Water chestnuts are a prominent ingredient in Chinese cuisine. Indigenous to Southeast Asia, they have been cultivated in China since ancient times. The name "water chestnut" comes from the fact that it resembles a chestnut in shape and coloring (it has papery brown skin over white flesh), but the water chestnut is actually not a nut at all—it is an aquatic tuber (rootlike part of a plant) that grows in freshwater marshes.
Water chestnuts require a long frost-free growing season (about seven months), which means that they are only grown in semitropical areas, including a few states such as California and Florida. They can be eaten raw or cooked.
- Varieties: fresh and canned
- Place of origin: China
- Common preparations: roasted and stir-fried
Fresh vs. Canned Water Chestnuts
Water chestnuts are sold both fresh and canned, but canned is much easier to find. Fresh water chestnuts, however, are worth searching for as they have a sweeter flavor and are very crisp with a slightly juicy finish. Use fresh water chestnuts for dishes where the water chestnut is the main ingredient.
Canned water chestnuts may have a similar texture but are practically void of any flavor. They are best incorporated into a dish mainly for texture, as in stir-fries, stuffings, soups, and dumpling fillings. Fresh water chestnuts are more expensive than the canned.
Water Chestnut Uses
Water chestnuts are most often used in Chinese recipes in a stir-fry along with other vegetables, but they can also be part of a classic bacon appetizer, and add a welcome crunch to a creamy spinach dip. To bring a vegetable side dish from average to interesting, add sliced water chestnuts toward the end of the cooking time. Depending on whether the water chestnuts are fresh or canned will determine how they are prepared.
How to Cook With Water Chestnuts
Fresh water chestnuts need to be prepared differently than canned. Prior to cooking with fresh, the top and bottom of the water chestnut need to be cut off, the skin should be removed with a vegetable peeler, and the water chestnut should be rinsed with cool water. They can be peeled ahead of time but need to be stored in cold water in the refrigerator, with the water changed daily.
Before using canned water chestnuts, rinse them under warm running water to remove any "tinny" taste. It is best to add water chestnuts, whether fresh or canned, toward the end of cooking to retain the crunchy texture.
What Do They Taste Like?
Fresh water chestnuts taste differently from the canned—or, it should be said, the fresh have a taste, while the canned do not. Fresh water chestnuts are very flavorful and are fruity, nutty, and delicately sweet. They are like a cross between an apple and a coconut with the texture of a pear. Canned, however, barely have any flavor.
Water Chestnut Recipes
Fresh water chestnuts should be used in recipes where they will be the star, like in the appetizer, bacon-wrapped water chestnuts. Canned, on the other hand, are better used for their texture, as in a recipe for sweet and sour meatballs.
Where to Buy Water Chestnuts
Fresh water chestnuts are available year-round in Asian markets, either in packages or in bins. Unless you live in an area where they are grown locally, fresh water chestnuts are generally not available in neighborhood grocery stores. Canned water chestnuts, however, are available year-round at most supermarkets.
When choosing fresh water chestnuts, look for firm ones with unwrinkled skin and no soft spots—otherwise, when you peel the water chestnut, you may find it has turned mushy. Generally, it's best to buy a few more chestnuts than needed, just in case a few have spoiled.
Canned water chestnuts are offered either whole or sliced. If you don't mind cutting them yourself, buy the whole as they will have a crunchier texture.
Unpeeled, fresh water chestnuts will keep for seven to 10 days in a plastic bag in the produce drawer of the refrigerator. Store canned water chestnuts in a cool, dry place and use within a year. Once opened, store the canned water chestnuts in a sealed container in the refrigerator and use within three days.