Creamy Peanut Butter
How we tested
Americans go nuts for peanut butter. Not just spread on PB&Js but also baked into cookies, pies, and cakes; swirled into brownies and frostings; and even stirred into soups and sauces. There are a ton of options: creamy and crunchy styles, of course, but also flavored, organic, “no-stir,” and “natural” peanut butters. The last category has expanded significantly—with major brands, including Skippy and Jif, offering natural options, too.
For this tasting, we focused on creamy peanut butter since it’s more popular than crunchy and is the type we use most often in recipes. We tried nine top-selling creamy peanut butters—three traditional and six natural, priced from $2.69 to $6.01 per jar—plain, in peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and in peanut butter cookies.
What Is “Natural” Peanut Butter?
At its most basic, peanut butter is made by grinding shelled, roasted peanuts with a bit of salt. However, the light brown, homogeneous peanut butter most Americans are familiar with is sweetened with sugar. And to create a product that’s spreadable straight from the jar, oils are added to keep the mixture from separating.
The products in our lineup fell into three categories. First, there were the aforementioned familiar peanut butters, made with hydrogenated vegetable oil and sugar, from Skippy, Jif, and Peter Pan. The second category consisted of peanut butters labeled “natural” that swap hydrogenated oils for palm oil. (Hydrogenated oils have been chemically treated to be solid at room temperature, while palm oil is naturally solid at room temperature, hence the label “natural.”) This category included Skippy Natural, Jif Natural, and Peter Pan Natural. The final category consisted of peanut butters made with just peanuts and salt, which were also labeled “natural” and included Adams, Teddie, and Smucker’s.
Oil Boosts Peanut Butter Texture
Once we tallied the results, our rankings were sorted almost according to type of peanut butter (hydrogenated oil on top, then palm oil, and then just peanuts and salt). Why the divide?
Products made from just peanuts and salt separate into two layers (dense solids topped by oil) and need to be mixed before serving. Even then, they don’t come close to the ultrasmooth texture of peanut butters with added oil; instead, they were largely thin, runny, and gritty, and they oozed out the sides of our sandwiches, while peanut butters with added oils stayed creamy and spreadable.
Type of Oil Matters When Baking with Peanut Butter
The type of oil in each peanut butter also made a major difference during baking. This is because saturated fats are solid at room temperature but start to liquefy when exposed to heat. So the less saturated fat a peanut butter has, the less it will spread when used in baking, and the more saturated fat it has, the more it will spread.
Peanut butters made with just peanuts and salt have naturally occurring peanut oil; compared with peanut butters made with added palm or hydrogenated oil, these products had the least amount of saturated fat: 2.5 grams per tablespoon. Cookies made with these simple peanut butters spread less during baking, turning out tall, cakey, and a bit lean-tasting. On the other end of the spectrum were peanut butters made with palm oil, which had 3.5 grams of saturated fat per tablespoon; cookies made with these products spread significantly, flattening into thin, crumbly disks. The best cookies were made with peanut butters that used hydrogenated oil, which has a comparatively moderate amount of saturated fat, 3 grams per tablespoon. Cookies made with hydrogenated oil peanut butters struck the perfect balance: They were rich and their texture was ideal—thick and chewy, with just the right amount of bend.
Tasters Want A Sweeter, Saltier Peanut Butter
While there is some natural sugar in peanuts, both the hydrogenated oil and the palm oil peanut butters add more in the form of granulated sugar or molasses. The difference amounts to about ½ teaspoon (or 2 grams) more sugar per tablespoon of peanut butter than is found in products made from just peanuts. Added sugar produced a brighter, more complex flavor, with tasters claiming they’d eat the peanut butter “straight from the jar.” These peanut butters also had a touch more salt—about 150 milligrams versus 105 milligrams of sodium per serving—which helped balance them against sweet jams in sandwiches.
The Best Peanut Butter Is a Classic
If you absolutely must have a peanut butter with no additives, we can recommend Adams Natural Creamy Peanut Butter, a West Coast offering that’s also available online.
However, for a truly great peanut butter for snacking and baking, stick with the tried and true. Once again, our favorite peanut butter was Skippy Creamy Peanut Butter ($2.69 per 16.3-ounce jar); it had just the right balance of sweetness, salt, and roasted peanut flavor.
Twenty-one America’s Test Kitchen staffers tasted nine peanut butters, priced from $0.17 to $0.27 per ounce, in three blind tastings: plain, in peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and as an ingredient in Soft and Chewy Peanut Butter Cookies. Results were averaged, and products appear below in order of preference. Ingredients, saturated fat, sugar, and sodium were taken from nutritional labels and are reported per 32-gram (1-tablespoon) serving. Prices shown were paid in Boston-area stores or online.