis; Prunus amygdalus). It's native to North Africa, West Asia, and the Mediterranean, though most almonds today are grown in the United States, Spain, and Italy. This popular nut is eaten raw or roasted and incorporated into a variety of foods. You'll find almonds in recipes for desserts, bread, and other baked goods, as well as savory dishes from around the world.

Fast Facts

  • Protein: 6 grams per ounce (23 nuts)
  • Common Preparations: Sliced, slivered, paste, milk, flour
  • Grocery Aisle: Baking
  • Shelf Life: 1 to 2 years
  • Substitutes: Brazil nuts, cashews, hazelnuts, pistachios

Varieties

There are many varieties of almonds. Most are sweet almonds; bitter almonds need to be blanched before eating to reduce their bitter taste and remove their toxins. Among the most popular sweet almonds grown in California (the biggest producer worldwide), the varieties are classified as either California, Mission, or Nonpareil almonds. They differ in size, color, and whether or not they require blanching. Some varieties are used in manufactured products while others are sold for consumer use. Spain's Marcona almond is a popular gourmet variety that's known to be sweeter and softer than most.

Almond Uses

You may have to remove the shells prior to use if that hasn't already been done. Whole almonds can be used for snacking, added to a trail mix, or prepared for use in a recipe. Some recipes specify using blanched or toasted almonds; you can buy them this way or do either preparation yourself using whole almonds. Almonds may also be cut into slivers or slices, or ground into a finer texture to make almond meal (or almond flour).

How to Cook With Almonds

Although the skin can sometimes be bitter, it can also have a pleasant taste and add flavor to a recipe. Try the nut first before removing the outer brown covering. Blanching almonds helps remove the skin, which may otherwise come off during cooking. When using almonds in bread or muffins, you'll find that toasting the almonds first not only brings out a richer flavor, but will also keep them from sinking in the batter. When sliced or cut into slivers, almonds add texture to dishes, from baked goods to stir-fries. They can also be used as a garnish on top of salads, meat and vegetable dishes, and desserts or sweets.

Some recipes also require processed almonds, including almond butter, almond flour, almond milk, or almond paste. To make these at home requires additional preparation, though each can be purchased as well.

What Do Almonds Taste Like?

Almonds have a light, buttery flavor with a distinct crunch that adds texture to food. Whole, raw almonds have a toasty flavor, which can be attributed to the skin.

Almond Substitutes

For other nuts, the best substitutes for almonds are Brazil nuts, cashews, hazelnuts, and unsalted pistachios. These have a similar texture and flavor. Use the same measurement and be sure to use the same preparation (e.g., sliced, chopped, etc.).

If you have a nut allergy or dislike nuts, there are other options. Try crispy rice cereal, granola, oatmeal, or unsalted pumpkin or sunflower seeds to retain the recipe's texture. It's also common for people to use chocolate chips, dried cranberries, or raisins in almond recipes; these work particularly well in cookies. Of course, with any of these substitutions, the texture, consistency, and flavor will change.

Almond Recipes

Almonds have a naturally sweet flavor, so they are a perfect ingredient for baked goods and desserts. They can also be used successfully in combination with most vegetables, fruits, and meats, but especially shine with fish, chicken, and rice dishes.

Where to Buy Almonds

Almonds are harvested in late summer through early autumn. Whole, raw almonds should be available around that time at farmer's markets, specialty markets, or you can find them online. They're sold by the pound and available in bulk, though they're not inexpensive. At any grocery store, you'll find that almonds can take many different forms, including in the shell and shelled. Green (immature) almonds may also be foraged from almond trees or found at farmer's markets in early spring. Products such as almond butter, extract, flour, milk, oil, and paste are very common as well.

Shelled almonds may be raw, roasted, or blanched. Raw and roasted almonds will have their skins; blanched are without skins. Raw and blanched almonds are sold in a variety of ways: whole, sliced, slivered or halved, and diced or chopped. While pre-cut almonds are easiest to add to a recipe, chopping whole almonds will result in the freshest flavor.

If you find almonds in the shell, shake the nut. If it rattles a lot, chances are it's aging and shrinking, and will soon turn rancid. To check for rancidity, slice the almond in half and look for a solid white texture throughout. If it is yellowish or has a honeycomb texture, it is past its prime and should be discarded.

Storage

Packaged raw almonds can be stored in unopened packages in a cool, dark place for up to two years. Unopened roasted almonds can be stored under the same conditions for up to one year. Both will last even longer if refrigerated or frozen. Once packaged almonds are opened, store them in an airtight container or sealed plastic bag with the air squeezed out in a cool, dry, dark place (ideally in the refrigerator) and use within three months. For maximum shelf life, keep the almonds away from humid conditions.

Almond paste can be stored in the refrigerator for up to two years. Almond flour can be stored in the pantry for a few months, refrigerated for up to six months, or frozen indefinitely. Some almond milk needs to be refrigerated and consumed within seven days of opening; opened shelf-stable almond milk within seven to 10 days. Likewise, some almond butter requires refrigeration—refer to the package—and all should generally be used within three months once open.

Nutrition and Benefits

Almonds are considered one of the healthiest nuts and a good addition to nearly any diet. They are packed with nutrients and an excellent source of fiber and protein, so they can fill you up while reducing your calorie intake. High in monounsaturated fatty acids and cholesterol-free, almonds can help reduce cholesterol, thus reducing the risk of heart disease. They are also high in vitamin E, a potent antioxidant that helps prevent the accumulation of plaque in the arteries.

Since almonds are rich in arginine, which can aggravate some common viral infections, they should be avoided by those who have a tendency toward cold sores.