Why Almonds Don’t Taste Like Almond Flavoring

Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

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Curiously, standard domesticated almonds taste delicately nutty, nothing like the strong and distinctive flavoring called “almond extract.” Strong almond flavor is found only in wild or bitter almonds, which are inedibly bitter and toxic. They contain a defensive system that generates deadly and bitter hydrogen cyanide when the kernel is damaged. It’s estimated that eating a few bitter almonds at a sitting could kill a child. But it turns out that one by-product of cyanide production is benzaldehyde, a volatile molecule that is the essence of wild almond flavor, and that contributes to the aromas of cherry, apricot, plum, and peach. Our safe “sweet” almond varieties lack both the bitterness and the characteristic aroma.