I sometimes joke and say that as a Southern cook, I use pecans like other chefs use salt and pepper. That is to say, on just about everything. I love pecans and every other nut because they add a crunchy texture and an earthy sweet — nuttier — flavor to food.
Most of the time, I lightly toast my nuts to enhance their flavor. And I’m not alone: Many recipes that call for nuts, also call for toasting the nuts because it makes such a difference in the overall flavor of the dish. Toasting or lightly roasting nuts removes all the raw green, slightly astringent flavors that you taste when they are uncooked. This is especially true with walnuts. Almonds, hazelnuts and pecans are crisp and lightly caramelized, and you can’t stop eating them when they are roasted — likewise peanuts. Even seeds are so much better with a little heat to bring out their deeper more nuanced flavors. Think sesame seeds, pine nuts, pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds. The volatile oils are released, and the seeds are lightly browned making them taste so much more flavorful.
I learned to toast nuts from my mother, and she learned from her mother. You toast nuts on a cookie sheet (or sheet pan) in a preheated oven set on a low heat. The low heat is crucial because nuts burn both easily and quickly. This is due to the high percentage of oil in the nuts. Pecans burn particularly fast and can go from deliciously lightly toasted to inedible and acrid in a matter of a minute.
So, it will come as no surprise that my pet peeve is the way so many popular food people today demonstrate toasting nuts. The first time that I saw someone “toast” nuts in a skillet on top of the stovetop, I was flabbergasted. Because the heat is direct, it heats the metal pan and that heat is transferred to the surface of the food making contact with the pan. The side of the food exposed to the direct heat will continue to cook until it is moved. I am sure everyone can relate to how easy it is to burn food in a skillet on the stovetop. And, the more delicate the food, the faster it happens. That is what happens to the nuts. Even if you shake the pan, you will end up with some parts of the nuts still raw and some parts — the parts that touch the bottom of the pan — with burned edges. And that means you will be adding burned acrid flavor to your dish.
Maybe the problem is in our terminology. As recipe writers, we tell people to “toast” their nuts and we really should be telling them to “roast” their nuts. If you cook with nuts and seeds a lot, you have probably already figured out that the best way to toast them is in an oven. But if you are still toasting them on the stovetop, you will love the oven method. Not only do you get better results, it is also easier, and you don’t have to tend to it as much.
When I toast nuts, I place a sheet of parchment paper on a sheet pan and pour the nuts on top. I spread them out so that they are in a single layer and place them in a preheated 250 F oven. This is a low temperature, but I find that the higher I set the temperature, the higher the chances of burning the nuts. I check on them after 5 minutes because smaller nuts takes less time to toast than larger nuts and I don’t want them to burn. Most nuts take 8-10 minutes to toast, but often the smell of roasting nuts is a sign that they are done. It’s important to check them as soon as you smell them because they can burn before you know it! For maximum crunch, let the nuts cool before using them in your recipe.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Elizabeth Karmel is a grilling, barbecue and Southern foods expert, and the author of four cookbooks, including the newly released “Steak and Cake.” Her website is www.elizabethkarmel.com.