Around the time of Thanksgiving, Sonoma Coast Organic Produce’s chestnuts at the farmers market caught my eye. I had never eaten or cooked this type of nut before, and I wanted to try to make something different for my family. The chestnuts ran between $5 and $7 per pint basket due to their size. They had a nice flavor, even when raw, so I bought about two pounds, one for gravy and the other for baking and snacking. Cooking the nuts before eating them is highly recommended for easier digestion and even better flavor (breaks down tannins and enzymes that prevent nutrient absorption). The two websites I found (Chestnut Tips and University of Missouri’s Agroforestry) for preparing chestnuts were an enormous help.

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Chestnuts are traditionally eaten in mid to late fall, and are even sung about in “The Christmas Song” and “Sleigh Ride”. I pan-roasted half of mine and oven-roasted the other, but both batches came out the same. If your chestnuts pop, like in the song lyrics, congratulations. Now you have a mess. Make sure to heat your chestnuts slowly and that slices into the nuts are big enough for the steam to escape. They may, however, still explode everywhere even after you remove them from the heat, so be careful. You can cook them in a variety of methods, but you may find them boiled and jarred in your market year ’round. Just keep in mind that local peak season produce is always best for taste and nutrition; the less it has to travel to get to you, the better.

chestnuts2Preparing Chestnuts
Refrigerate the nuts in a plastic bag until you are ready to cook them. When you are ready to prepare the chestnuts, put them on the counter to bring them to room temperature. Wash and pat dry the nuts. Carve “X” half way down into the flattest side of the shell with a paring knife or halve the nuts with a large chef knife, other wise the nuts will burst as they try to release steam. Make sure you have a firm grip in the nut, so it doesn’t slip and cause you to cut yourself. I found it easiest to slice down into the nut from one edge of the “X” to the middle. Turn the nut to pierce the shell from the opposite direction to form one line. Turn and repeat to form the “X”.
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Pan Roasting
Prepare the chestnuts. Cook them in a lightly oiled pan over medium heat until dark spots appear on the shells or for 15 to 25 minutes, turning frequently.

Fire Roasting
Prepare the chestnuts, and “X” the shells but do not halve them. Prepare the grill with propane or charcoal (to add a smoky flavor). In a stainless steel or cast iron pan, roast the nuts for 20 minutes, frequently turning. You can also roast the nuts over a bonfire or white hot coals in a heavy duty pan with a long handle for 5 to 10 minutes, frequently turning to prevent burning.

Oven Roasting
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Prepare the nuts. Oven roast them for 15 to 20 minutes in a stainless steel roasting pan on the rack in the middle of the oven. Turn occasionally to prevent scorching. Remove the chestnuts from the oven. Cool the oven to 250 degrees F, checking your oven thermometer for the temperature. Cool, shell and peel the nuts. In a medium bowl, lightly coat the nuts with olive oil. Spread the nuts out in a shallow pan. Lightly sprinkle the chestnuts with your favorite salt. Roast the nuts for 20 to 30 minutes or until slightly crunchy. Cool 10 to 15 minutes before serving.

Boiling This method is best for mashed or pureed nuts.
Prepare the chestnuts. Cover them with cool water in a large pot. Bring the water to boil. Simmer the nuts for 3 minutes on high heat. If you are cooking them further within a recipe, remove the pot from the stove. Only scoop out a few nuts at a time for shelling and skinning to keep them warm. If you wish to completely cook the nuts through, boil them in their shells for 15 to 20 minutes on medium high heat, and then shell and peel.

Microwaving
Prepare the chestnuts. Spread them in a single layer of a microwave-safe glass casserole dish. Cover the dish with a wet paper towel. Microwave the nuts for one minute. Remove from the microwave. Overcooking them makes the skin more difficult to remove. Cool, shell and skin the nuts. If the skins have not separated from the chestnuts, cook them for another minute.

Steaming
Prepare the nuts. With half an inch of water in the bottom, steam the chestnuts until the meat separates from the shell. They are basically blanched at this point and still crunchy. Steam them until they become soft or the desired texture is reached.
Shelling and Skinning
Cool the nuts until you can pick them up. The shells become brittle once they are cool. Remove the shell and inner skin with a sharp knife. If the nuts get too cool, they will become more difficult to peel; rewarm them. If the skins do not separate completely, squeeze the edges to pop out the nut. The nut-meats are undercooked. Bake, steam or boil the nuts another few minutes or until the meat is soft.
It may be best to shell the nuts into bowls over a paper-covered area of your table for easy clean-up. (No matter what, I still got nut bits on the floor.) When shelling the nuts, try not get too frustrated. They are difficult and time consuming to shell and peel. Since the shells were smooth and oily, sometimes my chestnuts either dropped from or flew out of my hands. Most of my chestnuts crumbled apart as I peeled them. I also got rather sore fingers, as I did not use a knife to remove the shells and skins. Don’t worry though; the flavor of the chestnuts is definitely worth all of the work.

Just to emphasise, chestnuts take a very long time to shell. Even with the help of my family, it took at least two hours to remove the shells of just one pound of nuts. Next time, I’ll cook the nuts the day before I plan to use them. Make sure you only prepare and cook as many as need. You can always freeze raw ones in a sealed airtight bag or container (not glass). Chestnuts naturally have a very high moisture content and will turn rancid if you do not use them fast enough.

Check out Chestnuts Online. They have all sorts of information on chestnuts, as well as some great recipes, like chestnut wild rice. Yum! For information on growing chestnut trees, visit Mother Earth News.

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