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Nothing says Winter Holidays like “chestnuts roasting on an open fire,” right? In Europe, where chestnut trees grow abundantly, chestnuts are a staple nut commonly used in cooking and desserts year-round. However, here in the U.S., where chestnut trees succumbed to a blight that almost made them extinct 120 years ago, chestnuts are a little harder to come by.
But the good news is that the American Chestnut is making a comeback, and if you are lucky enough to live near one of these beautiful trees, you can forage or glean enough chestnuts to make your stuffing, pilaf, soup, desserts and other Winter Holiday dishes truly special. Depending on where you live, in late autumn, you can often find them in the grocery store, too.
(If you are foraging, just be sure not to confuse American Chestnuts with horse chestnuts, “konkers,” or “buckeyes,” which are not safe to eat. The shell should be brown, fuzzy and prickly as shown below, not spiky)
How to Prepare Chestnuts
Like a lot of nuts, chestnuts need a bit of preparation before you can eat them. Whether you roast, steam or boil them, you will need heat to get them out of their shells and make them delicious.
Regardless of the method you choose, start by washing your chestnuts well under cold water to remove any dirt and debris. You should do this very thoroughly if you gathered the chestnuts yourself. Store-bought chestnuts have already been rinsed once, but wash them once more when you get home.
Once clean, place your chestnuts flat side down on a cutting board. Use a small knife to score an “X” into the side of each nut. A serrated knife works well for this. This will help the shell to peel back and soften as it cooks. (See image, below.)
Once you’ve scored your chestnuts, you will need to choose your cooking method. Roasting your chestnuts will impart richer flavor and a firmer nut, whereas steaming or boiling creates soft, tender and buttery nuts—so choose the cooking method that will work best with your recipe.
In a saucepan, completely cover scored chestnuts with water and add a big pinch of salt. Optionally add 1 Tablespoon olive, avocado or other mild-flavored oil to the water. The oil makes the chestnuts easier to peel.
Bring water to a boil and cook chestnuts until the shells peel back and the nuts within are tender, which will take 45 minutes to one hour, depending on their size. Remove chestnuts from the pan and place them into a towel or aluminum foil wrap to keep them warm while you peel them. (See below.)
Boil an inch or so of water in a large saucepan, place scored chestnuts into a steamer basket, and put the steamer basket over the boiling water. Cover the pot and steam the chestnuts for 20-30 minutes, or until the shells peel back and the nuts inside are tender.
Remove chestnuts from the pan and place them into a towel or aluminum foil wrap to keep them warm while you peel them. (See below.)
Preheat your oven to 400ºF (205ºC). Once you’ve scored your chestnuts, place them in a bowl of boiling water for 2 minutes, then drain thoroughly. You want the boiling water to enter the shell so the steam created in the oven helps lift the skin from the chestnut.
Place scored, soaked chestnuts on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Roast chestnuts for 20-30 minutes until the edges of the shells really curl up and the nuts within are tender. While they’re roasting, stir them around roughly every 10 minutes so they don’t burn.
Remove tender, roasted chestnuts from the pan and place them into a towel or aluminum foil wrap to keep them warm while you peel them. (See below.)
How to Peel Chestnuts
Regardless of your cooking method, wrap your hot chestnuts in a towel or aluminum foil wrap to keep them warm. It’s important to peel them while they’re still warm to make the process much easier.
Remove one chestnut from the towel or wrap at a time, and allow it to cool off enough to touch. The corners of the “X” you scored will have peeled back to reveal the nut within, so using both hands, pinch the four corners of the shell together to crack and loosen it. Carefully peel off the tough brown shell and all of the papery brown skin beneath, too. Wear latex or rubber gloves for this step if your fingers are sensitive.
If you find there is a lot of skin left on the nuts, put your stubborn chestnuts back in the pan and roast or boil them for another 10 minutes. Cool them down enough to touch, and then peel off the remaining bits of skin.
How to Store Chestnuts
Cooked and peeled chestnuts can be stored in the fridge for up to three days, or frozen for several months.
How to Use Chestnuts
The easiest and most traditional way to eat chestnuts is simply as a peel-and-eat snack! Chestnuts are also delicious chopped up and added to rice pilaf, stuffing, salads, soups, or ravioli. For a sweet treat, chestnuts can be made into candy, jam, cookies and famous French pastries, like the Mont Blanc.
