The Rembrandt of roasting
Doug Vorhies inspects a ladleful of peanuts at the Krema Nut Company. Photo by Dan Trittschuh.
Billowing clouds of steam pour out of the hopper, which is filled with 330 pounds of tumbling peanuts. Picture a giant, spinning clothes dryer, heated to 300 degrees by eight gas-powered flames. Close your eyes, inhale and lose yourself in the intoxicating aroma of roasting nuts.
The urge for a PB&J is overwhelming.
Doug Vorhies, 47, opens the hatch to the 70-year-old nut-roasting oven, sticks in his ladle, extracts several steaming peanuts—and takes a whiff with his well-trained nose. “They’re getting close,” says Krema Nut Company’s master nut roaster.
There is no timer, no scientific way to know exactly when a batch of peanuts is roasted to perfection, when they’ve reached the point where the moisture has been cooked out, but they have not yet
begun to burn. It’s a small window. Take them out of the hopper 30 seconds too soon and the nuts have a raw taste. Take them out 30 seconds too late and they’re burnt. Either way, the result is 330 pounds of expensive trash.
“It’s all right here and here,” Vorhies says, pointing to his head and nose. “I can smell it when they’re about to burn. The smell changes—and so does the steam, it gets a little darker.”
About 30 seconds later, “here and here” tell him it’s time, and Vorhies dumps the perfectly roasted peanuts into the cooler. He tastes one and smiles. “What I taste here is what my peanut butter will taste like,” he says.
Nut roasting, it turns out, is as much an art as a science, and the big, burly Vorhies is the Rembrandt of nut roasters. In addition to peanuts, he dry roasts and oil roasts cashews, almonds and pecans. In fact, he has earned the title of master roaster. It’s an honorary title (OK, made up by Krema), but one Vorhies takes pride in and certainly merits after about 15 years at the company and 1.5 million pounds of peanut butter.
But it wasn’t always this way, and Vorhies admits there were times, back in his early days of roasting, when the lifelong Columbus resident wondered if he’d made a huge career mistake. But, hey, if it were easy, anyone could be a master roaster.
The first thing Vorhies learned about the road to master roasterdom is that it’s lined with a lot of time spent scrubbing floors and cleaning machinery. “At first, all I did was mop floors and I thought, ‘This isn’t for me,’ ” he says.
And then there was the oil—gallons and gallons of dripping, splattering peanut oil that covered everything and everyone in its path. “I’d get in the car at the end of the day and I’d have oil all over my hands and shirt and pants and then the car,” he says. “Oil is not forgiving.” While the squirrels in his neighborhood may have perked up when Vorhies approached, his wife was, let’s just say, not quite as enthusiastic about the laundry challenges all this oil presented.
Back then, Vorhies hadn’t yet perfected his nut-roasting senses and every batch was a pressure-filled adventure. And then came the terrible day when he was absolutely convinced he’d undercooked a batch of peanuts—and compounded the problem by grinding them into butter and pouring the butter into jars. His roasting career might have been over before it really got started.
“All weekend I was almost in tears. I thought I’d have to go in Monday and tell them I’d pay for them and they’d have to throw everything away,” he says.
“Relax,” said Mike Giunta, the owner at the time. (His son, Brian, now runs Krema.) The peanuts—and peanut butter—weren’t quite perfect, but well within acceptable range.
Vorhies started to work part-time at Krema in 1995, cleaning up in the morning before he left for his shift at another job. He became a full-time Krema employee two years later. “It took a long time, maybe
two years, to fully understand what it takes to be a roaster,” he says.
He has even come to like (well, appreciate the need for) all the mopping and scrubbing. A clean machine produces better-tasting butter.
About 500 million pounds of peanut butter are produced in this country every year. About 100,000 pounds of this total—or .0002 percent—are roasted and ground by Vorhies at Krema in Grandview.
Peanut butter was invented in 1890 and Krema was founded eight years later. Today, it sells a wide variety of nut, candy and gift boxes. It’s one of the few small, gourmet nut-roasting companies that remain in a world dominated by the likes of Skippy and Jif.
