How To Roast and Candy Nuts

September 21, 2008
by Jack McNulty


Candied Nuts Offer Wonderful Contrasts To Many Fall Dishes…And Great Snacks Too!

Nuts are distinctive and appealing.  They are slightly sweet, slightly fatty and slightly bitter.  All attractive qualities to the cook interested in balancing textures and tastes.

But nuts can be much, much more.

Gently roasting nuts can coax hidden aromas to emerge, transforming them into rich tasting morsels. Taking it a step further and putting a layer of caramelized sugar on them will emphasize the nut’s natural sweetness and create wonderful contrasts between sweet and savory.

Roasted and candied nuts are perfect during the fall months. They can be added to salads, tossed about with game dishes – especially if a fruit sauce is involved, pulverized and mixed together with a little flour and butter to create an interesting pie shell, coated in chocolate or simply enjoyed alone as a snack.

But difficulties await the uninitiated!

Nuts are sometimes up to 50% oil, and the oil gets very hot when heated, which is another way of saying they will burn quickly…sometimes moving from just right to burned within 30 seconds. Nut skins can also pose a problem. They are mostly composed of tannins and phenolic compounds – the tannins cause a slight bitter taste, and the phenolic compounds sometimes leech out and color other ingredients (have you ever seen a purple-tinted walnut bread?).

Then there’s the caramelized sugar issue.

Working with melting sugar as it transforms into a delicious golden liquid is fascinating…but quite dangerous. Melted sugar reaches extraordinarily high temperatures, which can completely remove your skin before you can feel the oncoming pain and cause… Oh sorry, I’ve wandered into a memory I would rather forget.

So, you get the point – roasting and caramelizing nuts is not as simple as it sounds, which is why I am writing this bit. I’ve had quite a lot of experience working in this area, and since I am frequently asked about roasting and caramelizing, I thought I would offer some tips and suggestions.

So let’s get started with the nuts.

All nuts can be roasted and there are two ways to approach this task: in a frying pan and on the stovetop or on a baking tray and in the oven. The frying pan method requires your undivided attention for about 10 minutes, a good pan and low heat. The oven method requires about 30 minutes and a timer.

My preferred method is to gently roast nuts in the oven. The gentle heating slowly develops the roasted aromas, produces a consistent toasting within the interior of the nut, reduces the possibility of burning the nuts and frees me up to do something else…which is why the timer is crucially important. I use the following technique with every type of nut, except pine nuts (bake these 7 minutes less than other nuts). I begin by turning on the oven to 150° C. I place all of the nuts on a roasting pan just big enough to hold them in a single layer, then immediately place the nuts into the oven (I don’t wait for the oven to pre-heat) and set the timer for 30 minutes. That’s it!

About those skins…

Many recipes call for the removal of skins in order to soften the taste and remove any possibility of color leaching. Some nuts have thin skins and can be easily removed after roasting simply by rubbing them off. Peanuts and hazelnuts are good examples. Other nuts have thicker skins which adhere to the nut and are better loosened by boiling them for a minute or two. If skins are particularly stubborn, you can try immersing them in one liter of hot water with 3 spoons of baking soda for about 10 minutes. Rub off the skins, then soak the nuts again in one liter of water and the juice of one lemon. This method can be used on walnuts. The final soaking in acidulated water will also slightly bleach the nut and eliminate any concerns of having the skins color other ingredients.

Now the caramelized sugar…

Here’s what you will need in addition to the roasted nuts before getting started: a heavy sauce pan with sides that are at least 6-cm to 8-cm high, a heat-resistant spatula and a clean baking pan. To caramelize 200 gr. of roasted nuts (I usually work with whole almonds, walnuts or hazelnuts – and I leave the skin on), you will need to dissolve 100 gr. of normal white sugar with 40 gr. of water in the sauce pan over medium heat. Cook the sugar and water mixture for about two minutes. The sugar should be completely dissolved and showing signs of thickening. Add all of the nuts to the sugar at once and begin to mix them well with the rubber spatula.

Now the part that involves patience…and a bit of caution.

The sugar will begin to lightly caramelize after a minute or two. Keep stirring with the spatula and adjust the temperature to medium-low. Be cautious with your stirring to prevent any sugar splashing on your exposed skin. After another minute or two, the sugar will take on a golden color and you will be tempted to stop. Don’t. Wait until the sugar re-crystallizes and gets sort of white and very dry. Just keep stirring. After another 3-4 minutes, the sugar will begin to liquefy. Keep stirring until all (or certainly most) of the sugar has melted and before it gets too dark. Remove the pot from the heat and toss in 10 gr. of butter, making sure to quickly toss the nuts to coat them evenly. This will give them a very nice sheen. Place all of the nuts onto a large baking pan (the pan will get very hot on the bottom), and keep them all separated with the help of a couple of forks or knives for about one minute. They will stick together if you don’t keep them separated.

That’s it…but be careful, the nuts are quite hot. I would recommend waiting about 30 minutes before sampling.