Chestnuts are the large edible fruit of the chestnut tree and are a popular food in Europe and China. Chesnuts produce a delicate and slightly sweet flavor in the nut while softening the texture to potato-like consistency. Chestnuts can also be candied—marrons glaces in French—and ground into a flour that's common in soups and desserts. Corsicans fry them into donuts. Hungarians, French, and Swiss sweeten and puree them. We are familiar with the line from the Christmas song, "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire," but beyond that many of us have never cooked a chestnut in the kitchen, let alone on an open fire. This guide will take you beyond the "open fire" and give you more insight into this versatile nut.
Raw chestnuts are not fit to eat, and that's why cooking chestnuts are so important. The best cooking methods allow you to cook the nut in the shell, and then remove it when it's softened. You'll need to use a sharp pointed knife to slice either a horizontal slash or a large X along the flat side before roasting or boiling.
To boil, cover chestnuts with cold water, bring to a boil and simmer for three minutes. Remove from heat. Scoop out a few at a time and peel off the shell and skin with a sharp knife. As they cool, they become more difficult to peel, so keep them in hot water until you are ready to peel. Proceed with your recipe using the peeled nuts, making sure you finish cooking them completely within your recipe.
To boil and cook them completely in their skins, simmer for 15 to 25 minutes, then peel and use, but don't be disappointed if they fall apart as you peel them. This boiling method to fully cook the chestnuts is best used when you will be mashing the chestnuts or pushing them through a sieve for puree.
To roast chestnuts, make cuts as described above. They can potentially explode from internal pressure if not pierced. Place on a baking sheet in a 400 F oven for 15 to 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Serve hot.
To roast in a fire, take an aluminum pie plate and punch rows of holes. Make cuts in chestnuts or puncture them—this will allow the nut to release steam—and place on a grill over white-hot coals. If you have a chestnut roaster for the fireplace, all the better.
Chestnuts work well in savory dishes as well as sweet ones. They are often used as a substitute for potatoes or pasta in Europe due to their high starch content. Mashed or whole braised chestnuts are good partners with sweet potatoes, carrots, mushrooms, brussels sprouts, and cabbage. Most Americans use them in stuffings and desserts.
They are commonly used in stuffing and dessert offerings but there are also innovative new uses for chestnuts. While you can get them fresh most places, you can save time and cooking energy by buying canned whole chestnuts or chestnut puree. Use this in recipes when fresh ones are out of season.