“Yeah, this isn’t the most cost-efficient method to make peanut butter,” Brian Giunta says. “It would be more efficient to make huge batches, maybe once a month. But that’s not what we do. We make small batches and that’s what makes our peanut butter taste so fresh and special; it’s what makes us unique.”
Customers to the store/kitchen on West Goodale Boulevard can watch Vorhies at work and buy a jar of creamy or crunchy peanut butter ($3.29 for a pound jar, $11.99 for five pounds) that he roasted, ground and jarred a day or two earlier. If you time it right, it’s possible to get a jar minutes after Vorhies screws on the lid.
Krema peanut butter begins with 110-pound sacks of No. 1 fancy-grade Spanish peanuts, which are pricier than the more commonly used runner peanuts. About 3.7 billion pounds of peanuts are produced every year in the United States, according to the American Peanut Council. Runner peanuts make up 80 percent of this total, while Spanish peanuts represent just 4 percent. Krema’s come from Texas and Oklahoma.
“They’re better,” says Vorhies of the Spanish peanuts, as he hauls a bag to the hopper. (In addition to a good nose, nut roasters also need strong backs.) No two batches of No. 1 fancy-grade Spanish peanuts are exactly the same—and the variances affect the roasting time. For example, the moisture level varies from bag to bag. The more water, the longer it takes to roast the peanuts. There’s no way to measure the moisture content.
“And these peanuts [the ones he just loaded into the oven] are right off the delivery truck and really cold,” Vorhies says as the peanuts noisily ping off the baffles as the roaster spins. “That’s making it take longer to roast. In the summer, they’d be done by now.” (Roasting peanuts takes anywhere from eight to 14 minutes.)
The outside temperature also affects the cooling process. “When you take them out of the roaster, they’re still hot and they’re still cooking,” Vorhies says. The cooling machine uses air sucked down from the roof, which means, for instance, during winter the air is frigid and the nuts cool—and stop cooking—faster than they would in the summer.
Vorhies has to factor this in and roast the nuts a little longer in the winter and a little less in the summer. Exactly how much longer or shorter?
“I just know,” he says.
After they’re roasted and cooled, another machine takes off the skins, splits the peanuts in half and removes the little knobs, or hearts. The big manufacturers leave in the hearts, which are bitter, Vorhies says, shaking his head in disgust at the thought of such an affront to peanut butter.
“They add salt and sugar and hydrogenated oil to mask the bitter taste and stabilize it since it will be sitting on the shelf for a long time,” he says.
The ingredient list on a jar of Krema crunchy peanut butter reads “Peanuts.”
The ingredient list on a jar of Jif Extra Crunchy reads “Roasted peanuts and sugar, contains 2 percent or less of: molasses, fully hydrogenated vegetable oils (rapeseed and soybean), mono- and diglycerides, salt.”
Vorhies puts another of his senses into action after the skins and hearts have been removed. “I eyeball them, every single one; I look at millions and millions of Spanish peanuts,” he says. “I have to make sure there’s no skins, no hearts and there’s no burnt ones. A burnt one changes the taste of my peanut butter. Maybe not one, but a few.”
The next and final step is grinding the nuts into butter. The big boys, Vorhies says, add peanut pieces to creamy peanut butter to create chunky peanut butter. It’s faster and cheaper. He resets the blades on his grinder a little farther apart to make his crunchy butter. “It tastes better,” he says.
If pressed, Vorhies admits he prefers creamy over crunchy. “It used to be two-to-one, creamy over crunchy,” says Krema manager Dave Block about the preferences of his customers. “Now, I’d say it’s 55 to 45 percent.”
“Actually, I like cashew butter the best,” Vorhies adds. “It’s the most expensive nut and there’s all this flavor, in butter form.”
Vorhies believes his best nut roasting days are ahead. He quit smoking six years ago and says his taste buds are even better now. If ever there were a man who loved his job and was one with his peanuts and cashews, it’s Vorhies.
“What I take pride in is that people, the customers who come into the shop, can see me roasting the nuts,” he says. “And to know that they’re going to leave with the freshest, best-tasting nuts, well, that makes me feel good.”
Steve Wartenberg is a freelance writer.