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Nuts
Why Eat It
Varieties
Availability
Shopping
Storage
Preparation
Nutrition Chart


Why Eat It

We tend to use nuts only as a snack food, or in salads and desserts. Yet these foods are much more nourishing than most snacks. Indeed, in some parts of the world where meat is forbidden, nuts are still a staple food, just as they were in ancient times. Nomadic peoples first gathered nuts growing in the wild, and around 10,000 B.C. settled populations began to cultivate nut trees.

Most nuts are the seeds or dried fruits of trees; and the majority have hard, woody outer husks that protect the softer kernels inside. All of these foods have substantial reserves of Protein: Nuts derive from 8% to 18% of their calories from protein. Although the protein is incomplete--except for peanuts, nuts are deficient in the amino acid lysine--it can be complemented by consuming legumes or animal products along with the nuts. Almonds, Brazil nuts, and filberts contain good amounts of calcium, and other nuts have at least a small quantity of this important Mineral. Most nuts are also rich in potassium and relatively high in iron. Their oil-rich kernels are one of the best vegetable sources of Vitamin E; in addition, they supply the B vitamins thiamin, niacin, and riboflavin (although roasting can destroy much of the thiamin--one reason to eat raw, or unroasted, nuts). The minerals magnesium, zinc, copper, and selenium are also well represented in nuts.

Along with these nutrients, however, comes Fat, usually a lot of it, which is the principal reason why nuts are less attractive than legumes or grains as a nonmeat protein source. Most nuts derive between 70% and 97% of their calories from fat. (One exception is chestnuts, which contain 8% fat calories.) Most of the fat in nuts is unsaturated, which can help to lower blood cholesterol levels, but some nuts--especially coconuts, Brazil nuts, macadamias, and cashews--contain more saturated fat than the others.

Varieties

Nuts are indeed varied. They grow all over the world, in assorted sizes and shapes, and are marketed in a variety of forms--with or without shells; whole, chopped, or slivered; raw, dry-roasted, or oil-roasted; salted, sugared, spiced, or plain; packaged or loose. While some types of nuts can be eaten as is from the tree, most are dried to preserve them (and improve their texture and flavor).

Whether you choose nuts in the shell or shelled is mostly a matter of convenience. Nuts keep better in their shells, but, of course, they do require cracking before you eat or cook with them. Most nuts in their shells and some shelled nuts are sold raw, that is, unroasted. Raw nuts have the advantage of no added fat, but their flavor is rather bland compared with that of roasted nuts, and they do not keep as well.

Commercial "roasting" of shelled nuts is actually a form of deep-frying, and the fat used is often highly saturated coconut oil. The process adds about 10 calories per ounce of nuts, or a little more than a Gram of fat (mostly saturated fat, if coconut oil is used). Roasted nuts are usually heavily salted, too, although you can sometimes find unsalted roasted cashews and peanuts. Nuts can be roasted or toasted at home without fat.

Dry-roasted nuts are not cooked in oil, so they are slightly lower in calories and fat than oil-roasted nuts. Like regular roasted nuts, however, they may be salted or contain other ingredients, such as corn syrup, sugar, starch, MSG, and preservatives.

Almonds: See Almonds

Brazil nuts: See Brazil Nuts

Cashews: These nuts are the seeds of a tree that is native to Africa and South America. Today, most cashews are imported from India. The kidney-shaped nuts grow in a double shell at the top of small pear-shaped fruits. Cashews are always sold shelled, because their shells contain a caustic oil (the cashew is related to poison ivy); in fact, the nuts must be carefully extracted to avoid contamination with this oil. In the United States, these flavorful nuts are more popular for snacking than for cooking, yet they make a particularly delicious nut butter. They are sold raw, roasted, or dry roasted. Cashews are a good source of iron and folate (folic acid). They're lower in total fat than most nuts and seeds, but are relatively high in saturated fat.

Chestnuts: Chestnuts, unlike other tree nuts, are very low in fat. For more information, see Chestnuts

Hazelnuts: Hazelnuts are sometimes called filberts, which is actually a misnomer since the filbert is not the same nut--although it's closely related. The nuts are indeed similar even if not botanically identical. For more information, see Hazelnuts.

Macadamia nuts:These "gourmet" nuts were named for Dr. John Macadam, the Australian who reputedly discovered they were deliciously edible. Indigenous to Australia and now one of the best-known products of Hawaii, macadamias have a sweet, delicate taste and creamy, rich texture. However, they contain more fat and calories than any other nut. On the plus side, macadamias supply significant amounts of iron, magnesium, and thiamin. Most commonly eaten as a dessert nut, macadamias are nearly always sold shelled, as their shiny round shells are very thick, requiring some 300 pounds of pressure to crack them. They are harvested five to six times a year, but the demand always exceeds the supply; consequently, they are usually quite expensive.

