For people with a peanut allergy, using recipes that traditionally call for peanuts can be tricky. Here are some substitutions that can help.
By Althea Chang-Cook
Growing up in a household where we ate traditional Cantonese cuisine (not your average Chinese takeout) almost every night, peanuts were a staple. Roasted and salted, they were a simple amuse-bouche at restaurants. They were occasionally boiled in soups and added to sticky rice bundles commonly known as zongzi. And being born and raised in the US, it should be no surprise that I was very familiar with the all-American crisscrossed peanut butter cookie.
But as an adult, after being tested for food allergies via a skin-prick test at my allergist’s office, my food options suddenly narrowed. Results showed I’m allergic to peanuts, among a handful of other foods. Since that discovery two decades ago, avoiding peanuts, peanut butter, and peanut oil has remained a challenge. Not every nut mimics the crunch and flavor of peanuts. But it turns out there are some pretty close alternatives.
If you have a newly discovered peanut allergy, or you need to inform family members, friends, roommates, or work colleagues about your allergy, one of the first things to know is that peanuts are not tree nuts. They grow underground and are actually legumes, edible seeds that come in a pod. So why are they even called nuts? Because they’re similar to nuts for culinary and nutritional purposes, according to the Peanut Institute, an industry group.
That’s important to know because it’s possible to have a peanut allergy and not be allergic to tree nuts, and the other way around. So if you are getting tested for food allergies, make sure to get tested for both. Below, we offer some peanut substitute options that are tree nuts, and some that aren’t. Whether they’re tree nuts, legumes, tubers, or seeds, all of them can help you achieve that peanutty texture or flavor you’re looking for.
Handling Peanut Allergy at Home
How exactly to handle a peanut allergy at home depends on the person who’s allergic — and how allergic they are — though it’s always a good idea to consult a doctor for guidance. When it comes to kids, keep in mind that little ones frequently put their hands in their mouths, and that can be problematic.
“Young children who are eating peanut treats throughout the house can leave crumbs wherever they’re eating, and their saliva can also have peanut in it,” says Michael Pistiner, MD, a member of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America’s Medical Scientific Council . At the same time, anyone with a peanut allergy could pick up traces of peanuts that people without a peanut allergy may have left on them or on surfaces around them.
To avoid spreading the allergen around the house, “some families may choose to restrict where peanut is eaten to minimize the risk,” for example, only while sitting down at the kitchen table, says Pistiner, who’s also director of Food Allergy Advocacy, Education , and Prevention at MassGeneral Hospital for Children in Boston.
You may want to banish peanuts from your home entirely. Or you may determine what to allow in your household depending on package labeling. Foods that are made with peanuts have to be clearly labeled as such, according to the Food and Drug Administration, and you should definitely avoid those. Some other labels state that the food “may” have come into contact with peanuts, “may” have trace amounts of peanut, or was processed in a facility that handles peanuts. Such labels are not required by law. But if you see that warning, you may want to skip those foods, especially if your allergy is severe because they could contain enough allergen to trigger a reaction, Pistiner says. Ask your allergy specialist for guidance on what would be best for you.
Whether you decide it’s okay to let people who aren’t allergic to peanuts eat them at home, you want to keep them out altogether, or you just plain don’t like peanuts, there are many alternatives to choose from.
Roasted and crushed edamame can give you a serious crunch you can use to top salads, among other applications.
Photo: Adobe Stock
Roasted beans like edamame or chickpeas can also provide the crunch and protein that you’d get from peanuts.
When it comes to chickpeas, “we toss them in a little bit of oil and some seasonings and just roast them in the oven,” says Mary Schaefer, co-author of “At Home with Your Allergy Chefs,” along with her husband Joel Schaefer. Add a little salt and pepper, or get more zesty with garlic, cumin, turmeric, or other herbs and spices. You can fry chickpeas, air-fry them, bake them, and dehydrate them. But it may take some experimenting, depending on the outcome you’re looking for. One rule of thumb: Less time cooking will yield a crunchy outside and soft inside, and more time will give you a crunch all the way through, Joel Schaefer says.
For recipes that call for boiled peanuts, such as African peanut soup or Indian peanut chaat, beans can also do the trick, says Kathlena Rails, who goes by Kathlena the Allergy Chef and has written several cookbooks, including “The Complete Gluten Free & Allergy Friendly Cooking Book for Young Chefs. ” “Since boiled peanuts have a mushy consistency, replacing them with cannellini or kidney beans could be an option.”
Sunflower seeds can give you a thick, creamy consistency when blended.
Photo: Getty Images
If you want to make peanut-butter-like cookies, you can substitute peanut butter with another nut or seed butter, such as sunflower seed butter. “They’re usually very similar in texture, even if the flavors are slightly different,” says Tiffany Leon, a dietitian and senior manager of training programs at Food Allergy Research & Education, a nonprofit advocacy organization that works to educate and promote awareness of food allergies. If you’re looking for a nutty crunch, you can toast whole sunflower seeds, or, maybe even better, roast them with a little honey.
