Published March 1, 2011. From Cook's Illustrated.
“Natural” peanut butter used to mean an oil slick on top and a texture so stiff you could stand a stick in it. Is the new breed of butters any better? And what exactly makes them “natural”?
Selecting a jar of peanut butter never used to be complicated. Once you aligned yourself with either the creamy or the crunchy camp, you had two basic choices: conventional peanut butters made with hydrogenated oil and other additives, or the barely processed versions containing just nuts and maybe a pinch of salt. In the past, we’ve been firm believers in the conventional kind. As much as we might like the idea of a healthier spread made only with ground-up nuts, we’ve found that these generally offer the texture of Spackle and a taste sorely in need of added salt and sweeteners—and yes, hydrogenated fat. (Let’s be clear: Hydrogenated fat is not the same as partially hydrogenated fat, a trans fat that we all want to avoid.)
But these days it seems as though manufacturers have literally gone nuts, cramming supermarket shelves with not only the familiar options, but also everything else they can think of to increase market share. You’ll find organic varieties; reduced-fat specimens; sea-salt, no-salt, and low-salt versions; and omega 3–enriched spreads—not to mention “no-stir,” “honey-roasted,” and “whipped” styles. From our vantage point, the most intriguing development has been the proliferation of peanut butters now declaring themselves “natural.” Would these spreads offer a taste and texture good enough to lure us away from the “unnatural” conventional butters made with hydrogenated oil?
To answer that question, we went to the supermarket and came home with a staggering number of peanut butters—15 creamy spreads and 13 crunchy ones. We separated out the crunchy butters for their own tasting and then proceeded to whittle the creamy ones down to a more manageable number in a series of preliminary tasting rounds. The final lineup boasted four representatives from the conventional category, five brands with “natural” in their names, and one organic style.
Before dipping in our spoons, we spun the jars around to examine their contents. We were immediately disabused of any notion that “natural” on the label meant bare-bones peanuts. Only one jar contained just peanuts (and less than 1 percent salt). The other four included some of the same additives found in conventional butters, including sweeteners and salt, as well as molasses and even flax seed oil. But instead of hydrogenated fat, they contained palm oil.
The prevalence of palm oil in the so-called natural butters (the organic brand contained it, too) made us curious, so we did a little research. It turns out that because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t regulate the term “natural,” manufacturers can literally put almost anything in the jar and still use that label. It also turns out that in terms of saturated fat, palm oil is as much of a culprit as hydrogenated oil. Palm oil, in fact, is made up of about 55 percent saturated fat. When we examined their nutrition labels again, we found that most of the “natural” peanut butters made with this oil contained at least 3 grams of saturated fat per serving—the same amount as conventional spreads made with hydrogenated oil. Bottom line: If a “natural” peanut butter has palm oil in it, it probably doesn’t belong in the health food aisle any more than a conventional peanut butter does. (It’s worth noting that a pure peanut butter may not be all that deserving of a spot there either. The closest thing to an additive-free spread in our lineup contains 2.5 grams of saturated fat per serving.)
But the real question before us was how these palm-oil products would taste—and spread—compared with other brands. So we rallied our tasters to sample the peanut butters straight up in a blind tasting; peanut butter cookies and spicy satay sauce would follow later. After everyone put down their spoons, we had one key finding: While some tasters were staunchly in favor of a particular flavor profile—some preferred a sweeter peanut butter, others liked a good hit of salt, and many voted in favor of products that struck a good balance between the two—the bottom line was all about texture. As they had in the past, the creamiest, most spreadable peanut butters—even those with less-than-robust peanut flavor—jumped to the top of the chart. To our surprise, these included not only the conventional butters but a couple of the “natural” styles as well.
At the same time, samples that were gritty and sludgy, dribbly and goopy, or too sticky were panned, no matter how nutty or well rounded they tasted.
How much would creaminess and peanut flavor matter once the samples were baked into cookies and mixed into satay sauce? Turns out texture was again the number-one factor: Dry, gritty peanut butters made for predictably dry, gritty cookies. And the sauces they made? Unpalatably “stiff” and “pasty.” Meanwhile, creamier samples, particularly the two top-ranking “natural” brands from the plain tasting, turned out cookies with “nice softness” and “satisfying chew,” along with sauces with such good consistency that tasters were happy to “eat them by the spoonful.”
That said, one brand, whose “runny,” “mouth-coating” texture stranded it near the bottom rungs in the plain tasting, actually took bronze in the cookie round, where its more fluid composition lent moisture to the dough and turned out “sturdy” yet “pleasantly soft” cookies. Furthermore, the satay sauce brought out a flaw in the winner of our plain tasting—namely that its somewhat “muted” peanut flavor became even more faded in the presence of spicy ingredients and tart lime juice.
When we tallied our final results, nobody was especially surprised by the overall champ. As it had when we evaluated peanut butters in both 2001 and 2006, a regular old hydrogenated oil–based spread took top honors for a supremely “smooth,” “creamy” texture that even made up for what a few tasters deemed a “slightly weak” nutty flavor. Nor were we particularly stunned when the only truly additive-free peanut butter in the bunch (not counting its tiny bit of salt) fell to the bottom of the rankings due to a texture that tasters deemed “inedible” and, when baked into cookies, as intractable as a “hockey puck.”
What did surprise us, however, was that a very close runner-up was one of two palm oil–based peanut butters to make the “recommended” list. Like our winner, it garnered praise for a “wonderfully” smooth texture. Tasters also praised its “dark-roast-y” flavor, which we attribute in part to the inclusion of molasses, an ingredient common to three out of our five favorite peanut butters (and absent in four of the five lower-ranking contenders). Like the other favored palm-oil brand, it’s not actually a peanut butter but a “spread.” By FDA regulations, if a product has less than 90 percent peanuts and more than 55 percent fat, it must be labeled a “spread.” Nomenclature aside, the extra fat in this brand may have contributed to a creaminess on a par with the test kitchen favorite, even in the absence of hydrogenated fat.
Maybe someday manufacturers will figure out a way to make an übercreamy, full-flavored peanut butter with just the nuts. In the meantime, we’ll be making our PB&Js with our longtime favorite.
(Our peanut butter taste test has received an overwhelming response from passionate peanut butter fans. We’ve also received so many questions that we have decided to share our responses to the most frequently asked questions in the related how-to-cook, FAQ: Peanut Butter Tasting.)