Nuts are a great addition to many candies. Their crunch can offset chewy or soft candies, while their slightly savory, slightly sweet flavor is a good counterpoint to sugar and chocolate. Hazelnuts, almonds, peanuts, walnuts, pecans, pistachios, and macadamias are the most common nuts called for in candy recipes, although others can also be used. Because some recipes require skinning, chopping or roasting nuts, knowing how to prepare nuts for candy making is essential for successful nut confections.
Hazelnuts are commonly sold with their thin, papery skins still on the nuts, so they need to be skinned before they can be used. The skins are not harmful, but their taste and texture are not desirable in candies or other baked goods.
To skin them, toast them by spreading the nuts in a single layer on a baking sheet. Bake them at 325 F until they give off an aroma, and their skins are brown and split. This should take about 7 to 10 minutes, depending on the number of nuts. Check the nuts every few minutes while toasting, and shake or stir the nuts so they toast evenly. Remove them from the oven when they are fragrant and brown, and allow them to cool at room temperature. Once they are cool enough to handle, rub the nuts between two clean kitchen towels. The skins will come off with the friction, leaving clean and toasted nuts. A small amount of skin remaining on the nuts is normal.
Almonds are sold in various states of preparation: whole, sliced or slivered, blanched or natural. It is easy to find whole almonds that have been skinned, but these are typically more expensive than “natural” almonds, so if the cost is a consideration, you might want to skin them yourself.
To skin whole almonds, drop them in boiling water and let them cook for 1 minute, then drain the nuts and let them cool. Once they are cool enough to touch, pinch the nuts between your fingers and the nuts will slide out of the skin. To toast almonds, spread them in a single layer on a baking pan. Bake at 325 F until they are light brown and fragrant, about 5 to 10 minutes, depending on the number of nuts. Check the nuts frequently and stir them to ensure even toasting.
To toast walnuts, pecans, pistachios, macadamias, and other nuts, follow the same procedure as for toasting almonds: spread them in a single layer on a baking pan. Bake at 325 F until they are light brown and fragrant, about 5 to 10 minutes, depending on the number of nuts. Check the nuts frequently and stir them to ensure even toasting. Always cool your nuts before chopping them. Nuts have a great deal of oil that has been brought to the surface by the heat, and the oil must be allowed to be reabsorbed, or the nuts could turn greasy during chopping.
How to Chop Nuts
For many nut candies, the recipe requires that the nuts be chopped. Depending on how finely the nuts should be chopped, this task can be done by hand or with a food processor. If a recipe calls for “finely chopped” or “finely ground nuts,” it is easiest to use a food processor. Place a small number of nuts in the processor, and pulse quickly several times. Nuts have a great deal of oil, so it is easy to over-process nuts and end up with nut butter if you are not carefully monitoring them. Do the nuts in small batches to ensure even chopping.
If the candy recipe calls for simply “chopped nuts” or “coarsely chopped nuts,” the nuts can be chopped by hand using a knife. We prefer to use a heavy, sharp chef’s knife to do the job. First, gather the nuts in a circle slightly smaller than the length of the knife’s blade. Rock the blade back and forth, rotating it around the circle with a firm, quick stroke. Periodically stop and reposition any nuts that have shifted outside of the circle. Continue chopping in this fashion until the nuts are a suitable size.
Remember, never chop nuts while warm. This can result in greasy, oily nuts—not ideal for candy making. Additionally, if a recipe calls for a certain amount of chopped nuts, measure the nuts after chopping, not before. Whole nuts will take up more space in the measuring cup than chopped nuts, so you will have an inaccurate amount of chopped nuts if you measure them before chopping.
How to Store Nuts
Due to the high oil content many nuts have, they have a limited shelf life and should be properly stored to prolong their life. Salted nuts go rancid more quickly, so they are rarely used in commercial candy making. Salted nuts are fine for home use if you know the candies will be consumed quickly.
Store your nuts in airtight containers or Ziploc bags in the freezer, rather than at room temperature. Nuts that have been frozen can be toasted or chopped straight from the freezer without problems. When stored this way, most nuts will last for up to a year, although oily nuts like walnuts and pecans have a shorter life and can be frozen up to 10 months. If the nuts have gone rancid, it will be immediately apparent upon tasting them.