Pumpkin seeds, also known as pepitas, are also an option. Coarsely ground pepitas can serve as a crunchy topping on salads, noodle or rice dishes, pudding, or other recipes that call for peanuts, says Melanie Carver, the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America’s chief mission officer, who oversees that organization’s community outreach, education , and advocacy.
In some cases — for instance, if you want to replace chopped peanuts meant to be folded into or sprinkled on top of a pastry — seeds may be too small, says Dan Zuccarello, who oversees recipe development for cookbooks published by America’s Test Kitchen. “So in that case, you know something like walnuts that you chop similarly would be a good option,” Zuccarello says. That is, if you’re not allergic to them.
Toasted aromatic seeds such as whole fennel, coriander, or cumin seeds are also worth considering for some dishes, Zuccarello says. Top a creamy soup with toasted fennel seeds, or make a fennel oil with toasted seeds and some olive oil, and spread it over a dish like roasted carrots or other vegetables. But be careful not to add too much, because those flavors can be potent.
Brazil nuts are large tree nuts, but they can be chopped and roasted to achieve a peanutlike size and texture.
Photo: Nikhil V. Patil / Adobe Stock
These large tree nuts can achieve a peanutlike texture, especially when chopped and roasted. They have a mild flavor and big crunch.
“They’re a pretty good substitution, especially since they’re so large and can be cut into a peanutlike size,” Rails says. You can try them in trail mix, or chopped up and mixed into batter for baked goods, or you can toast them and use them to top salad greens and other vegetables.
Pili nuts are versatile tree nuts that, when shelled, provide a flavor that’s close to peanuts.
Photo: Frans Rombout / Adobe Stock
The flavor of pili nuts alone makes them a good substitute for peanuts, Rails says. If you haven’t heard of pili nuts, you’re not alone. One reason these nuts, native to the Philippines, aren’t common in the US could be that they’ve been known as one of the toughest nuts to crack, unless you were a professional wielding a machetelike bolo knife. Luckily, you can now buy them shelled and use them in any recipe that calls for peanuts.
Tiger nuts are actually tubers with a nutty flavor that works for baked goods, but for savory dishes, maybe not so much.
Photo: Getty Images
“Tiger nuts are going to rock your socks,” Rails said when I told her that I’d never heard of them but wanted to try them.
Rails says tiger nut butter, for instance, has such an earthy and nutty flavor that it can be hard to believe tiger nuts are also not real nuts but instead tubers that grow underground. In addition to tiger nut butter, you can find whole tiger nuts, tiger nut flour, and tiger nut oil. Rails says she’s made milk, cheesecake, cookies, cake, muffins, and more using tiger nuts. “Tiger nuts aren’t awesome for savory ingredients, though. You can use a little, but it can’t be the star, ”Rails says.
Other Snack Foods
As long as they don’t soak up wet ingredients too much, pretzels and chips can provide the salt and crunch that peanuts provide in some recipes.
Photo: Jenny Dettrick / Getty Images
The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America lists pretzels as an alternative for topping ice cream or making pierusts that call for peanuts. And if you’re allergic to pecans, they can replace those nuts in a faux pecan pie. Tortilla strips and chips can also be used to add that crunch and salt you’re looking for in a recipe, says Zuccarello at America’s Test Kitchen.
Consider Crunchy Condiments
Chili crisp, which you can buy in a jar or make at home, is all the rage right now, Zuccarello says. This condiment — made with toasted garlic, onion, shallots, or some other dehydrated morsel combined with chunky chili oil — can be used in place of peanuts in some recipes, such as stir-fries and salads, as it “gives you that crunch that’s partly why peanuts are being called for in the first place, ”Zuccarello says.
Replacing Peanut Oil
Peanut oil is known to help fried foods achieve a big crunch. It’s also an oil that has a high smoke point, meaning it won’t burn at high temperatures and can hold up well when cooking at 400 ° F or more. If you’re looking for those results in a replacement for peanut oil, canola oil and tiger nut oil can give you similar results, Rails says, but you might not get the exact outcome you’re looking for. A time-consuming process of double frying might be the best option if that’s the case, she says. That can mean frying your food once, letting it cool, then frying it one more time.
Countertop Tools You Can Use
It can be safer to toast or roast your own peanut substitutes than to buy them that way. After all, when you buy seeds and nuts already roasted, they could have come into contact with peanuts or peanut oil. If you plan on crisping up peanut alternatives at home, it’s important to have the right appliance for the job. For small batches, there’s no need to fire up a full-sized oven. Countertop appliances like air fryers and toaster ovens are compact and use less energy. Here are the top-rated models of each in Consumer Reports’ tests, followed by the best blender and food processor if you’re thinking about making your own nut butter.
Chefman TurboFry Air Fryer 4.5 Quart
Breville Smart Oven Air Convection BOV900BSSUSC
Breville Sous Chef BFP800XL / A
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