Ask Peter: Alternatives to ground almond
Is there an alternative to ground almonds in baking? I make a lot of ground almond-based cakes but live rurally and sometimes have none on hand. I know the answer is to make something different, and that’s what I do, but I have been wondering if something else would do the same thing, ground hazelnuts for example. I don’t want to waste ingredients on experimenting and am hoping you can set me right.
I guess in order to answer your question I’d need to know whether you have a gluten allergy, which is why you are only using ground almonds.
If you do, then other ground nuts work almost the same. The best nuts as an alternative would be blanched (skinless) hazelnuts as they also have a mild flavour, like almonds, and so the flavour of the finished dish wouldn’t be adversely affected.
Cashews, macadamias and blanched peanuts are also quite mild. Walnuts and pecans are good, but they are stronger tasting and to make a pale “grind” you need to take their skins off and this is nigh on impossible with the latter.
Pistachios and brazil nuts can also be used but one will give you a green colour and the other will be harder to source than almonds.
The other thing to bear in mind is that grinding nuts to the same consistency as ground almonds is a little tricky. Almond flour/meal is made by grinding the blanched nuts to a fairly fine texture and though this sounds simple enough, it is also a little tricky. If nuts are over-ground they begin to become a nut butter. Peanut butter, after all, is made by simply grinding peanuts to the point that the “flesh” becomes so fine it forms a paste and then the lovely “butter” that we like.
In the past, when I haven’t had ground almonds, I have fairly successfully used flaked almonds which I whizz up in a coffee grinder in small batches. You’re best to freeze the nuts for an hour before doing this, as they are less likely to form a paste, and also to do it in small amounts or the centre of the grinder will create a butter before you know it. You can also do it using a food processor but you’ll need to be grinding at least 250g almonds to have any real effect at making it fine enough.
Another alternative is coconut flour, and in some recipes semolina or flour — but in order to understand how these will affect the final dish you need to understand the nature of nuts vs flour. Flour is made of around 85 per cent carbohydrates (which helps hold the cake, sauce, muffin together and make it firm) and only 1-2 per cent fat. Fat will not give form or strength to a cake — it’ll add richness but not the ability for the cake to remain firm.
Almonds, on the other hand, are around 23 per cent fat and only 2 per cent carbohydrate. This means a cake made from almonds vs flour will be richer, denser, heavier and more crumbly.
To make it easier to understand, you can make a simple pikelet from mixing milk with flour and baking powder and then frying spoonfuls of the batter. If you simply replaced the flour with almonds you’d have a disaster. Because there are almost no carbohydrates or starch in the nuts there is nothing to bind the mixture together, which is why nut cakes will often have eggs or tofu (high in protein) pureed into them to give the cake stability.
Having said all that, you can of course substitute other nuts for the almonds, but be aware of the impact on colour or flavour you might end up with. It’ll take a little jiggling as each nut is different. As a comparison, macadamias have more than three times the amount of fat, around 80 per cent, and four times the carbs at 8 per cent. So, not every nut will work the same.
And finally, the freezer may well be your best friend. Nuts freeze really well, so I’d suggest you buy the freshest nuts you can find in bulk, ground or otherwise, seal them as airtight as possible and take them out as and when you need them. You’ll never need to worry about running out again.
Ground almonds are used in the Fleurieu quince and almond cake, photographed at the top of the page. Pears can be used in place of quince.
In our Ask Peter series, executive chef Peter Gordon answers your curly culinary questions. If you're stumped over something food-related, send your question to email@example.com and keep checking in for answers. You can read more on Peter on his website, have a read of his Ask Peter articles or check out his recipes here.