The pecan nut grows in clusters of four on the tree. The edible nut is surrounded by a tough husk. When the nuts mature, the husk splits open to release the nuts which are encased in smooth, brown, oblong shells.
The nuts are harvested by shaking the tree and gathering the fallen nuts from the ground. The unshelled nuts, ranging in size from 1 to 1 1/2 inches, are generally then washed, lightly sanded, and polished before commercial sale. Some are dyed red as a sales tactic to give them eye appeal, although in today's health-conscious society, dying of the shells has fallen out of favor.
Although not nearly as hard as the walnut shell, the pecan shell must be cracked with some forceful assistance, usually a nutcracker. The bare hand is generally not strong enough.
Inside the protective shell, is a two-lobed seed with a smooth, very thin, brown edible skin. The halves are separated by a dark brown bark-like sheath which must be removed. Some slightly immature nutmeats may also have a bit of what looks like fine brown fuzz which should be removed by wiping or brushing as it lends a bitter flavor.
Premium pecan halves are commercially-sold by size, much like shrimp. The larger the pecan half, the fewer there are in a pound. Here are the categories:
Pecan Sizes (halves per pound)
• Mammoth = 200 to 250 halves
• Junior mammoth = 251 to 300 halves
• Jumbo = 301 to 350 halves
• Extra-large = 351 to 450 halves
• Large = 451 to 550 halves
• Medium = 551 to 650 halves
• Topper = 651 to 750 halves
• Small topper = 751 and up
Pecans come in the following grades:
• Fancy: Golden color, no defects
• Choice: Darker than fancy, no defects
• Standard: Harvested green (fuzzy kernels), mottled color, shriveled ends, etc.
• Damaged: Broken or cracked kernels
If you need chopped nuts or pieces for a recipe, there is no need to spend the extra money to buy fancy or choice grades. Those nuts sold as chopped or pieces are just broken pieces of usually a mixture of fancy and choice grades. Standard grade is generally used for commercial applications.