By Steven Edholm
NOTE: Bay nuts must be properly roasted to be edible to humans. In spite of our best efforts to the contrary, we still commonly encounter people who are not roasting their bay nuts properly. Most commonly, the nuts are not dried before roasting. The second most common problem is roasting too cool. The toxicity of unroasted bay nuts is unknown, but they are probably not good for you. A tickling irritation in the back of the throat, almost like a burning sensation, is indicative of inadequate roasting. Please read and follow directions.)
Bay nut season is early this year. I usually find myself harvesting them around thanksgiving, but they’re dropping all over the place and have been for a while. Roasting bay nuts in an oven is tricky. They require very frequent stirring and because it is only practical to stir the nuts every 2 to 3 minutes, they often roast unevenly. It has always been my feeling that the nuts should be kept in more or less continuous motion in order to roast more evenly, just as when roasting coffee. I’ve even thought about approaching a coffee roasting company to see if I could try using their equipment, or maybe building some type of makeshift roaster that would keep the beans moving constantly.
Last year we acquired a popcorn popper here at Turkeysong for roasting coffee beans. This is the type with a crank handle on top and a wire inside that stirs the popcorn. They work really great for popcorn and roasting coffee beans. I’ve used it a number of times now to roast bay nuts, and it seems to work really well. At this point I'm fairly well convinced that it works better than the oven. A reader also contacted us recently saying that he has been using one too and liked the results, so I think we’re all on to something.
Here are some thoughts and observations on using the popper. Don't forget to roast dried nuts only (that means the nut inside the shell is dry and somewhat hard, not rubbery or flexible).
*Stir the nuts constantly. The burners on my small stove are weak, but it still seems to get extremely hot in the popper. I think it's good to tone it down a little as the roasting progresses. I start on high, (which is not that high on my stove) then turn them down to medium, or medium low at around 6 to 7 minutes when they are really starting to roast and smoke. They should still roast hot for the finish, and should still be smoking lightly to moderately the whole time . With my set up, roasting a pint in the popper takes about 13 to 15 minutes. Don't use that as strict guideline, but you see what I'm getting at. It is important not to roast too cool. Our observation so far is that a high temperature really seems to help in driving off the volatile constituents that make bay nuts inedible when raw. If it takes under 12 minutes, you're probably running a little hotter than you need to. If it takes over 15 minutes, you're probably running a little cool.
*Once the nuts are nearly done, they finish roasting (or burning) extremely fast! The difference between roasted and burnt, may be less than a minute. This is one reason I like to turn down the heat a bit, in order to have a longer window for deciding when they are done. Either way, check the nuts very frequently by cracking one open to observe the color, and remove to cool in a basket as soon as they are done and not a second longer. Color can range from light brown, like coffee with a little cream, to dark brown. If not roasted enough, they the volatile oils will tickle and irritate the back of your throat.
*How many nuts to roast at once? I’m still testing out this factor, but for now I’m sticking with about a double layer maximum. In a big popper, that’s actually a lot of nuts. For personal use, less than a full layer is still going to be a lot of nuts.
*The poppers vary a great deal in build quality. The one we have at Turkeysong now is a stainless steel unit called... are you ready? The Sweet and Easy Snack Machine. The build quality is very good. It is heavy gauge stainless. The lid can be a bit of a pain to take on and off, but otherwise, I’m fairly happy with it. If you want a quality popper to use for popcorn and coffee too, I guess I’d recommend it, but with some reservations. If you read reviews on amazon, not everyone is happy with this unit. Most of them are aluminum, which is not very suitable for direct contact with food like popcorn and coffee beans scraping around in the bottom. But, if you have a cheap aluminum one already, or can score one at a thrift store or yard sale, I’ll bet it’ll work just fine for bay nuts in the shell.
*The process makes a ton of smoke! Turn on the vent if you have one.
*Remember to observe some basic rules of roasting bay nuts.
>Dry the nuts first!
>Roast in the Shell
>Roast pretty hot, should be smoking a fair amount
>Roast small quantities to use soon, and keep the roasted nuts sealed in a jar to prevent staleness.