Toasting Nuts? The Microwave is Your Best Friend

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The microwave is the best tool for toasting nuts. [Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Like good music, a good cookbook should be rewarding every time you open it up. Take Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking, for instance. Every single time I browse through its pages I pick up on something that I totally glossed over the first time around.

Case in point: on page 503 in the section on cooking nuts, he mentions that "They can also be roasted in the microwave oven." Now, I've seen this technique here and there (most recently over at Ideas in Food), but I'd never taken it too seriously. I roasted my nuts the old fashioned way: either in the toaster oven or in a skillet. But both of these standard methods have their drawbacks.

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The oven takes a long time to preheat—even in the toaster oven getting your nuts from the pantry to perfectly roasted can take 15 minutes or more. In a real oven, that time jumps up even higher. A skillet is faster, but it also requires much more attention, with near-constant stirring and tossing if you want to avoid having nuts that look like the ones above: raw in spots and almost black in others.

The microwave, on the other hand, heats quickly, efficiently, and evenly from all directions, and with small items like nuts, can actually cook them from the outside and the inside at basically the same rate.

After a bit of testing I came to realize one thing: toasting in the microwave works, but it's not quite as good as toasting in the oven. While the nuts do fill the kitchen with a nutty, toasted aroma, they just don't get as browned or develop as much flavor.

The problem is that we're used to tasting nuts that have been more thoroughly toasted on the outside than on the inside, as both the oven and a skillet will cook the exteriors faster than the centers.

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The solution? Just help the outsides along a bit by tossing the raw nuts in a bit of oil before placing them on a plate. I add a half teaspoon of neutral vegetable or canola oil to a cup of nuts before spreading it in a single layer on a microwave-safe plate. Microwave the nuts at one-minute intervals, stirring in between until evenly toasted and golden. Depending on the amount of nuts you're working with, this takes between three and eight minutes or so, and the results are more even and better-flavored than anything you can get out of a skillet or toaster oven.