Peanuts: Peanuts are actually a type of legume, but are commonly classified as nuts. For more information, see Peanuts.

Pecans: The seeds of a species of hickory native to North America, pecans grow wild from Illinois to the Gulf of Mexico. They are also commercially cultivated across the South and Southwest. The nuts develop in clusters and have smooth oblong or round shells. Cultivated pecans are bred for thin ("paper") shells, which are easier to crack than the hard shells of wild pecans. Pecans are among the highest in fat and lowest in protein of all the nuts. Hickory nuts are wild relatives of cultivated pecans. Pecans are sold with and without shells.

Pine nuts: Pine nuts, pignoli, pinyon nuts, Indian nuts--these are all names for the seeds of various types of nut pine trees, which grow in several areas of the world. The seeds come from pine cones, and range from orange-pit size (from the Mexican and American trees) to more than 2" in length (from the South American nut pines). To harvest them, the pine cones are dried to free the nuts, then the nutshells are cracked to release the kernels. Because of the intricacy of harvesting pine nuts, they are quite expensive.

Slender ivory-colored pignoli are an important cooking ingredient in the Mediterranean region, while the pinyons of the American Southwest have been a staple of the Native American larder since ancient times. Pine nuts are also rich in thiamin, iron, and magnesium. In general, European species of pine nuts are richer in protein and lower in fat than the American varieties, but the American pine nuts offer more vitamins and minerals. European pine nuts (Italian pignoli are the most widely available in this country) are sold shelled; American pine nuts, or pinyons, are sold shelled or with shells.

Pistachio nuts: Imported pistachio nuts became a popular snack food in the Thirties. Today, the evergreen trees that bear pistachios are grown in California for the American market. These peanut-sized nuts, which have beige shells and green kernels, supply good amounts of iron, thiamin, and phosphorus. Pistachios are usually eaten as a snack--their shells split naturally as the nuts mature, making them easy to crack by hand--but they are also a flavorful ingredient when used in cooking. They are sold shelled or in the beige shells, which are sometimes bleached or dyed red (both in an effort to cover up defects or blemishes in the shells). Pistachios come salted or unsalted, "natural" or roasted.

Walnuts: See Walnuts.

Availability

Most shelled nuts, sold in vacuum-sealed cans or jars, or cellophane bags, can be found in supermarkets year round. Fresh tree nuts (such as walnuts) in the shell are more seasonal--supplies are best in the fall and early winter; chestnuts are abundant from September through March.

Shopping

When buying packaged nuts, look for a freshness date on a sealed jar, can, or bag. The kernels, if visible, should be plump and uniform in size. If you buy shelled nuts at a candy store, health-food store, or other bulk source, be sure that they're crisp and fresh, not limp or rubbery, musty, or rancid smelling.

When selecting nuts with shells from a basket or bin, choose those with undamaged shells; look out for cracks, scars, or tiny wormholes. Each nut should feel heavy, and the kernel should not rattle when the nutshell is shaken; if it does, the kernel may be withered and dry.

Storage

The high fat content of nuts makes them prone to rancidity. Heat, light, and humidity will speed spoilage. Raw unshelled nuts, however, keep very well--six months to a year when stored in a cool, dry place.

Shelled nuts will keep for three to four months at room temperature in a cool, dry place. Keep them in their original package or, once the package is opened, transfer them to plastic bags or freezer containers. For longer storage, keep them in the refrigerator or freezer. In the freezer they'll stay for up to one year. If they are properly wrapped, freezing will not significantly affect the texture or flavor of nuts, and they need not be thawed for cooking purposes. Nuts for eating should be thawed at room temperature and then toasted or freshened in the oven before serving. Don't chop whole nuts until you're ready to use them.

Chestnuts in the shell that are stored in a perforated plastic bag, will keep in the refrigerator for about six months.

Preparation

Usually all the preparation that's necessary is to shell the nuts. For those that have hard shells, use a nutcracker or a small hammer. Brazil nuts are easier to shell when they have been either steamed or frozen.

If shelled nuts seem a little soft (but do not smell rancid), they can be freshened by spreading them on a baking sheet and heating them in a very low oven (150°F) for a few minutes.

Chop nuts using a good-size chef's knife on a large cutting board. For efficient chopping, spread the nuts on the board; hold down the tip of the knife blade with one hand and raise and lower the knife, moving it fanwise across the nuts. A curved chopper used in a wooden bowl works well, too, as does an inexpensive mechanical nut chopper.

When chopping nuts in a food processor blender, process a small amount at a time and pulse the machine on and off; don't overprocess the nuts, as this will release their oils and turn them to paste.

