What Is a Cashew Nut?

Buying, Cooking, and Recipes

A bowl of cashews

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The cashew, known botanically as Anacardium occidentale, is the seed of a tropical evergreen shrub related to mango, pistachio and poison ivy. Commercial growers cultivate cashews in warm, humid climates across the globe; Vietnam, Nigeria, India, Brazil, and Indonesia are among the top producers.

Fast Facts

  • Origin: Cashew nuts come from cashew seeds.
  • Storage: Airtight container in the freezer
  • Shelf life: Frozen, up to one year

What Is a Cashew?

The seeds of most fruits grow within the flesh, but the cashew seed hangs from the bottom of a cashew apple, essentially a swollen stem. A hard shell with two layers encases the kidney-shaped cashew seed, which must be harvested by hand. Between these two layers lurks the phenolic resin urushiol, which is the same substance that causes the blistering rash seen after contact with poison ivy and poison oak. The shelling process removes this substance, which is then used in the making of such products as varnish, insecticide, paint, and other industrial products. Because of the potential toxicity, cashews are never sold in the shell.

Fresh cashew apples taste delicious, but only growers and people living near cashew orchards will ever get to enjoy this fruit, as it is highly perishable. Cashew apples begin to ferment immediately after harvesting, and stay fresh no longer than 24 hours. Highly prized in their growing locale, cashew apples can sometimes be found canned, in jams, or as the base of a liqueur. Commercial producers in Brazil and India package the juice for sale regionally. The cashew tree itself does not go to waste, as the wood is milled into lumber used to build shipping crates and boats.

Cashew Uses

You might see cashews labeled "raw" in the supermarket, but all cashews undergo some heat in the process to remove the shell and caustic substance. Cashews sold as "roasted" have been cooked twice—once during the shelling process and then roasted to deepen the color and enhance the flavor, sometimes with salt. You will also find dry-roasted, meaning the nuts were cooked without any added oil.

Because they are high in heart-healthy monounsaturated fatty acids, cashews make some superfoods lists for their concentration of protein, fiber, minerals, and antioxidants. Though technically a seed, the cashew generally gets the culinary treatment of a nut. You can buy them whole to eat as a snack out of hand or puréed into butter for use as a spread or smoothie ingredient. Owing to their creamy texture when blended, cashews have become a popular ingredient used to make dairy alternatives. This includes cashew milk, nut-based cheese, and nut-based cream sauces and sour cream.

How to Cook With Cashews

Pressed cashews yield a light- to dark-yellow oil better used as a salad dressing ingredient or finishing oil than a cooking oil. It also has cosmetic applications as a skin moisturizer and carrier oil for aromatherapy treatments.

Asian and Indian cuisines frequently include whole or chopped cashews as a stir-fry ingredient and in curries. Vegan cooks turn cashews into animal product-free milk, cream, mayonnaise, butter, and pesto

What Does It Taste Like?

Cashews have a rich nutty flavor, similar to almonds or peanuts. When pureed, it may be hard to distinguish cashew butter from other nut butter like peanut or almond.

Cashew Substitute

Swapping out cashews depends on how you are using them. If you are using the cashews as nuts in a trail mix or other nut-based recipe, try pine nuts, almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, or sunflower seeds. If you are swapping the cashews for some other vegan/vegetarian puree, try a combination of zucchini and macadamia nuts or silken tofu.

Cashew Recipes

Try cashews as vegan substitutes or just tasty nuts in these recipes:

Where to Buy Cashews

Cashews can be found at most major grocery stores. They are sold in bags or in bulk bins. Depending on the store, there may be salted, unsalted, or even flavored or chocolate-covered varieties. While price varies, cashews are sold for about $8 to $10 a pound.

When purchasing from bulk bins, make sure the cashews are covered, and that the store has good product turnover to maintain freshness. You will find packaged cashews in a variety of containers: resealable and non-resealable bags, plastic jars, and foil-lined cans. When buying packaged cashews, choose vacuum-packed jars or cans over cellophane packaging. This type of packaging will help them stay fresh longer. 

Check to make sure there is no evidence of moisture or insects. Look to see that the cashews are not shriveled; this is a sign that they are past their prime. If possible, smell the cashews to ensure they are not rancid. When shopping for cashews, you may also see them described as "cashew kernels," which is the same as the cashew nut.

Storage

Cashews should be kept in an airtight container. They can spoil at room temperature. Refrigerated they can last up to six months and in the freezer, they can last up to one year.

Nutrition and Benefits

A 1-ounce serving of cashews is about 18 whole cashews. This serving size has about 160 calories, 5 grams of protein and 12 grams of fat. Cashews contain vitamin C and B and are high in folate. Cashews contain about 21% protein, 46% fat, and 25% carbohydrates.