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Peanut butter cookies, peanut butter brownies, peanut butter ice cream, chocolate filled with peanut butter, dip your vegetables or fruit in peanut butter. If you’re in the USA especially, you won’t even think it’s strange that peanut butter is added to so many different dishes.
Even if you’re just eating it on top of a sandwich (as we Dutch like to do) you might be overwhelmed by the choice of peanut butters when going out to buy them. Some contain sugars, others do not, some are crunchy and yet others are super smooth.
Where do all these peanut butters even come from and how are they made?
A short history of peanut butter
The humble peanut is native to South America where scientists think it has been growing for thousands of years. When the Europeans came to Central America in the 16th century they quickly liked and adopted the peanut into their diet. Since peanuts travel well, they were a great food for long sea voyages. As was the case for many foods, these travels led through the spread of peanuts.
Instead of traveling from South America to what is now the USA, scientists think peanuts got into the USA via a stop in West-Africa. People seem to have grown fond of peanuts quite quickly there when the peanuts arrived there through sea travelers getting on land. It is thought that when slaves were transported from the area to the USA, they took along their peanuts.
Peanuts have been popular in the US for a long time. They grow well in the southern countries (such as Georgia). Peanuts were an essential provision during the civil war for instance. Good marketing strategies afterward kept them popular. The two world wars helped accelerate the growth even further in the US thanks to their high protein content. But peanuts have been around for centuries and are used in a variety of cuisines, either whole or ground into pastes (e.g in Asian cuisine).
Eating peanut butter as such is a more recent invention and has its roots in the USA. In the 19th-century peanut butter was considered a luxury health food as opposed to the staple it is nowadays. Towards the end of the 19th-century peanut butter becomes a more common product, however, at the time, peanut butter couldn’t be transported well. The shelf life was limited, partly because of the separation of the liquid oil layer on top of the peanut butter. Once a solution for that problem was invented, nothing could stop peanut butter.
Making peanut butter
The process for making peanut butter is actually quite simple. It consists of the following steps:
- Shell the peanuts and remove any debris, etc.
- Roast and possibly blanch the peanuts, this will remove the skins and will be a first step in killing off unwanted micro organisms. It also gives flavour to your peanuts. A darker roast (as is the case for coffee) will give a stronger, more in-depth roast flavour. Cool the peanuts to ensure no further flavour & colour development takes place.
- Grind the peanuts into a smooth paste. For a smooth, creamy peanut butter manufacturers will grind the peanuts small enough you for not to taste any more particles.
- Mix in the other ingredients such as fats, sugar, salt (we’ll discuss them each in more detail below).
- Mix back in peanut pieces for crunchy peanut butter! Yes, indeed, they are mixed back in. Have you ever noticed how uniform in size the pieces in chunky peanut butter are? This is impossible to achieve if you grind the peanut butter as a whole and is why the pieces are added back in after grinding!
Different types of peanut butter
You can make peanut butter from just peanuts. All you have to do is grind down nuts and you’ve got your peanut butter. By grinding down the nuts you release the oil in the peanuts, which peanuts contain quite a decent amount of. By freeing up the oil and reducing the size of the peanuts, you end up with a nice paste.
Despite peanut butter being so simple, there are a lot of different types of peanut butter for sale nowadays (not even to mention the blends with others nuts). All of them have peanuts as their base, of course and vary from there on.
The simplest peanut butter is made from peanuts and nothing else. This type of peanut butter is not very stable in its appearance though. Over time, during storage, a liquid layer will form on top of the peanut butter. This is perfectly fine, you can just blend it in again. The reason the fat separates is that a lot of the peanut fat is actually liquid (learn more about fats & oils here). Just as would happen in a chocolate milk, the peanut particles will settle down into the liquid over time. Resulting in some liquid on top.
Natural peanut butter gets its flavour entirely from the peanuts it is made from. Peanuts are often roasted before being made into peanut butter. Roasting is great for flavour development and it’s a way for manufacturers to differentiate their product.
This natural peanut butter is great for baking, giving you full control on the amount of sugar and salt you’re adding. Since this type is a little more liquid than others it might impact your dough or batter. However, chilling the dough for a while in the fridge will help prevent this separation.
Peanuts with additional fat
In order to stabilize that fat manufacturers realized they could add another solid fat to help prevent those particles from settling out. We’ve discussed this in a post dedicated on the topic before so won’t dive into the details here. You will recognize these peanut butters by the addition of a fat to the label aside from the peanuts.
If liquid oil splits from the peanut butter it does make the peanut more prone to spoilage because of oxidation. The additional fat can therefore extend the shelf life.
Peanut butter with salt
Peanut butter can be stored indefinitely from a food safety perspective. Peanut butter contains so little moisture (very low water activity) that micro organisms cannot grow within (but if they’re already there, they might just survive!). So the addition of salt to your peanut butter is not because of shelf life. Instead, it is there primarily for flavour. Salt is great at enhancing and lifting up flavours and it does just that in peanut butter.
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If you eat the peanut butter as is, peanut butter with salt might just be to your liking. However, if you’re using peanut butter as an ingredients you should consider the salt already present in the peanut butter to balance out the overall recipe.
Peanut butter with sugar
For those sweet lovers there’s also peanut butter with sugar (or molasses). Personally, I really do not like sweetened peanut butter, but it’s a huge part of the peanut butter space in supermarkets so I guess I’m a minority in that regards. So why is sugar added? Two reasons:
- Costs: sugar is cheap, definitely cheaper than peanut butter, adding sugar (and it’s often present in quite high amounts) definitely helps make peanut butter cheaper
- Flavour: some (just not me) prefer the sweeter peanut butter
Again, you can definitely use peanut butter with sugar in most recipes. As with the salt, beware of the sugar already in there. It might make your food overly sweet if the recipe does not call for sweetened peanut butter.
Peanut butter with glycerides
You may have noticed that some peanut butters contain glycerides as well. These molecules help to get the peanut butter and the different fats mixed well together.
Using peanut butter
You can mix in peanut butter with so many different things: cookie dough, ice cream, brownies (see below) and much more! When working with peanut butter though, there are a few things to remember. Peanut butter may seem very fluid and liquid (especially the natural one), but that does not mean there is any moisture in there. Peanut butte ronly contains a little bit of moisture. So if you need moisture for your dough to come together or to form a gluten network, peanut butter is not the solution.
Instead peanut butter contains a lot of fat (often >50%), proteins and some carbohydrates (some sugars, some fibers). If you don’t have enough moisture in the recipe, the peanut butter might actually dry it out a bit more. But, the high fat content will make your products richer and creamier. It will also make them softer. Especially in the case of cookies this might be an important consideration if you’re looking for crispy as opposed to soft cookies. A lot of peanut butter will make the crispy cookie very challenging.
Krampner, J., Creamy and Crunchy: An Informal History of Peanut Butter, the All-American Food, 2014, link