by Sidney Fry
One of the best ways to eat peanut butter is straight out of the jar—letting the silky, sticky spoonful coat every corner of your mouth—then greedily going in for another dip, because, well, it’s just that good. As kids, our love for peanut butter begins as a comfort food slathered between two jam-coated slices of bread. As adults, we discover its glory in all sorts of treats, both savory and sweet. You see, in addition to being a pantry staple, peanut butter is a secret weapon in the kitchen.
It’s filled with both protein and fat, two ingredients that work together to give structure to your dough, lock moisture into your batters, and make cookies delectably tender and chewy. You won’t find as much joy by licking any other ingredient off the side of the bowl as you will peanut butter.
After it was touted at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904, the lovable spread’s popularity boomed so much so that it became an essential staple for the Armed Forces during World Wars I and II. As a nutrient-dense ingredient with a stick-to-your-ribs quality far less expensive than meat, peanut butter was the perfect food during economic recessions, providing a cheap-but-filling breakfast, lunch, or dinner. And for dessert? In the 1930s, Pillsbury brilliantly baked peanut butter into a cookie, adding the iconic waffled crisscross to flatten the balls of dough for a more evenly baked texture with soft, buttery middles and perfectly crispy edges.
But adding peanut butter to a recipe isn’t quite as simple as just tossing a handful of chocolate chips into your cookie dough, nor does it make an even substitute for fats like butter. With more protein and half the amount of fat you’ll find in oil and butter, using it as a substitute in cakes or breads will alter the chemistry and likely leave you with a less-than-lofty loaf. Instead, ribbon a layer of peanut butter into muffins or banana bread for a nutty, modern twist to your mama’s vintage recipe. Swirl a few spoonfuls into the melted, buttery spread of a cinnamon roll or, better yet, coat it over the warm buns in place of icing for a savory start to the day that’ll keep your engines burning all morning.
Creamy or crunchy? Opinions are strong when it’s being licked off a spoon or spread between bread, but it’s worth having both on hand in the pantry when it comes to baking. The key is finding the right peanut butter to suit your recipe’s needs. Blend peanut butter directly into the butter and sugar mixture for a tender cookie dough; choose crunchy for a more crisp bite and creamy for a smooth, melt-in-your-mouth finish. In pies and puddings, go creamy, stirring it directly into the warm custard for an even, silky filling. Skip the peanut butter entirely in flaky pie crusts—those layers are better built from real butter—but do try a crunchy version in crumbly graham crusts for a delightfully nutty take on pumpkin pie or cheesecake. And buttercream icing? By swapping out half the butter for creamy peanut butter, you can whip it into a fresh, fluffy frosting for chocolate, banana, and apple layer cakes that’ll make you (and all of your friends) swoon.
A jar of peanut butter should always be a part of your pantry. But if you really want to be prepared you’ll stock several. You never know when a recipe may beg for creamy ribbons or crunchy layers of nutty goodness. Of utmost importance is to keep the jar hidden from all other pantry-raiders, for those moments when only a spoonful of peanut butter will do.