From Scratch: Tree Nut Primer

November 8, 2012

Assorted Nuts
Photo by Joseph De Leo; styled by Mariya Yufest

From spiced nut mixes to pecan pie, sweet potato casserole topped with nutty streusel to fruit and nut-studded compotes, there's no denying that holiday fare takes advantage of tree nuts. But so often we fall into the trap of rotating between the same three or four types of nuts, rarely stopping to examine what other nutmeats are out there. Why not mix things up this year and make a hazelnut pie or add pine nuts to the herbed stuffing? Before the season's activities get in full swing, take a moment to explore the range of possibilities the entire family of tree nuts brings and get inspired by the various forms they ably take (from milks to butters to flours) in the kitchen. 

Tree Nuts from A to Z

Almond 
This tropical evergreen, named for its knife-like edge, grows on both the European and African sides of the Mediterranean. The almond actually belongs to the rose family, along with plums and peaches. One of the more common dairy-free milk substitutes, almond milk is low in calories and mild in flavor.

Beechnut
This prickly fellow belongs to the oak family and contains oil that’s sometimes extracted and used for salad dressing or fish frying.

Brazil Nut
South American brazil nut trees can grow up to 150 feet tall and encase the nuts in brittle husks that require a few minutes in boiling water before even a nutcracker can remove the shell. Fortunately, they're often available pre-shelled.

Butternut
Actually a type of walnut, this nut’s buttery-sweet flavor is prized by many in New England. Unfortunately, because of the fungal disease most commonly known as butternut canker, these walnuts can be difficult to find. Try substituting regular walnuts if you can’t find butternuts.

Cashew
The seed of the tropical cashew tree, cashews are most popular roasted since their raw flavor has a bit of bitterness to it. As cashews are a relative of poison ivy, oak, and sumac, they contain a powerful irritant called cardol, so be careful if you decide to toast cashew nuts at home as may irritate your eyes.

Chestnut
Be nice to your digestive system and roast these mahogany-brown members of the oak family before eating them or else the high starch content might make your stomach ache later. Cutting an "x" into the base of each nut with a paring knife prior to roasting makes them much easier to peel once they're tender.

Coconut
The largest edible nut, immature coconuts have soft flesh and watery milk (you'll know if they're young by their green outer shell). If allowed to mature, they will harden, producing a more substantial "meat" on the inside. Coconut oil is a dense, saturated fat that remains solid below 80 degrees and can serve as a vegan substitute for butter or shortening in some recipes (such as this vegan pie crust).

Ginkgo Nut
Although popular in Chinese cooking, the noxious smell of the fruit that contains the ginkgo nut is actually slightly poisonous, and can cause blistering if you handle it without gloves. You also shouldn’t consume more than a few raw nuts in one sitting, or you may be in for a stomach ache. But if you make sure to boil them until they’re a light shade of green (and consume no more than 10 or so), ginkgo nuts can add a pleasantly bitter note to stuffing, soups, and poultry dishes.

Hazelnut
Also known as the filbert or cobnut, these medium-sized round nuts make appearances in almost every sort dish, from pasta sauces to cakes to desserts, and when processed, make a delicious alternative to peanut butter. These nuts often appear around the holidays because the trees drop their nuts in late fall. 

Hickory Nut
Only found in America, Native Americans have long used Hickory nuts to make nut milk. Sometimes eaten raw, these nuts add a sweet, nutty taste to cookies, cakes, and breads. Not all varieties taste good, though -- stick to shagbark, shellbark, kingnut, red hickory, sand hickory, or mockernut.

Macadamia Nut
Known by some as the bush nut, roasted macadamias are popularly added to white chocolate chip cookies because their buttery texture complements the cookie’s sweetness and the mild flavor isn't overwhelmed. The evergreen tree grows primarily in Australia and Hawaii, and the nuts are typically shelled before they reach store shelves.

Pecan 
Although pecans belong to a different species than hickory nuts, they share a common genus, so sometimes pecans end up grouped with hickory nuts. Popular in pies, pecans also have enough nooks and crannies to effectively trap sweet and spicy coatings. Roasted and chopped, they add flavor and texture to crunchy coatings for baked fish and poultry.

Pine Nut
The seeds of pine trees (yes, they come from pine cones!), pine nuts aren't just for pesto. To get the most out of their flavor, toast them in a dry pan until they're visibly streaked golden brown. There are many varieties of pine nuts, and in North America, the piñion is the most popular.

Pistachio
A relative of the mango, these vibrant, green nuts make appearances in everything from baklava to ice cream to couscous. Pistachios are the only nuts on this list that crack themselves: in early autumn, the seeds ripen and swell until their shell splits.

