Here’s Why You Might Love Almonds, But Hate Almond Extract
An examination of what this most divisive flavoring is actually made of.
There’s a lot to love about almonds. They’re decently nutritious, and lower in unsaturated fat than other nuts, like cashews—and often cheaper, too; they offer a satisfying crunch, unlike softer nuts such as macadamias; and they can function as the perfect portable, non-perishable, non-squishable snack that can be squirreled away in a desk drawer or at the bottom of a backpack for future hangry emergencies. Yet where raw almonds are nearly universally praised, their extract counterpart is wildly divisive. If you’re one of the folks who loves almonds, but inexplicably finds yourself wrinkling your nose up at baked goods perfumed with almond extract, the simple reason might be that almond extract is often commercially made from the inside of peach pits, not almonds at all.
What Even Is an Almond?
Although we colloquially call almonds “nuts,” they’re actually seeds that originate inside a tree fruit. In contrast, a true nut, like a chestnut or an acorn, is contained inside a hard shell. You’d be forgiven for not knowing this about almonds because they’re almost always sold without their outer, fruity skin. But when they grow on trees, they visually resemble stone fruits—more broadly known as “drupes,” which covers any fruits that have fleshy exteriors with a single shell or pit inside, containing a seed. The almond fruit has a leathery outer texture that goes from green to beige as it ripens, and has that characteristic fissure running down the side, conjuring the peach emoji. Inside this fruit is the seed that we know as an edible nut. When almond trees bloom, their flowers even look quite like the blossoms of cherries, another drupe.
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If you want to get even more specific about it and tap into your inner botanist: Almonds are part of the genus Prunus, which also includes peaches, apricots, plums, cherries, and nectarines. Next time you get your hands on a stone fruit, first, enjoy your juicy snack, and then, before you toss the pit, crack it open and have a peak at the seed inside that you probably never even knew was there. You’ll be staring down the almond nut’s evil twin.
Seeds from drupes like peaches and apricots are used to make almond extract because they’re a cheap byproduct of ubiquitous fruits that are often broken down and processed for other types of food, like peach yogurt or apricot jam. All those drupe pits hiding their almond-like seeds are destined for trash, unlike actual almonds, which are sold at a premium.
To make almond extract, you just need water, alcohol, and bitter almond oil. The most important component of that last ingredient is a chemical called benzaldehyde. It chiefly imparts a strong almond flavor and is found in all drupe seeds—hence the drupe dupe that almond extract is able to pull off. (Artificial almond extract is another thing altogether. It’s made from synthetic benzaldehyde, produced in a lab.)
But none of this quite explains why the flavor of almond extract is so particularly irksome to some people. When taste-testing almond extracts, Cook’s Illustrated came to the interesting conclusion that the only extract at the table made at least partly from actual almonds was “too mild,” and they ranked it last among the four brands being tasted. In contrast, they deemed the other three extracts, made from other stone fruit seeds, as “bold” and “potent,” and they were ranked higher.
When you think about eating a straight, blanched almond as a snack, it’s easy to eat handfuls in one sitting precisely because they do have such a subdued nutty flavor. It’s possible that less is more with almond flavor. What some people find distasteful about almond extract, which in most cases is made from the other Prunus seeds, is simply that its mega-almond flavor goes one step too far from a good thing. People who generally dislike almond extract, but like almonds, may actually find solace in the mild brand that Cook’s Illustrated ranked last.
What’s In an Extract?
While we’re on the topic of extracts in general, there are not only some misunderstandings about variations in what they can be made of but also about what qualifies as a “good” extract worth using. Vanilla is such a ubiquitous flavor that even the most casual bakers are likely to have some in their pantry. Some people rely on commonplace brands like McCormick, while others splurge for the artisanal, glass bottle option, Nielsen-Massey. But ask any of those people if they would ever deign to use imitation vanilla flavoring, and most will suddenly turn into extract snobs.
Yet, as culinary historian Sarah Lohman wrote in her book Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine, there is in fact a time and place for the imitation version. As with almond extract, one chemical is primarily responsible for the familiar vanilla flavor, and this one’s easy to remember: it’s called vanillin. While pure vanilla extract comes with a whole parade of other compounds that help it convey complex vanilla flavor, vanillin can take you most of the way to the basic flavor finish line on its own.
As it turns out, imitation vanilla extracts, which rely on a synthetic version of this chemical to do their jobs, work better in baked goods like cakes and cookies, because all of those other non-vanillin compounds that theoretically impart complexity in the “pure” extracts totally bake off in high heat. So, despite your best intentions, you’ll actually end up with a duller flavor profile in a cookie if you use the good stuff, versus the more true vanilla flavor you get when using the imitator. Lohman recommends saving the expensive pure extracts for lower-temperature pursuits like custards, ice creams, and puddings—or better yet, spring for some vanilla beans for these deserts, if you can swing it.
Do Your Research
The truth about almond extract might be good news for folks with almond allergies because there are often no real almonds involved, but it’s important to double and triple check with each specific manufacturer you encounter since there is so much variation, and, frustratingly, very opaque labeling. Most brands universally list “bitter almond oil” as an ingredient, whether or not it came from an almond seed or a peach seed. But on the flipside, if you have any stone fruit allergies and have been eating almond-extract-laden desserts with wild abandon, you may want to be more careful. In the end, as with any ingredient sourcing, take the time to do your research and learn more about what you’re really buying and eating, even if you think it’s obvious from the name on the label.