If you need very finely chopped nuts, as for certain cakes (such as tortes) or other desserts, there are also special hand-cranked nut grinders with sharp, rotating blades. The blades actually shave the nuts into small flakes instead of chopping them.

Blanching: When applied to nuts, this term refers not to a brief cooking in boiling water, but to the process used to remove the papery skin from the kernel. Nuts can be blanched in several different ways. Oven-toasting hazelnuts will enable you to remove their skins. Chestnuts can be blanched in water to make their shells easier to remove. Other shelled nuts can also be blanched in boiling water. Drop the nuts in the boiling water, then remove the pan from the heat and let it stand for a few minutes. Drain the nuts, and when they are cool enough to handle, slip off the skins, or rub them off with a kitchen towel. To dry them, spread the nuts on a paper towel or toast them briefly in a 250°F to 300°F oven.

Boiling: Chestnuts can be cooked and served like a vegetable. Blanch and peel the nuts, then cook the kernels in boiling water or broth until tender. Cooking time: 35 to 40 minutes.

Oven-roasting chestnuts: Chestnuts can be roasted in the oven and then eaten as is or used in recipes. To keep them from bursting during roasting and to make them easier to peel, cut an X in the flat side of each nutshell before roasting. Place the chestnuts in a shallow pan and cover the pan tightly with foil. Roast in a 450°F oven. Shake the pan occasionally during cooking. Peel the chestnuts while they are still warm, taking them from the pan one at a time, and remove their papery inner shell. Cooking time: 30 minutes.

Fire-roasting chestnuts: To roast chestnuts over an open fire, cut an X in each shell as described above, then wrap the nuts in a sheet of heavy-duty foil with a few holes punched in it. Place them about 5" from the fire. You can also use a fireplace corn popper or chestnut roasting basket. Cooking time: 15 to 20 minutes.

Toasting: This method browns and crisps nuts and brings out their flavor. Nuts can be toasted on the stovetop, or in the oven or microwave; the cooking time will depend on the type of nuts and whether they are whole, chopped, or slivered.

For stovetop toasting, place shelled nuts in a single layer in a heavy, ungreased skillet. Toast over medium heat, shaking the pan and stirring them to keep them from scorching, until they are golden brown. As soon as the nuts are browned, pour them out of the skillet as the retained heat in the skillet will continue to cook the nuts and they may burn. Cooking times: 5 to 10 minutes.

For oven toasting (convenient when you are preheating the oven for baking), place shelled nuts in a shallow baking pan. Stir the nuts occasionally. Cook until they are golden. Cooking time: 10 to 25 minutes in a 350°F oven.

For microwave toasting, spread the nuts in a single layer on a paper plate. Cooking time: 1-1/2 minutes at 100% power, then stir, let stand for a minute, and cook for another 1-1/2 minutes.

Nutrition Chart

Hazelnuts/1 ounce

Calories
179
Total fat (g)
18
Saturated fat (g)
1.3
Monounsaturated fat (g)
14
Polyunsaturated fat (g)
1.7
Dietary fiber (g)
1.7
Protein (g)
4
Carbohydrate (g)
4
Cholesterol (mg)
0
Sodium (mg)
1
Vitamin E (mg)
6.8
Manganese (mg)
0.6

Pistachios/1 ounce

Calories
164
Total fat (g)
14
Saturated fat (g)
1.7
Monounsaturated fat (g)
9.3
Polyunsaturated fat (g)
2.1
Dietary fiber (g)
3.1
Protein (g)
6
Carbohydrate (g)
7
Cholesterol (mg)
0
Sodium (mg)
2

Pine Nuts/1 ounce

Calories
161
Total fat (g)
14
Saturated fat (g)
2.2
Monounsaturated fat (g)
5.4
Polyunsaturated fat (g)
6
Dietary fiber (g)
1.3
Protein (g)
7
Carbohydrate (g)
4
Cholesterol (mg)
0
Sodium (mg)
1
Thiamin (mg)
0.2
Magnesium (mg)
66

Chestnuts/4 ounces cooked

Calories
149
Total fat (g)
1.6
Saturated fat (g)
0.3
Monounsaturated fat (g)
0.5
Polyunsaturated fat (g)
0.6
Dietary fiber (g)
5.7
Protein (g)
2
Carbohydrate (g)
32
Cholesterol (mg)
0
Sodium (mg)
31
Vitamin C (mg)
30
Copper (mg)
0.5
Magnesium (mg)
61
Manganese (mg)
1
Potassium (mg)
811



Health Nuts
Nuts: An Array of Benefits

Date Published: 4/21/2005
Date Reviewed: 6/7/2005


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