Almonds originated in Asia and North Africa, and the almond tree—which resembles a peach tree—can grow as high as 20 to 30 feet (6-9 m) tall. Because the almond is very sensitive to cold, the tree thrives in the Mediterranean-climate regions of Europe, Australia, South America and California.
The fruit of the almond contains an oval, off-white seed that is covered with a brownish skin. The shell itself is covered with a tough, fibrous green husk which breaks open when the fruit is fully mature.
There are actually two types of almonds: one bitter and one sweet. The sweet almond is the one that you will find at the farm market and the one you will use in the kitchen. (The bitter almond is strong flavored and after being processed to remove a toxic acid is used to flavor extracts.)
Sweet almonds can be found blanched or not, whole, sliced or slivered, chopped, candied, smoked, and in paste form. The mild flavor of almonds complements almost every kind of food. You can add almonds to cereals, salads, cakes, cookies, pastries, and ice cream. Whole, split, or ground almonds can be served with fish, chicken, and vegetables.
Choosing. Almonds still in their shells will not spoil quickly. When choosing shelled almonds, look for almonds that are uniform in color and that are not limp or shriveled. Almonds sold with their papery skin intact are called natural almonds. Almonds that have had the skin removed are called blanched almonds. A fresh almond will smell sweet and nutty.
Storing. Unshelled almonds can be kept in a cool, dark, dry place. Shelled almonds can be placed in a plastic bag and stored in the refrigerator or freezer for up to 6 months.
Blanching. Blanching will remove the thin layer of brown skin that surrounds the seed. Plunge the almond into boiling water for 2 to 3 minutes. When the skin starts to swell, rinse the almonds under cold water, then remove the skin by pinching the almonds between your thumb and finger.
Roasting. Place a single layer of almonds on a baking sheet. Heat them in the oven to 350°F (175°C) until they turn golden brown. Turn and stir them to ensure that they are evenly roasted. The time to roast will vary depending upon the size of the almonds. Remove the almonds from the oven and place them in a container to cool.