It is easy to understand why South Carolinians adore boiled peanuts. Salty and toothsome, the slippery, squirting snack is also fun, generating laughter as geysers of brine and slick projectiles score direct hits across the room. While most between-meal nibbles are loaded with empty calories, bad fats, and unpronounceable ingredients, boiled peanuts are all natural and packed with protein.
Elevated to icon status in 2006, when the boiled peanut was designated as the official state snack by the South Carolina Legislature, the peanut has a long history that spans both centuries and continents. Scholars pinpoint South America as the legume’s ancestral home; pre-Columbian tombs uncovered in Peru often contained terra cotta vessels still filled with preserved peanuts. Evidence also exists that ancient Peruvians mindlessly munched roasted peanuts much the same way snackers do today.
In the 16th century, Portuguese explorers found a different variety of peanut being cultivated in Brazil and the Caribbean and brought it with them to Europe, where it made its way to Asia and Africa. That varietal turned out to be so well suited to the African climate that it overtook a native ground nut to such a degree that early researchers mistakenly thought the peanut had originated in Africa.
The first peanuts to arrive in what became the United States came from Africa in the 18th century on slave ships. Easy to propagate, peanuts soon flourished in plantation gardens throughout South Carolina. “Peanuts were commonly boiled in Africa, so the dish quickly became a staple for enslaved Americans,” says Dr. Dan Anco, a peanut specialist with Clemson University. “Legend has it that Civil War soldiers first boiled peanuts to keep from starving, but, in reality, peanuts were being boiled long before the Civil War, both in the United States and in Africa.”
South Carolina’s love affair with boiled peanuts began sometime between World War I and World War II. Cromer’s owner Carolette Turner, whose grandfather Julian Cromer founded the iconic Columbia food emporium in 1935, says that boiled peanuts have been one of the most popular products offered since the shop opened. “Some of my earliest memories are watching peanuts boiling in old tin washtubs at our Assembly Street location,” she recalls. “They’re not as simple to make as you would think, which is why ours are so popular.”
Although boiled peanuts are available year-round, summer and early fall are most often associated with boiled peanuts, and not just because the potential mess can be taken outside. Instead, it has to do with the availability of fresh, or “new crop,” peanuts.
“Most of the peanuts grown in South Carolina are contracted for roasting, cocktail peanuts, candy like M&M’s, and peanut butter,” says Marianne Copelan, peanut promotion marketing specialist with the South Carolina Department of Agriculture. “A small number of growers, about a dozen out of 522, sell green peanuts, which can be boiled fresh. They’re called green because they’re picked earlier than peanuts used for other purposes, usually beginning around the end of June — just in time for Fourth of July celebrations — through October."
Beloved for their sweet flavor and tender texture, new crop boiled peanuts also take less time to cook than their year-round counterparts, which are preserved for boiling by drying. “As a child, I can remember eating them as fast as I could when that first new crop came in,” says Carolette. “They were better than anything.”
How to Make Boiled Peanuts
Recipes abound for boiled peanuts. Some recommend pressure cooking or stewing in a slow cooker, others an old-school stovetop simmering. Dan says that since peanuts absorb the most salt as they cool, tasting for quality control throughout the process is key. “If they’re salty enough while they’re hot, drain them as soon as they’re cooked through,” he advises. “Otherwise, they’ll end up too salty.”
The Peanut Board recommends the following method for dried peanuts:
Preparation: Wash and place in-shell peanuts in a suitable container to soak (glass, enamel, ceramic, plastic); cover with medium brine —10 ounces salt to one gallon of water — and use about twice as much water as peanuts. Place a weighted plate on the peanuts to keep them submerged. Soak overnight. Remove plate. Add water as needed to cover the peanuts. Cook by one of the following methods:
Stovetop: Bring the peanuts to a boil; reduce heat to simmer and continue to cook for 4 hours. Test for doneness to see if texture and saltiness are suitable. Add to cooking time in 30 minute increments if softer peanuts are desired. Allow to remain in brine to increase saltiness. Drain as soon as desired texture and degree of saltiness is achieved.
Slow Cooker: Cook soaked peanuts on low for 8 hours and then on high for 1 1/2 hours. Test for doneness; increase cooking time as needed to achieve desired texture and saltiness. When cooked, drain and serve hot as a snack or allow to cool and then shell to use the peanut kernels to add flavor and zip to salads, casseroles, and dressing or to accompany pork, poultry, and other prepared dishes. Any peanuts not eaten immediately may be stored in the refrigerator for several days or frozen in plastic bags or other airtight container.
Fresh green peanuts do not need to be soaked; begin tasting for doneness after about an hour of cooking.