Anyone following California's deepening water crisis has heard about the state's thirsty agriculture industry, which uses 80 percent of the state's water. And they've probably had a crash course in almond farming, which consumes 10 percent of that total all by itself.
The size and impact of California's almond industry has inspired the notion that almond cultivation, encouraged by growing demand, is exacerbating California's water crisis, causing liberal-minded foodies to question their hunger for the Devil's Nuts, as almonds have recently been called, sarcastically, by some who think the demonization of almonds is overblown.
Almond milk is often singled out as particularly evil, as it not only is made of almonds, but much of the Devil's Nut, including most of its fiber, is wasted as pulp in the process of making it. The fact that the finished product is mostly water adds insult to the perceived injury.
I don't buy the idea that cutting down on almond intake will solve the water crisis. As Nathaneal Johnson has pointed out at grist.org, the root of the crisis is that water is too cheap, and allowing the price of water to rise to its fair value is the solution. Raising the price of water would compel farmers (and lawn owners) to cut back on water waste, and even switch to less thirsty crops, or crops that are valuable enough to justify the expense of watering them. Perhaps in such a scenario, it would no longer make sense to raise, say, carrots in California, as they can be grown in every other state. Almonds, on the other hand, grow particularly well in the Golden State relative to most other places, which is why 80 percent of the world's almonds are Californian by birth. The extent to which almonds can remain a viable crop with more expensive water remains to be seen.
In any case, almonds are a treasure and deserve our utmost appreciation—
In this spirit, here are some tricks to help you extend the benefits you get from the almonds you eat, in terms of both their flavor and nutritional value. First and foremost, soak the almonds until they sprout. This activates enzymes and makes the seed's nutrients more biologically available while improving the flavor. And the other trick, counterintuitively, is to dehydrate the sprouted almonds until they're dry, crunchy and even tastier.
Whether your final goal is a glass of almond milk, a smear of almond butter or just a yummy, nutritionally enhanced almond snack, sprouting should always be your first step toward almond appreciation. And the first step in sprouting almonds is finding almonds that will sprout, i.e. almonds that are still alive.
This can be tricky. Toasted almonds are out, as the heat kills the seed (almonds are not actually nuts, but the seed of small, apricot-like stone fruits), preventing it from sprouting.
Only raw almonds will sprout, but since 2007 California-grown almonds sold as "raw" must be sanitized. This sanitization is accomplished via two means, only one of which, steam pasteurization, results in sproutable almonds. The other method, treatment with a chemical called propylene oxide (PPO), kills the seed. Since PPO is not permitted on certified organic foods, raw organic almonds from California will have been steam pasteurized and thus should sprout. Alternatively, raw almonds from Italy or Spain, which are commonly available, will usually sprout.
Use a teaspoon of salt and a quart of water for each cup of almonds you soak. After only a moment's contact with water, there is an immediate perceptible change as the skin soaks up water, which adds juiciness to each bite. After a night's soak, they become plump and soft. The skin will slip off with an easy pinch between your fingers. The flesh assumes a supple quality with a coconut-like flavor.
At this point, if you don't just scarf the whole batch then and there, you can change the water and continue soaking, which will allow the sprouting process to continue.
If your final goal is almond milk, pour off the water and add the nuts to a blender, with 3 to 4 cups of water for every cup of dry almonds you started with, and blend until it's a milky, chunk-free liquid. Some people enhance the flavor of their almond milk by adding dates or vanilla to the blender. Strain the resulting slurry through a mesh bag or a nut milk bag if you have one—they can be found online. You can also refrain from straining out this pulp in order to reduce waste.
If you are looking to make almond butter, or crunchy sprouted almonds, the next step is to dehydrate the almond sprouts. If making sprouted almond butter leave the skins on as they add complexity to the finished product. If you're looking for a crunchy sprouted almond snack, slip off the skins and dehydrate the seeds for 12 to 24 hours. If you don't have a dehydrator, this can be done in the oven, but doing so is tricky as most ovens don't go below 170, and the optimal temperature for drying almonds is around 118. The oven temperature can be reduced by cracking the oven door, but doing this for 12 to 24 hours will use a lot of energy.
After their time in the dehydrator, the almonds get so crunchy that they explode at a mere touch of your teeth. It makes almond appreciation an easy task, despite being such a thirsty crop, and giving them up would be tragic. Grow the carrots somewhere else. Charge people more to water their lawns. And sure, raise the price of almonds. The joys of sprouted, dehydrated almonds will justify the extra expense.