The ultimate guide to peanut butter and what you need to know to make it yourself.

Where I live temperatures still say winter (right now it's pelting down snow), but there's enough light to let you know that spring is on the way.  That means right now a part of me still wants my winter comfort food and another part of me knows that I need to start shaping up for spring and beyond in every sense of the phrase.  This is the time of year when I really love peanut butter.  Contrary to the bad press it sometimes gets, it's one of the healthiest and most nutritious foods around and yet it's still comforting, plus it's really affordable and easy to find in most places, even in small towns like mine.  If you're one of the many people who's been misled by "diet gurus" and thinks peanut butter is one step short of junk food or even if you do think peanut butter is fairly healthy but aren't sure why, then let me spell out the facts for you so you can see the truth for yourself and then I'll give you a recipe for peanut butter itself and ? recipes to give you some healthy ideas to use it.

You really need to read the labels on peanut butter

Peanut butter itself is basically ground peanuts, the butter part comes from the natural oils in the peanuts (which are actually legumes rather than nuts).  Some manufacturers, however, feel an overwhelming urge to pack in salt and/or sugar.  In the UK and the U.S.A. a quick read of the label should weed these out.  In other countries you may find it impossible to get genuinely healthy, ready-made peanut butter, so making your own would be your only option.

Yes peanut butter is high in calories and fat, but it's also full of goodness

I'm starting to think that the reason peanut butter sometimes gets such a bad press is because it's generally sold alongside sweet spreads such as jam, honey, syrups and so forth.  Alternatively maybe it's the fact that it has the word "butter" in the name and people just assume that means it's full of empty fat in the way that junk food is full of empty sugar.  So let's strip away the marketing hype and look at the facts.

Peanut butter is about a fifth carbohydrates (of which about a third is fibre), a quarter protein and a half fat.  Before you gasp at the fat content and move on, let me spell something out to you.  You need fat.  Even if you're overweight you need a certain level of fat in your diet, particularly in winter.  Rather than get into a lecture about the different types of fat and what they mean, I'll keep it simple.  You need natural, non-processed or lightly-processed fats (like fats pressed from fruits, vegetables and seeds) used in appropriate amounts in combination with other high-quality foodstuffs.  You should avoid (or at least limit your consumption of) highly-processed fat, especially combined with salt, refined sugar and/or any other ingredients which have had all the goodness sucked out of them.

Let's talk protein

You probably already know that protein is essential for good muscle health, what you may not have heard is that protein is a very filling food group, which obviously helps you to avoid the temptation to snack on junk food because you're genuinely hungry and it's convenient.  It's also worth noting that peanut butter is significantly more affordable than even mass-produced meats and so even if you're not interested in eliminating meat from your diet for health or ethical reasons, if you're on a tight budget, you may want to look at plant proteins, such as peanut butter, as your main source of protein for reasons of economy.

Fibre and complex carbohydrates are also important

Processed foods generally contain very little fibre, which is why it's so important to eat unprocessed foods as much as we can (peanut butter is very lightly processed so it keeps most of its natural goodness) and complex carbohydrates are long-lasting fuel for our bodies, which makes them a vast improvement on the brief, intense sugar rush we get from simple carbohydrates such as sugar.

Peanut butter is also a decent source of iron

Iron is another nutrient in which many of us are deficient to some extent (and not just vegetarians).  It's essential for the healthy functioning of our body's and being low in iron can lead to feelings of fatigue, dizziness and physical weakness.

Making your own peanut butter

Is it just me or is there something slightly odd about the fact that there are literally countless recipes (of varying degrees of healthiness), which involve using peanut butter but very little clear information about what you actually need to know to make the stuff yourself?  Perhaps it's because peanut butter is so widely available in shops and so affordable, but even so it's really easy to make at home and there are two big advantages to doing so.  First of all, you know exactly what goes into it and how it's cooked and secondly you can add other ingredients so it tastes just how you like it at that time.  So rather than rehash the numerous peanut butter recipes there out there on the net, I thought I'd explain to you how to make your own peanut butter at home.

The key to a good peanut butter is to roast the peanuts first.  I usually make about 500g at a time, but you can use as much or as little as you want.  Set the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4 and while it is heating, spread out your peanuts on a baking tray.  Use more than one tray if you have to so they are spread out evenly.  Then roast them for 10 to 20 minutes depending on your taste.

For the record, you can absolutely use ready-roasted peanuts if you want, in the UK however, I don't think I have ever seen just plain, ready-roasted peanuts (not even when I lived in London, although I acknowledge I never really looked that hard).  I suppose I could always buy roast, salted peanuts and wash them, but I don't see how that's any great advantage over making them from scratch and this way I know exactly how they're cooked.

Peanut butter itself is essentially ground, roasted peanuts, so basically all you have to do now is to grind your peanuts.  If you're planning on making crunchy peanut butter, set some of your peanuts aside and grind the rest (about a quarter will give the same sort of texture as shop-bought peanut butter, at least in the UK, but it's up to you).

If you want to be really old school, you can use a pestle and mortar, frankly I'd just use a food processor (unless I was making really small batches in which case a pestle and mortar would probably be fine).  I've heard of people making peanut butter with a blender, but I don't fancy it myself.  There are two reasons for this.  One, I think the effort of chopping peanuts would make all but the best (read industrial) blenders very hot and that could damage the oils in the peanuts (and the blender) and two, I don't fancy scraping the remnants of the peanut butter off the blender blades being A a klutz and B a coward.

You need to have a little patience to make peanut butter, or perhaps that should be a little faith.  When you first start grinding the peanuts, you'll essentially get chopped nuts, that's fine, that's what's supposed to happen.  Keep going and the nuts will start to release their oils, which is what creates he butter.  Once you start to see that happen you can make a judgement call as to whether you want to add a little extra oil to make it a bit smoother.  Some recipes suggest you do this at the beginning but personally I would hold off since you may find you don't need any oil at all.

If you want to make the mixture more liquid, only use some form of oil, never use water or any liquid similar to water (such as fruit juice), in fact be very careful with water-based syrups and even larger quantities of runny honey.  Basically, water will simply refuse to blend with the oils in the nuts and you'll just ruin your peanut butter and have to start again.

When you have your basic peanut butter ready, you can choose what, if anything you want to add to it.  Salt and honey are the traditional flavourings and will give a "shop bought" taste if that is what you want, but basically, (with the exception of water and similar liquids,) you can use whatever you want!  Just add a little at a time and taste as you go (or split out a batch for a new flavour experiment). 

I'm already starting to think how I can adjust my peanut butter in line with my aim to eat seasonally as much as possible.  Right now, I'm still very much in "winter" mode, but as spring rolls in (eventually), I think I may start experimenting with some light, bright, herbs (dried) and/or spices to make it a bit fresher and then perhaps coconut oil or even dried coconut for the summer.  Come next autumn and winter, I think I'll try looking at making it even more of a health-boosting superfood by adding the likes of turmeric and maybe flax seeds.  Remember, you can always make a big batch of "plain" peanut butter and then flavour it in small quantities as the fancy takes you or as fits your recipe best.

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