Mark my words: The 2020s will go down in history as the decade of making foods out of other foods. Coconut yogurt? Yummy. Cashew cheese? Surprisingly delicious. Lentil pasta? Healthy and hearty. Potato milk?
Well, maybe not that one.
With the rise in food allergies and interest in elimination diets of all kinds, it’s no wonder the market for no-peanut peanut butter is growing by leaps and bounds. The base ingredients are often environmentally-friendly, too, requiring less water to grow than many nuts. Nut-free butters are amazing stirred into smoothies or yogurt, slathered on ice cream, mixed with maple syrup for a healthier short stack, or added to savory sauces and dressings. But, when school starts up again, many parents will need to find a nut-free substitute for the lunch sack, and there’s no higher purpose than an honest-to-goodness peanut butter and jelly sandwich, is there? So which of these spreads are the closest to peanut butter in flavor and texture? Here’s our definitive ranking of nut-free butters.
6. Watermelon seed butter
This one is the newest up-and-comer made only by 88 Acres, and I was really puzzled about where the company gets enough seeds to even make this product. A little concerned that maybe they were cleaning up after the county fair watermelon seed-spitting contest, I contacted 88 Acres for the skinny. Co-founder and CEO Nicole Ledoux told us that watermelon seeds are widely grown as a snack in the Middle East and Asia. They have a facility entirely free of the top-eight most common food allergens, plus sulfites, sesame and mustard, so there is a rigorous sourcing process with their growers to ensure no contact with potential allergens. Even with those limitations, it turns out it is possible to buy large amounts of watermelon seeds without resorting to scavenging.
Now that we’ve established it has an exceptional provenance, what about the eating? This butter thankfully does not taste at all like watermelon, but it doesn’t taste like peanut butter, either. It’s shockingly pale, and it has a really unusual bite to it, not quite spicy but with a hint of sharpness, like it’s trying to promise you Marshmallow Fluff but delivering late-season radishes. Available sweetened and unsweetened, it makes an amazing dairy-free and vegan ranch dressing, a stellar addition to poblano corn chowder, and you can use it as a sub for tahini in just about any recipe. It also turns a nectarine into a high-protein religious experience. But slap it on your unsuspecting kid’s beloved PB&J? You’ll be paying for therapy for years.
Tahini is a Middle Eastern paste of very finely milled sesame seeds typically used as an ingredient rather than a standalone condiment. The texture should be smooth and quite a bit runnier than peanut butter. The seeds are slightly toasted, so the paste is light tan in color but retains a lot of its grassy flavor. I tried it on a piece of bread with fig preserves, and while it wasn’t as bad as I expected, it is intensely sesame. This one is by far the most aggressive flavor of any of the possibilities. If your child is a goldfinch, it might be welcome. Otherwise, save your tahini for adding to homemade hummus or lemon dressing, where it really shines.
4. Pumpkin seed butter
You may have had pumpkin seeds on top of a pumpkin spice muffin or mixed into a seasonal trail mix, but pumpkin seed butter is new to many. It has a spreadable consistency even at fridge temps, and the flavor is much milder than sesame or watermelon seeds, more similar to almond than any of the other nuts. There’s a faint but pleasant botanical overtone to it, almost floral. It’s a perfect base for green goddess salad dressing or easy pesto (make it with epazote if you want your mind blown), but the most remarkable aspect of this spread is its color. It is Kermit green, and there is no hiding it. You might use this to your advantage if you celebrate Christmas with red preserves on hand, or if your child is a "Green Eggs and Ham" devotee. Otherwise, it’s likely to be a hard sell.
My pick for this one is 88 Acres. You may see it from local producers, too, but one of the nice things about this brand is their little single-serve packets, perfect for tossing in the lunch box with a sliced apple or some crackers.
