THE WASHINGTON POST – Of the nine major food allergens, two are nuts – specifically peanuts (technically a legume), and tree nuts, including almonds, Brazil nuts, cashews, hazelnuts, pecans, pistachios and walnuts.
(The others are milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, wheat, soybeans and sesame.)
That’s a lot of ground to cover for people with nut allergies, especially because nuts are a common ingredient in all sorts of sweet and savoury recipes.
The good news: “When it comes to cooking and baking, nuts are the easiest thing to replace” to account for allergies, says Elizabeth Pecoraro, a registered dietitian and author of “The Allergy-Friendly Cookbook.”
Before you start making any changes, ask what the nuts are doing in the recipe. Are they an add-in or garnish? Are they used as a butter and folded into a filling or ground to serve as the base of a sauce? How they are used will affect how they are – or aren’t – replaced.
Also important, particularly if you are baking for someone else: Check the labels of the ingredient you’re using instead.
While labels must indicate whether the food includes one of the common allergens, saying whether they are processed in facilities that also handle nuts is voluntary.
If you’re looking at a recipe that calls for nuts that you or your guests can’t have, here are your options for alternatives. Pecoraro suggests substituting using the same volume measurement called for in the recipe.
Nuts are often interchangeable in recipes, which is great if you can have some but not all types. Pecoraro says she encourages people to not eliminate all nuts as a blanket rule if you are not allergic to them all.
Work with your allergist to figure out which are problematic for you and which are okay.
For example, Pecoraro notes that while pistachio and cashew allergies often go together, almonds may be fine. And a lot of people who are allergic to nuts may be able to have pine nuts, which are actually seeds.
Again, figuring out what you can and can’t have should be done with professional guidance, and if you are cooking for someone else with nut allergies or for an unknown group, it’s safest to just leave them out or find a substitute.
“If you’re taking away a nut, the best thing to substitute is a seed,” Pecoraro says.
Seeds are an ideal swap because they offer similar crunch, protein and, well, nutty flavour, especially when toasted. They are also often around the same size as small nuts or chopped larger nuts, meaning they will incorporate into a dough or batter similarly.
Like nuts, seeds contain fat, in the form of oil, so they also offer richness and heft, especially when blended into something like a pesto or romesco sauce. Embrace such seeds as sunflower, pumpkin and winter squash (i.e. butternut) in granola, cookies, muffins, cakes and brittle.
Flax and chia are other seeds that can work well. Speaking of granola, that blend of oats and other add-ins also makes a nice, crunchy substitute, Pecoraro says, as long as you use a nut-free version (easier with homemade).
Pecoraro also likes roasted or fried beans as nut substitutes. Consider crispy chickpeas, store-bought or homemade, as well as crunchy legumes such as moong dal or other lentils you might find on their own or as part of a snack mix at Indian markets.
Pretzels are another crunchy, salty possibility, Pecoraro says.
Other butters or pastes
There are plenty of different types of nut butters and pastes, but which you go with depends on how many different allergies you’re dealing with. If you’re only allergic to peanuts, then almond and cashew butters are great substitutes.
Tahini, assuming there are no sesame allergies, can stand in for nut butters, too.
To avoid all nuts and sesame, check out sunflower butter, pumpkin seed butter or soy butter (as long as there are no issues with soy!). Swapping around nut butters works well in a variety of dishes, such as sauces, cookie dough, frostings or pie fillings.
If nuts are folded into a baked good, such as cookies, muffins and quick bread, consider dried fruit. Of course, the texture and flavour will be different – chewier and sweeter – but in these kinds of foods, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Smaller varieties, such as raisins, cranberries and currants, won’t need much done to them. Otherwise, you may want to consider chopping apricots, prunes and cherries to more closely match the size of the nut called for.
Want something with extra zing? Crystallized ginger will work and maintains its firmer texture even after baking. Dried fruit will generally not throw off the moisture balance of your typical bakes.
The only situation where this might need some tweaking is bread. If you are using a healthy amount of dried fruit instead of nuts, you may wish to first plump up the fruit in water or another liquid of your choice (tea, juice, etc) so that it doesn’t suck too much moisture out of the dough.
Like dried fruit, chocolate will provide a different experience than nuts, but as long as you’re okay with that, go for it.
Use chocolate chips or chopped bars depending on what you have and what you like; chips will hold their shape a little better. You can seek out allergy-friendly chocolate brands, including Pascha and Enjoy Life.
For extra crunch, particularly as a garnish, I adore crunchy chocolate pearls, which feature chocolate surrounding crisped rice cereal, but Enjoy Life offers a crunchy rice candy bar that is allergy-friendly.
No substitute at all!
So often nuts are featured as a garnish or as what bakers call an inclusion, in which they serve as an add-in stirred into cookies, cakes, bread, etc. These are pretty easy situations in which you can just leave out the nuts and move on.
Eliminating the nuts might give you a little less batter or dough to work with, which will primarily affect the yield of such treats as cookies or muffins.
The bake time should not be majorly impacted, though as always, you should pay attention to the cues in a recipe that cover the appearance and texture of a finished bake rather than just the time. – Becky Krystal