What are almonds?
Almonds are the seeds of the deciduous almond tree. It is native to the Middle East, India and North Africa. Its fruit is around 6cm long and consists of a hard hull with the edible seed, what we know as an almond, in a shell inside.
The United States of America is the largest producer of almonds, with most being grown in California. Around 70% of these nuts are exported already shelled.
Interestingly, pollination of the almond trees in California is the largest managed pollination in the world with around one million beehives being taken to the almond groves in February each year when the trees start to flower.
From March to June the almonds start to mature and then in July, the hull starts to open revealing the shell inside. Just before harvest, which takes place from August to October, the hull opens completely. Almond fruits are harvested by mechanical tree shakers that shake them to the ground. They are left to dry for around ten days before being swept into rows and collected by machine.
Next, the fruit passes through rollers to remove its hull, shell and any foreign material. It is then graded according to size. The results are then sold as whole almonds or further processed.
Almonds are light brown on the outside and white inside. They can be blanched (white) or unblanched (natural), whole (shaped like an eye) or chopped, sliced, ground, roasted or unroasted. They can also be made into butter. This is a great ingredient for energy balls as it binds dry nuts and seeds together. Almond flour is also an alternative for people suffering from coeliac disease or trying to avoid wheat.
There are two sorts of almonds, bitter and sweet. Generally, bitter almonds are used to make almond oil, which is used in baking to add an intense flavour, whereas sweet almonds are commonly used in cooking.
Whole almonds can be eaten raw or toasted as a healthy snack or used for decoration on cakes or whole fish. Ground almonds can be substituted for flour in cakes or biscuits to give a dense, moist texture, or they can also be used in savoury dishes to thicken sauces or add texture and flavour.
They are often found in praline, nougat, ice cream, pastry, macaroons and marzipan. And in savoury dishes, they’re ideal for everything from stuffings and salads to curries and tagines.
In energy ball recipes, ground almonds make the balls easier to roll and there’s less need to use a food processor, which means less washing up too! If the almonds are whole, you can crush them with a pestle and mortar or chop them into pieces to blend with wet ingredients.