Walnut
Like many other tree nuts, walnuts make appearances in both sweet and savory recipes, and often appear in holiday recipes because they are harvested in late fall. Black walnuts are a wild variety that are native to the U.S. and have a stronger flavor than their standard walnut cousins.

Improve Your Nut Vocabulary

  • Blanched - A process that pulls the skin off nuts, namely almonds, pistachios, and hazelnuts. Although you can usually buy blanched (or peeled) nuts, it is possible to blanch them yourself. Boil your nuts for about a minute, drain them, dunk the nuts in cold water to stop the cooking process, and then peel them. For almonds, you can just pinch the ends of the skin and the meat should come out of the peel. For pistachios and other nuts, rub the cooled nuts with a towel until the skin is stripped off. 
  • Coarsely Chopped - Nuts are chopped or crushed into uneven pieces. Next time you want to add nuts to cookies, try using coarsley chopped pieces. Chocolate chip-sized pieces will keep their integrity in cookie dough better than finely chopped nuts.
  • Finely Chopped - Nuts are chopped or crushed into very small, relatively even pieces. You can make finely chopped nuts at home with a food processor (pulse only a few times) or by sealing them in a bag and wacking it with a rolling pin or meat pounder. Next time you bake fish, try adding a light crust of finely chopped nuts. Or, mix some very finely chopped nuts into pie dough.
  • Ground - Also known as nut meal, you can grind nuts at home using a mortar and pestle, a nut mill, or your food processor (but don't overmix in the food processor or you'll get nut butter). Nut meal should approximate the consistency of cornmeal. In some recipes, nut meal serves as a gluten-free flour substitute (see "Tree Nut Flours and Nut Meals" below). 
  • Halved - Some larger nuts, like pecans or walnuts, grow two large halves inside their shell. Most packages of shelled nuts like this are already halved, and sold as such. Most pecan pies call for pecan halves, which float to the top of the syrupy mixture and toast in the oven, so in those applications, don't toast them ahead of time. 
  • Sliced - A process usually reserved for almonds, slicing nuts involves cutting each individual nut into thin pieces lengthwise. It's easy to find almonds pre-sliced, and you should not attempt to slice almonds at home. 
  • Slivered - Another process usually reserved for almonds, this yields nuts cut into thin matchstick-like pieces. Again, don't attempt to sliver almonds at home. These pared-down almonds are the perfect shape for adding maximum crunch to everything from salads to oatmeal. 

Mixing pine nuts into candy to make a brittle Perfectly toasted slivered almonds.
Whole pine nuts combine with hot caramel for a homemade nut brittle; honey-covered sliced almonds toast to a golden brown on a nonstick baking mat to prevent a sticky mess. Photos by James Ransom (left) and Sarah Shatz.

Toasting and Roasting Tree Nuts

  • "Toasting" and "roasting" are interchangeable terms for the same process of lightly browning nuts, though "toasting" is more commonly used when the nuts are heated on the stovetop rather than in the oven.
  • Heating nuts releases their fragrance, bringing their flavors forward. Often used in baked goods, pasta, oatmeal, salads, or even on top of ice cream sundaes, almost every tree nut tastes good toasted. Times vary depending on the type of nut and whether or not the nuts are whole, but in generally, you should toast them until they’re golden brown. Keep a close eye on toasting nuts and never leave them alone, as they can burn quickly.
  • Depending on how many nuts you're working with, you can toast nuts in a pan or in your oven. On the stove, heat a large pan over medium heat, and add the nuts in a single layer (do not add oil). Stir frequently until the nuts are golden brown, and then remove from the heat and cool completely before using. In the oven, spread a single layer of nuts on a baking sheet and place in a 350-degree oven, stirring and flipping the nuts every few minutes.

General Nut Toasting Times

  • Sliced Almonds: 7 to 10 minutes
  • Whole Almonds: 10 minutes
  • Chestnuts: 30 minutes
  • Hazelnuts: 12 to 15 minutes
  • Macadamia nuts: 12 to 15 minutes
  • Pecans: 10 to 15 minutes
  • Pine Nuts: 5 minutes or less (stovetop recommended)
  • Walnuts: 10 to 15 Minutes

Storing Tree Nuts

  • Nuts stored in their shells stay fresher for longer, as will nuts with their skins intact.
  • Shelled, raw nuts go rancid easily, so store them in a sealed container store in the freezer, where they will last for up to two years, depending on the type of nut. Freezing nuts can hurt their flavor, though, so if possible, try to use them sooner rather than later.
  • Unshelled nuts in a sealed container can be kept in the refrigerator and are best used within a month. Allow unshelled nuts to come to room temperature before you try to shell them, as they can be tough to crack when cold.

