Yes or Noyaux? Using Stone Fruit Kernels in the Kitchen

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It seems like the practice of using noyaux, the intense bitter almond-flavored kernel found inside the pits of many stone fruits, is gaining in popularity this summer, at least in my hyper-DIY Oakland area. Do you use the noyaux or have you been scared off by the fact that it contains a small amount of cyanide? Read on for more about this intriguing, somewhat controversial use of a fruit's kernel.

The jar pictured above is mine. It has 60 noyaux from local apricots soaking in 4 cups of vodka, a recipe in-the-making for bitter almond extract from Bay Area chef Samin Nosrot. It needs several more months of soaking but it should be ready for bottling just in time for the holidays at the end of the year. I started this batch about 10 days ago but already I can smell the aroma from the noyaux, which is more intense and multi-leveled than grocery store purchased almond extract I have on my shelf. When I smell them side-by-side, the grocery store version smells like chemicals while the noyaux smells more perfumey.

Noyaux is the French word for the kernels found in the pits of stone fruits, namely cherry, apricot, plum, and peach. Another well-known use is to add them to your peach or apricot or cherry jam. Some people remove them before canning and others leave them in. Noyaux are also used in making home made liquors such as Amaretto and ratafia and some people infuse them into heavy cream for sauces and custards. Lindsey Shere's noyaux ice cream is another well known use.

OK. But what was that about cyanide? It's true that noyaux contain a very small amount of an enzyme which, when mixed with water, becomes prussic acid (or hydrogen cyanide) which is poisonous. But most people agree that the amount is so small, you would have to eat quite a few before you get ill (the limit is anywhere from 2 to 10 a day). So a teaspoon of extract every now and then is not likely to be a problem. But if you're at all concerned, simply don't use them.  

Alice Waters, in her Chez Panisse Fruit cookbook, says roasting the kernels twice will remove the prussic acid. (See link below for more information on this method.) Apparently it does change the flavor a little, making it more roasted.  I did not roast my kernels for my extract.

The other challenging thing is getting the kernels out of the pits. The easiest thing to do is to cover the kernels with a tea towel and bash them with a hammer. I actually found this to be fun, which is how I ended up with a jar of 60 kernels. Other people like using a nut cracker.

Do you use noyaux? What are your favorite recipes? Do you worry about cyanide?  

Are you convinced that you might want to give noyaux a try? Here are some recipes and helpful links:

(Image: Dana Velden)

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Dana Velden is a freelance food writer. She lives, eats, plays, and gets lost in Oakland, California where she is in the throes of raising her first tomato plant.