Bitter Almonds


About a quarter of the almonds from the tree this year, blanched, half of those peeled and half waiting.

A bit unsettled still this morning, or again, after another anxiety dream woke me too early.  Ever since I almost killed the cat last week my general anxiety level, which had subsided nicely for awhile, has ratcheted up. I guess the political climate and the potential for fracking in our mountains have also exacerbated it. But the dreams all involve me failing to notice something urgent. Anyway, after taking Ojo in for more subcutaneous fluids this morning I returned and grabbed a bag of frozen almonds out of the freezer. I needed room for some bread, and it suddenly seemed like a meditative food task was in order to calm my mind.

As I cracked and shelled them I let my hands do all the thinking, how best to get each one out of its unique shell: some of them cracking sharply, slip a thumbnail in the crack and pop them apart; some crumbly, requiring fussing. I tasted a few along the way, made sure I didn’t drop any. Some were fat and light-colored and mostly tasted sweet, some were wrinkly and dark and tasted bitter.

I poured boiling water over the bowl to blanch them, and tried to slip the skins off after two minutes. My almonds were small, and either unripe or a little dried out, I don’t know which. Had I picked them too early? Or let them stay too long on the tree? Another two-minute blanch, and most of the skins were coming off easily, mostly from the plump, lighter almonds. The darker nuts did not want to peel.

A few popped right out of my fingers and flew off or across the counter. Those I caught, rinsed if they’d hit the floor, and ate. Even without the skins, the pattern held; most of the darker nuts were bitter, and also some of the lighter ones. I quit peeling the dark nuts. Old or unripe, either way they weren’t worth the trouble. I’ll look this up when I finish this batch, I  thought. When are almonds bitter? Are unripe almonds bitter? I phrased the search question a few ways as I kept popping almonds from their skins. Hmmm. I wonder if bitter almonds are bad for you? And then, slowly, a dark thought unwound itself in my throat. Are almonds toxic to CATS?

But first I looked up the bitter almond question, and was dismayed to find that there are two varieties of almond trees, sweet (Prunus dulsis var. dulsisand bitter (P dulsis var. amara). Bitter almonds are used in almond extract, but can otherwise be toxic. From Wikipedia: Bitter almonds may yield from 4–9 mg of hydrogen cyanide per almond and contain 42 times higher amounts of cyanide than the trace levels found in sweet almonds.

Now which one do I have? I can’t even remember where I bought it, much less if there was a varietal distinction. Surely I bought an almond tree that produces edible almonds! What nursery would have even sold me a bitter almond? Elsewhere online I had seen that “unripe nuts are bitter.” That must be it. I read on:

All commercially grown almonds sold as food in the United States are of the “sweet” variety. The US Food and Drug Administration reported in 2010 that some fractions of imported sweet almonds were contaminated with bitter almonds. Eating such almonds could result in vertigo and other typical bitter almond (cyanide) poisoning effects.

Oh great. Did I happen to get one of those rare bitter almonds that contaminate the sweet trees? And if they could give me vertigo, what could they do to my cat with the compromised kidneys?

Extract of bitter almond was once used medicinally but even in small doses, effects are severe or lethal, especially in children; the cyanide must be removed before consumption. The acute oral lethal dose of cyanide for adult humans is reported to be 0.5–3.5 mg/kg of body weight (approximately 50 bitter almonds), whereas for children, consuming 5–10 bitter almonds may be fatal.

Well, there’s a kernel of hope in that paragraph; maybe I can process my almonds, that I was so proud to harvest, and spent so many hours hulling and drying and shelling and peeling, and remove the cyanide, just in case there’s actually a toxic amount in them. Really, a disappointing percentage of them taste bitter, maybe just a little bitter, but still. How hard could it be to remove the cyanide?

Reducing the hydrogen cyanide requires crushing the seeds, drying the crushed seed powder into a cake, soaking it in water to break it up and then distilling the product. Yet, just 7.5 milliliters of bitter almond oil has resulted in death.

I’m thinking now that I’ll make a little more room in the freezer. It would be a shame to throw them out, but I could compost them, salvage something at least from my exciting almond harvest. Or could I? What if the cat, or that crazy catahoula, gets in the compost? What if one of them eats an almond off the ground under the tree, where the late splitters are falling one by one?

It is so hard to be as vigilant as I am. How do I balance my brand new anxiety about almonds with my attachments? To the homesteader ideal that caused me to plant the tree in the first place, to all the work I’ve done so far and the prospect of enjoying my homegrown almonds toasted, roasted, slivered, as snacks and garnishes, through the winter; above all to the little compromised kitty?

It may not matter. I’ve eaten about twenty of them this morning. Wikipedia says a lethal dose for an adult is 50 almonds. Another site says “eating 20 of these almonds raw is lethal for adults.” We’ll know more later!


Wow, almonds sure are labor intensive. Here’s the morning’s project a couple of hours after starting with the frozen almonds in the shell. And now, perhaps, all for naught.

5 thoughts on “Bitter Almonds

  1. If there aren’t too many, you probably just have some nasty ones with the good ones, “almonds that happen bitter” rather than “bitter almond as a species.” We run into that with chestnuts a lot. Some years, two pounds will yield a scant pound of edible nuts. Some years are better. And that”s for store-bought; home grown nuts are trickier.

    • Thanks! That’s what I’m really thinking, because some of them are delicious. But it’s like chocolates: you just don’t know til you bite it! Now that works fine, if you own your own personal box of chocolates. You can bite each one, and throw away those you don’t like, and go back and finish all those you do. But almonds… How do you determine which chestnuts are nasty and which aren’t? Just as you go?

      • Yeah, it doesn’t show up until you shell them. Sometimes the shells slip easily and the nuts come out clean. Sometimes shelling is a nightmare and the inner hull sticks (that dark skin nuts have, I mean), and you can tell from the feel the nuts are hard and woody. Chestnuts are softer in general, but I wouldn’t think it would differ too much.

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