Banana Walnut Muffins / JillHough.com

Why you should (almost) always toast nuts, plus Banana Walnut Muffins

I’m starting the first of the year with a commitment to more regular posts—about once a month—and memories of one of my first cooking lessons.

Way before I had professional culinary aspirations, I was an avid home cook and took lots of cooking classes.

One of my very first was on breads and quickbreads, so we learned about making various breads, muffins, and tea breads. Naturally, one or two of the recipes had nuts. So the teacher relayed a tip that I’ll never forget and that’s made a difference in my cooking ever since.

(Almost) always toast your nuts.

Why? Three reasons.

1. Toasting nuts takes away their raw, sort of green flavor and gives them roasty, toasty brown notes.

2. Toasting nuts gives them better texture and crunch.

3. Toasting nuts brings their oils to the surface. What’s so great about that? It makes those oils more available to mix into whatever you’re adding the nuts to. For example, in these Banana Walnut Muffins, toasting the nuts not only improves the taste and texture of the nuts themselves, it means that there’s a little walnut oil on the surface of the nuts, and mixing the nuts into the batter means that oil gets into the batter, which gives the muffins more flavor and nuance in every bite.

In case you’re still not convinced, consider this. I have a friend who’s a former pastry chef—she now co-owns an amazing cooking class venue in San Francisco called The Civic Kitchen and I totally recommend it—and she says that my World’s Best Chocolate Chip Cookies are indeed one of the best she’s ever had and she believes the reason is, yep, toasted nuts.

This is a pastry chef, folks, who’s made and tasted way more desserts and cookies and nutty-licious treats than you and I ever will. So she ought to know. (And I’m tremendously honored by her compliment.)

Bottom line, toasting your nuts might seem like a small thing and maybe not worth the bother. But it’s the small things that make the difference between good food and great food. Like salting your pasta water or not stirring too often.

Banana Walnut Muffins / JillHough.com

But you probably remember I said you should (almost) always toast your nuts. Here’s when shouldn’t:

1. When you’re looking for a more sweet, raw nut flavor. Raw almonds, for example, have a sort of floral sweetness that might nicely complement a fruit crumble.

2. When your nuts will get toasted anyway by virtue of cooking. For example, my Banana Walnut Muffins have nuts garnishing the top—if I toasted them first, since they’re right on the outside and exposed to the heat of the oven as the muffins bake, they might burn. So I mix toasted nuts into the batter, but garnish with raw nuts before baking. Another example—99% of the time, I enjoy my Hearty Whole Wheat Walnut Bread as toast, so the nuts in the bread get toasted as the slices are exposed to the heat of the toaster. I don’t need to toast them beforehand.

Now that I’ve convinced you to (almost) always toast your nuts, here’s how to do it:

1. Preheat the oven to 350°F.

2. Spread the nuts onto a rimmed baking sheet and bake until lightly browned, 6 to 10 minutes, depending on the type of nut and size of the pieces.

It’s that easy.

A couple of tips:

1. Nuts go from perfect to burnt really fast. So always set a timer, and always set it for a minute or two less than you think your nuts will need. You can always cook them more, but you can’t cook them less.

2. To tell if your nuts are done, smell them. Toasted nuts should be fragrant and, well, toasty-smelling. If they’re lightly browned but not yet fragrant, give them another minute and check again.

3. Sometimes I’m asked about toasting in a skillet versus in the oven. I prefer the oven because it’ll toast more evenly, while a skillet risks overcooking the outside of your nuts before the inside is done. The only time I might use a skillet is if I was toasting something very small, like sesame seeds, or if I was toasting such a small amount that I just couldn’t rationalize firing up the oven. (But in that situation, a toaster oven works well.)

All these years later, I’m still following—and appreciating—that teacher’s advice. And I recommend that you do, too. It’s a small thing, but it can help take your cooking from good to great.

A few more nutty-licious recipes to try:
Salted Cherry Almond Oatmeal Cookies
Maple Oat Pecan Scones
Figs, Goat Cheese, and Mixed Greens with Candied Pecans
Cherry Almond Granola

Banana Walnut Muffins / JillHough.com

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