Creamy peanut butters may corner the market, but the crunchy variety has inspired its own loyal following among those who crave a bit of texture. We keep the crunchy variety on hand when we want peanut pieces, such as in our recipes for Peanut Sauce and Big, Super-Nutty Peanut Butter Cookies.
Every major peanut butter brand that makes a creamy peanut butter also manufactures a crunchy version. But are these just the same peanut butters with a handful of peanut chunks thrown in, or are they a different breed entirely? To find out, we tried nine crunchy peanut butters, priced from $2.69 to $6.91 per jar ($0.17 to $0.27 per ounce), in three blind tastings: plain, in peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and in peanut butter cookies.
As we learned in our creamy peanut butter tasting, supermarket varieties fall into three categories. The first are those made with hydrogenated vegetable oil and sugar. This group includes the classic versions from familiar brands such as Skippy, Jif, and Peter Pan. Next are peanut butters that swap hydrogenated oils for palm oil and are often labeled “natural.” (Hydrogenated oils are chemically treated to be solid at room temperature, while palm oil is naturally solid at room temperature, hence the term “natural.”) This category includes Skippy Natural, Jif Natural, and Peter Pan Natural. The final category is peanut butters made with just peanuts and salt, with no added oils or sugar, such as Adams, Teddie, and Smuckers. These products are also labeled “natural.”
Regardless of category, all peanut butter starts the same way: Peanuts are shelled, roasted, salted, and then ground until they become a paste. Products made from just peanuts and salt stop at this step (and consequently need to be stirred to incorporate the natural peanut oils with the solids that have separated). Other brands add sugar for sweetness and oil—either hydrogenated oil or palm oil—to keep the peanut butter homogeneous, so no stirring is required. These hydrogenated oil and palm oil products have a characteristic fluffy, almost whipped texture.
Once all the results were tallied, it was clear that what mattered to our tasters in creamy peanut butter also determined their preferences for the crunchy variety. Tasters again preferred the hydrogenated oil peanut butters, followed by the palm oil products, and lastly those made from just peanuts and salt. We looked at nutritional labels and found that all the crunchy peanut butters sported almost the same fat and sugar levels as their creamy versions. In fact, they appeared to be the same products with just a few nuts thrown in.
We favored peanut butters with added oil for their thicker, more uniform texture, which is spreadable right out of the jar. Products made from just peanuts and salt were runny, grainy, and thin, even after we stirred them. Tasters particularly disliked how they made our sandwich bread soggy; we preferred the substantial, even texture of peanut butter with added oil.
Tasters also liked a good balance of salt and sugar. There is some natural sugar in peanuts, but both the hydrogenated oil and the palm oil peanut butters have more in the form of granulated sugar and/or molasses. These products all had 3 grams of sugar per tablespoon of peanut butter, compared to just 1 to 2 grams in the simple peanuts-and-salt varieties, for a “classic” and “balanced” flavor that kept the peanut butter from tasting too savory and one-note. Most of these products also had a bit more salt—as much as 125 milligrams of sodium versus 100 milligrams or less in those that fell to the bottom of our rankings. The added salt helped counter the sweetness and enhanced the natural nuttiness of the peanut butter.
We know from previous tastings that the amount of saturated fat in peanut butter can impact the texture of baked goods, and in the case of cookies, it can cause them to spread. Because of this, we usually prefer peanut butters with a moderate amount of saturated fat for cookies that spread modestly and bake up chewy in the middle and crisp at the edges without being too cakey or firm. However, we didn’t notice as much difference in cookie spread in this tasting as we have in previous peanut butter tastings. This was likely because the recipe we used (our only cookie recipe that calls for crunchy peanut butter) already has a large amount of saturated fat in the form of butter—almost double the amount of butter in our other peanut butter cookie recipes. As a result, the comparably small amounts of saturated fat in the peanut butter likely made less of a difference in the overall cookie spread.
Instead, when it came to cookie texture, it was all about feeling the crunch. Some cookies were barely crunchy at all, with tiny nut pieces. Tasters thought products with a lot of chunks made the best, most substantial, and most peanutty-tasting cookies.
The same was true of the plain and peanut butter and jelly sandwich tastings. Our panel wanted to feel the crunch and gave the highest scores to chunkier peanut butters. To get a read on how many peanut chunks were actually in each product, we weighed the contents of one jar of each peanut butter, placed the peanut butter in a colander, and used hot water to rinse away the butter until only the crunchy peanut pieces remained. We allowed the peanut pieces to dry, weighed them, and used the measurement to calculate what percentage of each product was actually peanut pieces.
The peanut butters ranged from 11 to 24 percent peanut pieces; on the high end were products that stated “extra crunchy” or “super chunk” on their labels. While we initially thought these were just marketing terms, it turns out that products that used them were indeed chunkier. These peanut butters had about ¼ cup more peanut pieces per 16-ounce jar than bottom-ranked products.
Crunchier wasn’t always better, though. Tasters docked one product for being too crunchy and for making cookies that were hard to chew. Here, it came down to the size of the pieces. This product had a plethora of large pieces that measured up to ½ inch wide. Our favorites had small, chewable pieces of about ¼ inch or less.
Ultimately, we found that most of the qualities that make a great creamy peanut butter hold true for crunchy peanut butters, too: hydrogenated oil for smooth, homogeneous texture; plenty of salt; and a generous helping of sugar. Made of 22 percent peanut pieces for a hearty crunch, our favorite was Skippy Super Chunk Peanut Butter ($2.89 per 16.3-ounce jar), from the brand that also makes our winning creamy peanut butter.