You don’t need to feel guilty about enjoying these wonderful little treats all season long. Chestnuts are a great source of copper, manganese, vitamin B6, vitamin C, thiamine, folate, and riboflavin, magnesium, and potassium. They are also a very good source of fiber: Just 10 chestnuts provides 15% of your daily requirement.
- Chestnut Fennel Soup
- Candied Chestnuts
- Castagnaccio Pugliese (Gluten-Free Chestnut Flour Cake)
- Chestnut Risotto with Butternut Squash
How to Make Chestnut Jam
Homemade chestnut jam is incredible on your charcuterie board with toasted bread, aged cheeses, brie, or chevre. It’s also great stirred into chocolate mousse, spread onto crepes and French toast, or spooned over vanilla ice cream before drizzling with hot chocolate sauce.
Chestnut jam also makes a lovely filling for chocolate cakes, meringues, and cookies. And for a quick, easy dessert, serve it like a parfait in small glasses with whipped cream and crushed hazelnuts.
- 3.5 lbs chestnuts, in the shell, or approximately 2.25 lbs. shelled, cooked chestnuts
- 1.1 lb. raw cane sugar, (Adjust to suit your taste.)
- 1 tsp. vanilla extract, or one vanilla bean, scraped
- 1/2 cup filtered water, plus enough to cook chestnuts
- 1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil, avocado oil or other light cooking oil (OPTIONAL)
- 1 tsp. ground cinnamon, (OPTIONAL)
To Prepare Chestnuts
- Wash chestnuts thoroughly and score each with an "X" using a sharp knife. In a saucepan, completely cover scored chestnuts with water and add a big pinch of salt. Optionally add 1 Tablespoon olive, avocado or other mild-flavored oil to the water. The oil makes the chestnuts easier to peel.
- Bring water to a boil and cook chestnuts until the shells peel back and the nuts within are starchy and easy to mash with a fork, which will take 40 minutes to one hour, depending on their size. Remove chestnuts from the pan with a slotted spoon, and place them into a towel or aluminum foil wrap to keep them warm while you peel them. Reserve the cooking water.
- Remove one chestnut from the towel or wrap at a time, and allow it to cool off enough to touch. The corners of the “X” you cut will have peeled back to reveal the nut beneath, so using both hands, pinch the four corners of the shell together to crack and loosen it. Carefully peel off the tough brown shell and all of the papery brown skin beneath, too. Wear latex or rubber gloves for this step if your fingers are sensitive.If you find there is a lot of skin left on the nuts, put your stubborn chestnuts back in the pan and boil them for another 10 minutes. Cool them down enough to touch, and then peel off the remaining bits of skin.
To Make Jam
- Put a few small plates in the freezer to check the set of the jam later.
- Puree the chestnuts with an immersion blender, high-speed blender or food processor. Slowly add as much reserved cooking water (or purified water) as needed to achieve a creamy consistency. You might need to do this in batches.
- Weigh the pureed chestnut cream, preferably in kilograms. Then measure the sugar out to 1/2 of the weight of the cream, in grams. Put sugar into a saucepan with enough cooking water (or purified water) to equal 1/3 of the weight of the sugar, in milliliters. The math is just easier using the metric system. For example: For 1 kg (about 2.25lbs) of chestnut puree, add 500 g (about 1.1 lbs.) sugar and about 165 ml (3/4 cup) water to the saucepan.
- Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until the sugar has dissolved. Then on high heat, bring the sugar mixture to a boil. Continue to boil until the sugar mixture starts to foam, about 2 minutes.
- Whisk in the chestnut puree and vanilla carefully and thoroughly, making sure not to splash the hot sugar syrup. Stir in cinnamon, if using. Boil the jam for another 3 minutes and then check the jam for setting consistency. The jam will darken as it cooks.
- After 3 minutes, put a teaspoon of the jam onto a frozen plate and wait 10 seconds for it to cool. Rotate the plate. The jam should not run like a syrup, but have the consistency of loosely set jam. It will not wrinkle like jams made with pectin, so just look for a consistency you like. If it is too loose for your taste, cook the jam for another 30-60 seconds and check for set again.
- When the jam has reached your desired consistency, remove the pot from heat and transfer the jam to sterilized glass jars, leaving about a half inch of headroom. Attach canning lids and turn the jars upside down. The heat from the jam will usually create a vacuum seal, but you can also process the jam by boiling the jars for 5-10 minutes. Use within 6 months. Store in the fridge once opened.