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Freshly roasted cashews — barely colored, just cooled — combine that very soft crunch, exceptional among nuts, with a distinctly buttery and faintly almond flavor, something I had never noticed until I roasted my own. Besides perfect freshness, the advantage to roasting nuts yourself is that you can use as much or little salt as you like, be sure that nothing extraneous has been added, and get the exact degree of roast you want. Roasting your own ought to save money, but online prices for raw and roasted cashews are all over the map, so maybe not.
The cashew tree originated on the northeastern coast of Brazil and now grows in various tropical countries. On the tree, the nuts are very odd looking. A single kernel is enclosed within a curving greenish shell, which protrudes sensually from the bottom of the orange-red, fleshy cashew apple (the fruit’s sweet flesh makes an alcoholic drink). The shell contains a toxic chemical related to the poison in poison ivy, but shelled cashews are safe. To make the shell brittle and easier to remove, the nuts are given a preliminary roasting, so “raw” cashews are not strictly raw. The skin is peeled too. Among the many cultivars, unimproved ones have smaller and apparently tastier nuts, but those aren’t exported.
When you roast cashews yourself, assuming you prefer them salted, the question is how to get the salt to stick. Finer salt clings more easily, and you can easily reduce salt crystals in a mortar, but not that much dry salt will ever stick to dry nuts. Maybe there’s no perfect solution. Coating the hot cashews with a little oil allows the salt granules to cling. Raw cashew oil would be ideal; it’s said to exist but’ve never seen it. I like the oil tactic, but it also works well to spray the hot cashews with a brine, leaving a bit of dry whitish crust. Either way, you can get a strong smack of surface salt. And whatever you do about salt, slower roasting is more even and makes it easier to catch the nuts at the doneness you like.
To roast cashews
water or mild, fresh-tasting oil, such as olive
If you prefer a dry surface, then before you roast, make a strong brine by dissolving 3 tablespoons (60 grams) salt in 1 cup boiling water, let it cool completely. Put it in a spray bottle.
Choose a flat-bottomed container, such as a gratin dish — ceramic is better (the sides of the nuts in contact with metal may darken faster than the rest). Heat the oven to 325° F (165° C) oven, and then place the container in the oven to heat for a few minutes. Then fill it with a single layer of nuts, so they will roast more evenly, since in the oven you can’t continuously stir as a machine would.
Roast the nuts on a middle rack, away from bottom heat, for about 20 minutes, taking the dish from the oven a couple of times to stir — until they reach a pale golden color. (Taken much further, the roast flavors hide the cashew ones.) Spray the nuts with the brine, stirring once or twice, and return them to the oven momentarily to dry, or pour a little olive oil in fine stream over the hot nuts and stir them, add salt and stir again. Cool the nuts at least 15 minutes. If you don’t wait, the interiors of the hot nuts, particularly if you hurry the roast in a hot oven, will be strangely soft.