3. Oat butter
It sounds very unlikely, doesn’t it? Oat is the hot new main ingredient for all things dairy-adjacent, like milk and yogurt, so why not peanut? Oat Haus Granola Butter makes an impressive array of flavors completely unmatched by any of the other options, and it’s a great pick where food allergies are concerned since they maintain a top eight-free facility. While it makes a spectacular baking ingredient and quick plant milk base for a latte, it tastes decidedly oaty with notes of sweet cream, and there’s a little bit of grainy mouthfeel because of the coconut sugar. In my opinion, it’s too sweet to serve as the proper foil to just about any jelly, but you might be able to get away with the Strawberry Shortcake flavor as the only ingredient. On the plus side, it has more protein than I would have guessed, and I can’t wait to make oatmeal cookies with the scrumptious Coffee flavor added to the dough.
If you do decide to use this one for the old switcheroo on an unsuspecting school child, keep it in the pantry because it’s rock solid when chilled, and opt for the Vanilla instead of the Original flavor. While I actually love the latter’s allspice and cardamom spike, it’s a dead giveaway in the PB&J.
2. Sunflower butter
I often hear from people that they think sunflower butter has an overpowering flavor, and I understand what they mean, but I love it. It does have a deeply roasted color and flavor, and there’s just a hint of grassiness that isn’t characteristic of peanut butter. Give it a chance, though.
You can even try one of the flavored ones, like 88 Acres’ Dark Chocolate or Vanilla Cinnamon. The chocolate is a great, healthier Nutella dupe — divine when added to a s'more. Keep in mind, though, that if you bake it into a cookie or cake, sunflower butter will often turn green when the chlorogenic acid it contains reacts with baking soda during heating and then cooling. It’s completely harmless, and I just call them "Incredible Hulk cookies," but if you’d prefer to avoid it, you can just add a teaspoon or so of lemon juice or vinegar to most recipes.
Sandwichly speaking, I think the sunflower butters work best with a slightly acidic jam, like apricot, or you can go off-script and use a chocolate version with raspberry jam, but it’s not going to fool any kid right out of the gate. If you’re going to try substituting with this one, be open about it, and leave time for adjustment.
My own favorite pick for an old-school sandwich is Sunbutter’s No Sugar Added, but I’m never without a jar or two of that 88 Acres Dark Chocolate one, either. Like 88 Acres, Sunbutter also maintains a top-eight allergen-free facility, if allergies are a concern.
1. Legume butter
I know, I know … this sounds even less likely than the oat one. I admit there is an ever-so-slight whisper of chickpea or soybean flavor. I find these formulations a little flat compared to real peanut, but they’re still the closest facsimiles. Most kids won’t notice the difference in just about any iteration. Like the sunflower butters, you can find chocolate, crunchy-style, and occasional seasonal flavors, and they make a fine sandwich with any jam or jelly you like. Unfortunately, one of the bigger names, Field Trip, is discontinuing its line of chickpea spread, but The Amazing Chickpea Spread is available nationwide at Whole Foods, and it adds a little sunflower seed for depth of flavor.
The soy-based ones in particular win the Most Likely to be Mistaken for Peanut Butter award. It’s hard to believe that the same bean that gives rise to soy sauce can also be made into the peanuttiest non-peanut spread you’ve ever had, but it’s true. Keep in mind that if you’re making the switch to accommodate an allergy, soy allergy is almost as common as peanut, so it won’t work in every situation.
The aptly-named WowButter is one to try. The smooth is perfectly smooth, and the crunchy gets its texture from the same toasted, non-GMO soybeans used for the butter. It will also work as a one-to-one sub for any recipe containing peanut butter, and it’s even slightly better in nutritional terms, with more complete protein and a little bit of heart-friendly omega-3 fatty acids to boot. It’s also made in a dedicated peanut- and tree nut-free facility. My one tiny complaint is that it’s not available without a little added sugar, but it’s still the winner for an old-school PB&J, hands down.
At least it is until somebody figures out how to make it out of potato.