Beyond the Nutty Crunch

Nut Milks

  • Popular as a dairy-free substitute for smoothies, coffee drinks, and any recipe calling for animal milk, nut milk -- especially almond milk -- has gained popularity over the last few years.
  • Nut milks can be made from almonds, brazil nuts, cashews, hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, pistachios, or walnuts. The nut milk you choose should depend on the flavor you want to add to your dish, though nut milks are generally mild in flavor.
  • Coconut milk, pressed from the raw meat of a coconut, has a thicker texture than other nut milks. If you buy the full-fat kind in a can, you might be surprised to find a layer of coconut cream floating at the top -- don’t worry, once you add the liquid and cream to your recipe, the two components will recombine. 
  • Curious about how to make your own nut milk? Check out this step-by-step guide.

Nut Butters

  • With their high concentrate of unsaturated fat, tree nuts make excellent nut butters, offering a welcome substitute to that old standby, peanut butter.
  • To make your own nut butter, first roast your nuts until golden brown. Allow them to cool, and then toss them in your food processor and process for 5 to 10 minutes, until the nuts form a smooth paste, scraping down the sides every minute or so to ensure even blending. As you process the nuts, they will begin to release oils that make your nut butter creamy (as opposed to powdery). Check out this post on homemade nut butters for more tips and ideas.

Nut Flours and Meals

  • Nut flour is a finely ground powder made from what remains of nuts after their oils have been extracted. This is different from nut meal, which is made from whole nuts, and is thus oilier than nut flour. 
  • Making nut meal at home is extremely tricky and time consuming as it involves grinding the nuts finely but not so much that they turn into butter. Since it's often recommended to use a coffee grinder for this process, only a small amount can be processed a time and each batch must be sifted. We recommend buying both nut meal and nut flour and avoiding the headache.

Nut Oils

  • Because tree nuts contain a high concentrate of unsaturated fat, they yield oil when pressed. But because of the different chemical compositions of the nuts, not all oils are created equal. One rule is universal, however: Make sure to always refrigerate nut oils to keep them from going rancid.
  • Macadamia nut oil is one of the most common culinary nut oils because it has a high smoke point at 425 degrees Fahrenheit. (For comparison, extra-virgin olive oil smokes at 405 degrees.)
  • You will probably find two different types of almond oil if you go looking for it: cold pressed and refined. Refined almond oil works much like macadamia nut oil, with a very high smoke point of 495 degrees. Cold-pressed almond oil has a lower smoke point, but a more intense flavor, and is best used in dressings and unheated preparations.
  • Coconut oil has a low smoke point (350 degrees), but can still be used in quick, shallow frying or to infuse mild coconut flavor into Asian curries, rice pilaf, or even granola. 
  • Pine nut oil does not cook well, but adds an earthy, mushroomy flavor to pestos, tapenades, and other dips. If you want to add the earthy flavor to your soup, stir in just a little oil right before serving.
  • If you’re not cooking with them, almost any nut oil can add an extra layer of flavor to recipes. Try tossing fresh bread crumbs with a little walnut oil and some freshly minced sage before sprinkling them over a casserole or gratin. Or, drizzle roasted vegetables with a little hazelnut oil just before serving.

Grilling with Tree Nuts

  • To infuse grilled food with a bit of nutty smokiness, soak whole unshelled nuts in water overnight, and then place them over the hot coals when you're ready to start cooking, much like you would with wood chips

Pumpkin Rugelach with Sage and Walnuts Spiced Maple Pecan Pie with Star Anise
Photos by James Ransom

Recipes

Potato and Asparagus Salad with Herb-Walnut Pesto
Homemade Cashew Burfi
Fresh Fig and Hazelnut Galette
Cinnamon Apple Walnut Stuffed French Toast
Spinach Quiche with Pine Nuts
Walnut Spread
Coconut Milk-Braised Greens
Butternut Custard Pecan Pie
Pumpkin Rugelach with Sage and Walnuts [Food52] (pictured above, left)
Spiced Maple Pecan Pie with Star Anise [Food52] (pictured above, right)

How do you get creative when cooking with nuts? Which nuts do you reach for most often? Share your cooking tips and ideas in the comments section below.

Like this post? Check out last week's From Scratch topic: Crackers 101

1 Comments Add a Comment
  • Dsc_0122

    panfusine says: wow.. I never knew that the Pistachi was related to the mango.. I guess they have the woody shell around the seed in common! Thanks for this informative article!

    about 1 year ago Reply to this »

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