James Beard Award-winning Cookbook Author

Unplugged: Back to the Old Grind

Originally posted on February 4, 2013
in Baking equipment

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I’m a great fan of kitchen gadgets, especially those I don’t have to plug in.  I would be lost without my whisks, granny fork, instant-read thermometer and nut grinder.  What’s a nut grinder? It’s a rotary hand-cranked device you clamp to the side of a table that does a superb job of turning nuts into a fine dry powder.  Many European cakes (tortes) use ground almonds, walnuts, or hazelnuts, and the only way to achieve the proper texture is to grind the nuts with a nut grinder.  A food processor just doesn’t hack it. I got hooked on nut grinders while baking my way through Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Desserts (Knopf, 1974). Back then I could order a nut grinder from Williams-Sonoma.  In Maida’s book she even had a sketch of one.  Nowadays nut grinders are hard to find, unless you visit European cookery web sites.

When the food processor began occupying a prominent place in home kitchens, cooks started using it to grind nuts.  In the nineteen eighties I traveled the country as national spokesperson for Cuisinarts, Inc. and taught cooking classes using the machine, but I rarely ground nuts unless they were combined with other ingredients in a spread or dip.

Why? Because the food processor couldn’t achieve the fluffy, powdery texture a flourless nut cake demanded.  No matter what I did—processing small batches, freezing the nuts first, or grinding the nuts with some of the sugar—the nuts always had a pebbly texture.  And I didn’t want pebbly, I wanted powdery!

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Here’s a comparison between the un-ground walnuts and those put through a nut grinder.

So what’s the answer if you want ground nuts that are the right texture for baking? Many supermarkets and health food stores today sell packages of pre-ground nuts—all nice and powdery.  I’ve found ground almonds either with or without their skins and hazelnuts.  The finer the grind, the better. I’ve not seen ground walnuts, but they may exist in other markets.  These pre-ground nuts are quite pricey, and they’re perishable.  So be sure to freeze what you don’t use and thaw completely before adding to a recipe.

In the meantime, if you want to have your very own nut grinder, ask a specialty gourmet shop to order one for you.  They are available through various European manufacturers.  Another alternative is to search eBay.  I’ve had great luck finding them there.  Just be sure to check on the size of the rotary drum.  It should be about 3 inches in diameter, and the whole nut grinder should stand about 12 inches tall.

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Here’s a side view of the rotary drum.  This nut grinder is basically a large version of the classic hand-held Mouli grater.

Do you have a nut grinder?  If so, do you use it often?

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