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Although peanuts (genus Arachis species hypogaea) are considered to be nuts culinary wise, botanically they belong to the legume family Fabaceae which includes other food plants such as beans, lentils, soybeans and peas and ornamental flowers including lupins.


They are also commonly known as groundnuts, earthnuts, goobers, jack nuts, pinders and when still in their shell, monkey nuts.



Origin and History of Peanuts

Peanuts are believed to be of South American origin with archaeological evidence showing that they were cultivated as far back as in prehistoric times in Argentina and Brazil, where the wild strains can still be found, and the Spanish explorers found them on sale in the market places in Mexico by the time they arrived in the early 16th Century. The Portuguese transported peanuts to Africa, and in turn, African slaves popularised them in the USA to where they were transported as slaves.

Although ancient South American Indians were the first to make and eat peanut butter, it was reinvented by a physician in St. Louis c1890 as a health food for the elderly. Around about the same time c1895, Dr. John Kellogg (of cornflakes fame) patented the process of making peanut butter for patients at his Sanatorium in Michigan. In 1903 Ambrose Straub patented a machine for making peanut butter.

Today peanuts are grown throughout the tropics, Asia, Africa, Australia, Southern USA and their native South America, with India and China accounting for over half of the world's production.


Peanut Varieties

For market purposes, there are four basic types of peanuts Runner, Virginia, Spanish and Valencia each of which consist of several "varieties" all grown for their distinct characteristics which make them more suitable for cultivating in different regions.

Runners are largely grown for processing into peanut butter, Virginias for roasting, Spanish which have smaller kernels are mainly used in peanut sweets, snack nuts or peanut butter and Valencias which are very sweet peanuts and are usually roasted and sold in-the-shell.


Cultivation and Processing of Peanuts

The names groundnut and earthnut are derived from the fact that as the pods ripen, they are forced underground. An annual plant, peanut seeds are planted with specialist machinery about 5cm/2-inches deep every 10cm/4-inches in rows about 90cm/three feet apart preferably in sandy calcium-rich soil. Once the plant has flowered, the shells and kernels start to develop after approximately 8 weeks and reach full maturity during the next 10 to 12 weeks.

A mechanical harvester is used which has long blades that run 15cm/6-inches beneath the ground which loosen the plants and cuts the roots. Immediately behind the blades, a shaker lifts the plant from the ground, shakes it then turns it over and replaces in on the earth (peanuts side up) where they are left to dry for a couple of days. The peanuts are then separated from the vine and further mechanically dried usually with hot air blowers transported to peanut mills to be further cured cleaned, stored, or processed in various ways such as oil, roasting, peanut butter production or peanut oil production.

Peanut butter production

Raw shelled peanuts are roasted and cooled, then the skins are removed and sometimes the kernels are split to facilitate the removal the hearts of the peanuts which can be saved to make peanut oil. The peanuts are then ground until very smooth during which process they are heated to about 170F. Emulsifiers are then blended in after which the butter is quickly cooled to below 120F which crystallises the emulsifiers. Chunky peanut butter is made by adding peanut granules to the smooth peanut butter.

Peanut oil production

Peanut oil can be extracted by one of three methods: hydraulic, expeller and solvent. The hydraulic method extracts the oil by means of pressing shelled peanuts under 14,000 psi, whilst adding steam and heat. The Expeller method extracts the oil by means of feeding the peanuts into a grinder then applying pressure, forcing the pulp through a perforated screen which separates the oil from the mass. The solvent method involves the chemical hexane, which is applied to the cracked nuts and which draws out the oil from the nut. The oil-solvent mixture is then heated to about 150C/300F which evaporates the hexane.

Peanuts in cooking

Peanuts are regularly used in many Asian and African cuisines, particularly in savoury dishes such as Satay (sate) and African Peanut Stew. They are an excellent source of extra protein, vitamins B and E and minerals including magnesium, copper, phosphorous, potassium and zinc. They are fast gaining popularity in western savoury dishes as well as being used in the old time favourites such as peanut butter biscuits.

Peanut oil is an ideal oil for cooking because it can be heated to very a high temperature (230C/450F) before it smokes which is hotter than most other cooking oils. This enables food to cook more quickly which absorbs less oil. It has the added bonus of not having a strong flavour plus the fact that it doesn’t take on flavours of food cooked in it and so can be reused without fear of transferring flavours from one food to another.


Happy Cooking!




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