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Boiled peanuts in their shell a Southern tradition

Dallas Beckett sells boiled peanuts at Steve’s P-Nuts at the Tallahassee Flea Market.
Dallas Beckett sells boiled peanuts at Steve’s P-Nuts at the Tallahassee Flea Market. CRISTIN NELSON FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE/Cristin Nelson

TALLAHASSEE — Most people in the North eat crunchy, roasted peanuts as a snack at a sports event or bar. But boiled peanuts — popular south of the Mason-Dixon line, are entirely different. In some areas, including Tallahassee, you can find them anywhere from restaurants and specialty markets to a gas station crockpot.

“When I started doing peanuts in 1982, you couldn’t buy boiled peanuts in any store,” says Steven Shamblin, 52, owner of Steve’s P-Nuts, a business selling in 14 venues, as he puts it, “from Tampa to Tallahassee” in northern Florida and southern Georgia. But these days, the salty snack can be found at convenience stores and roadside stands, convenient for when the craving strikes.

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Lest you think that this simple presentation — whole peanuts in their shells, fresh from a pot of water — is an elementary cooking technique, Shamblin is quick to correct you. “It’s more than just taking a bag of peanuts and throwing them into boiling water. It’s like an art; it’s like good barbecue or anything else,” he says.

When boiled peanuts are served, they’re salty from salt in the pot. Sometimes they’re boiled with spices, but the plain ones are most peoples’ favorites. You get a bowlful and the beige shells are wet and not all that attractive. Locals bite into the shells to remove the nuts; tourists tend to peel the shells to get at the nuts.

Making boiled peanuts takes careful monitoring of the variables in every pot, including the variety of peanut (Shamblin uses Virginia Jumbo), the quality and maturity of the nuts, and their boiling time and method. Boiled peanuts are always made from raw, unroasted nuts, which can be dried to remove some of their moisture, or “green” nuts, which have a higher moisture content and should remain refrigerated before cooking.

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Shamblin says that water is key. His facility is located close to Silver Springs, Fla., and his boiling process uses spring water instead of tap. “People don’t realize that, but it makes a huge difference,” he says. “It’s the minerals in the water. People think that boiled water is boiled water, but it’s not. Have you ever gone to a restaurant and had a bad cup of coffee? Most likely, that bad cup was made with bad water.”

Another variable is the amount and type of salt. “You have to use a good salt,” says Steve’s P-Nuts employee Dallas Beckett, who has worked for the company since he was a teenager. He swears by all-natural sea salt.

Once the nuts are boiled, hot, and in front of you, break open the shells, which aren’t soft enough to eat, even after hours of boiling, to get to the salty, mushy, addictive edible bits. The choicest peanuts have pockets of brine inside, to slurp with satisfaction. It’s messy, but strangely alluring.

Beckett knows this snack isn’t for everyone. “Not everybody likes the texture; they’re expecting it to be like a roasted peanut,” he says. “We get some who try it for the first time. They say, ‘Why would you boil a peanut?’ ” To first-time tasters, Beckett serves a word of caution with a free sample: “I tell them before they try it: It’s like a bean. Peanuts are a legume, and when they’re cooked, they get mushy.”

Beckett himself grew up with a taste for the snack. “When I was little, I used to steal [Shamblin’s] samples,” he says, grinning.

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Steve’s Cajun boiled peanuts (left) and regular roasted peanuts.
Steve’s Cajun boiled peanuts (left) and regular roasted peanuts. CRISTIN NELSON FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

Shamblin, who has sold boiled peanuts for over 30 years, says that he was inspired by a roadside stand hawking the salty snack across from his community college. He boils 100 bushels of peanuts at a time for his basic recipe, in a 10-hour process involving just peanuts, salt, and water. His “Cajun” version tosses already-boiled peanuts in a spicy, flavorful liquid that includes fresh lime, garlic, dried or fresh spicy peppers, and a secret powdered spice blend. “You season your food after you cook it, always, no matter if it’s meat or peanuts,” says Shamblin. He varies the spice level to suit what his customers crave in each location.

At the Tallahassee Flea Market, Cajun peanuts have a garlicky flavor and gentle heat that lingers on the lips and tongue, building the more you eat.

It seems that original is the favorite. Shamblin estimates that original peanuts outsell Cajun eight to one, and it’s good enough to keep people coming back. Beckett, who works the location at the Tallahassee Flea Market, estimates that 80 percent of his customers are regulars.

“You just can’t beat a regular boiled,” he says.


Cristin Nelson can be reached at cristin.nelson@gmail.com.