Pastry chefs on a budget often turn to a product called "kernel paste" as a substitute for the costlier almond paste. It's made from the kernels of apricots, which are closely related to almonds. Apricot kernels have a milder version of bitter almonds' distinctive aroma, used to make almond extract. You can eat the kernels as a nut, but only when roasted.
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Almonds, apricots and peaches are all close kin, with peaches and apricots valued primarily for their fruit, and almonds for their seeds. There are two broad varieties of almonds. Sweet almonds are the ones eaten as nuts, while bitter almonds are used purely as a flavoring. That's because bitter almonds have very high levels of a natural cyanide compound called amygdalin, and the same is true of apricot kernels.
Raw Apricot Kernels
Find raw almond kernels from some bulk food stores and online sources, and a few health enthusiasts advocate for eating them in moderation as a natural treatment for some illnesses including cancer. The practice is controversial and has little proven benefit. It's also dangerous, because apricot kernels vary widely in cyanide content; individuals vary just as widely in their sensitivity to cyanide. It's entirely possible for one person to eat a fistful of kernels without incident, while a second person might die or display symptoms of serious cyanide poisoning from eating just one or two.
Roasted Apricot Kernels
Making the kernels safe to eat, or to process into a substitute for almond paste, requires heat. The kernels must be roasted at a temperature of 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 10 minutes, in their shells, then cracked and returned to the oven for 5 more minutes. Aside from destroying the amygdalin, the roasting process gives the kernels a crisp texture and toasty flavor reminiscent of sweet almonds. Use the roasted kernels as a substitute for almonds in both sweet and savory recipes.
Roasting is the most common technique for rendering apricot kernels safe, but simmering them in water is also a viable alternative. Cyanide compounds are water soluble, so simmering them for at least 20 minutes in near-boiling water will extract the toxin from apricot kernels. Once drained and dried, the kernels can be blanched, ground, sliced or otherwise processed for culinary purposes.
- On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen; Harold McGee
- Canadian Food Inspection Agency: Natural Toxins in Fresh Fruit and Vegetables
- Photo Credit Eising/Photodisc/Getty Images