There are few things more all-American than peanut butter, and we're not just talking about those iconic jars of Skippy and Jif. Their cousins -- the all-natural, coarse-ground peanut, almond, walnut and other nut butter brethren -- have been around since the days of peace, love and tie-dyed T-shirts.
But something has happened in the nut butter aisles that goes far beyond that Italian interloper, Nutella. All of a sudden, nut butters have gone artisanal with small-batch jars and intriguing flavor twists.
New York City's Lee Zalben of Peanut Butter and Co. may have been one of the first to start swirling upscale jam and maple syrup into his all-natural peanut butter. But he's been joined by legions of others, including a pair of University of Oregon students who launched their own Wild Squirrel line of coconut-raisin and vanilla-espresso nut butters last year.
But here's the thing: You don't need anything fancy to do that at home -- just nuts, a pinch of salt, a food processor and a little imagination, says Alana Chernila, the farmers market expert behind the new "Homemade Pantry" cookbook (Clarkson Potter, $24.99, 288 pages).
Chernila is no fly-by-night DIYer. The Massachusetts mom and food writer makes her family's crackers, hot sauce, Pop-Tarts and 98 other comestibles. Nut butter, she says, is one of the easiest and most customizable do-it-yourself projects around.
"Everyone has different preferences. They want sweet or salty," she says. "You can create the nut butter of your dreams."
That sense of limitless possibility was what prompted Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough's nut butter experiments when they were working on their "Ultimate Peanut Butter Book" (Harper Collins, $16.99, 256 pages). Soon they were combining cardamom and pistachios, ginger and toasted cashews, and pumpkin seeds and pecans.
"Don't forget your meat products," says Weinstein, who grew up in San Carlos. "Crispy crumbled bacon is a lovely thing mashed into a peanut or almond butter."
Beyond simple blending
Along the way, these nut butter aficionados discovered a few key things. There are ways to achieve that silky supermarket style, but it takes a little food processor finesse (see the accompanying tips box). And nut butter recipe are templates, not commandments.
"You have to play it by ear and be open to improvising as you go," Weinstein says. "Is this too stiff? What's going on in my food processor?"
Most nuts need a little help in the oil department. You can use canola oil, but it's better to use a flavorful oil that complements the nut, peanut oil in peanut butter, and walnut oil for walnut butter.
"It's the same calories whether it's tasteless or has a lot of flavor," Weinstein says. "There's a reason nobody canola oils their bread."
If you're using a blender, be forewarned, says Mollie Katzen, the James Beard award-winning author of such classics as "The Moosewood Cookbook." Making nut butter is "a very cool thing to do," she says, "but the hardest work is getting the stuff out of the blender."
The Berkeley food writer gives her blender a spritz of nonstick spray before she starts. Homemade nut butters are a great project to do with kids. But getting the nut mixture out of a blender or food processor's blades is a job for a grown-up.
Have fun with flavors, but if you're taking a shortcut by using flavored nuts -- honey-roasted cashews, for example -- be wary of flavor intensity and salt.
"A lot of flavored nuts are very salty," Weinstein says. "Two or three with a gin and tonic is nice -- but it's not necessarily nice on a sandwich."
Use a light hand with flavorings and don't flavor the whole batch.
"How often am I going to be in the mood for tropical peanut butter?" Weinstein says. "Quite honestly, if I wanted to have a tropical peanut butter sandwich, I'd rather take some peanut butter out and stir in some toasted, shredded coconut and dried pineapple than have a quart of that sitting in the pantry."
But all bets are off when chocolate enters the picture. "A natural version of nutella is dangerous," Katzen says. "It's hard to stop eating it."