What Are Pine Nuts?

Buying, Cooking, and Recipes

What Are Pine Nuts

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Pine nuts—also called pignolia or pignoli nuts—are one of the main ingredients in traditional pesto. These nuts come with a high price tag due to their slow growth and labor-intensive harvesting process. Learn all about these delicious (and valuable) nuts, how to store them for maximum shelf life, and how to use them in the kitchen.

Fast Facts

  • Uses: Pesto, cookies, in place of other nuts
  • Health Benefit: May slow cognitive decline
  • Cost: Expensive
  • Substitutions: Macadamia nuts, cashews

What Are Pine Nuts?

True to their name, pine nuts do come from pine trees—pine cones, specifically—but they're not actually nuts, they're seeds. It's perfectly acceptable to call them either nuts or seeds. They take about a year and a half to ripen, but some varieties under certain weather conditions may take double that time. When ripe, harvesters gather the pine cones, break them open, and separate the nuts from the pine cone fragments by hand. Pine nuts have a thick second shell that must be discarded before eating but can be difficult to remove. The lengthy ripening time and shelling labor results in an expensive finished product.

The kinds of pine trees than yield full-sized pine nuts are grown all over the world, with China, Russia, Mongolia, Korea, and Afghanistan being the lead producers and exporters. Europe is a large consumer and producer of pine nuts as well, particularly in Italy where the nut is used in the classic preparation of basil pesto as well as in popular pignoli cookies. Nuts used in these dishes are commonly toasted briefly in a pan to enhance their rich, nutty flavor.

How to Use Pine Nuts

Use pine nuts in any recipe that calls for nuts. Add pine nuts to baked goods, granola, pasta dishes, salads, smoothie bowls, and anything else that could use extra flavor, crunchy texture, and a nutrition boost. You can also blend them into soups, sauces, and dips for a creamy texture that's dairy-free and vegan-friendly.

Many recipes instruct you to toast the pine nuts before you use them, which brings out a deeper nutty flavor. To do this, heat a dry skillet over medium-low heat, then add the pine nuts and shake the pan frequently. Pine nuts can go from perfectly golden-brown to burned in the blink of an eye, and burned pine nuts taste unpleasantly bitter. Keep a close watch on the pan as you shake it, and remove the nuts from the pan as soon as they turn golden-brown, as they may burn if you leave them in the pan (even if you turn off the heat).

What Are Pine Nuts
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What Are Pine Nuts
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What Are Pine Nuts
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What Are Pine Nuts
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What Are Pine Nuts
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What Do They Taste Like?

Pine nuts have a mildly buttery flavor and creamy texture more like cashews or macadamia nuts than the more pronounced nutty flavors of walnuts, peanuts, or pistachios. When blended into a pesto, dip, or sauce, they contribute more smooth, clingy texture than nuttiness. Toast pine nuts before using them to enhance their nutty flavor.

Recipes

Pine nuts can be used in place of any other nut in a sweet or savory recipe. Before you add them to recipes, it's best to toast the pine nuts until they turn golden brown and fragrant. This enhances their buttery flavor and makes them more attractive when sprinkled on top of a dish.

Pine Nut Selection

With a high oil content, pine nuts quickly turn rancid if they're not stored properly. If you buy them from a bulk provider, use your nose and avoid any nuts that smell rancid. Purchase them from a source with a high product turnover to ensure optimum freshness. Packaged pine nuts can be found in both the nut section of the supermarket as well as the gourmet Italian foods aisle. You can assume the nuts are all of a similar quality, but you may find those in the gourmet aisle will be sold in smaller quantities and are more expensive.

Pine Nut Storage

Pine nuts should be kept in an airtight container in the refrigerator for one to two months. If you wish to extend the shelf-life, place pine nuts in a heavy-duty freezer bag in the freezer for three to six months.

Once pine nuts turn rancid, they will give off an unpleasant odor and often develop a bitter taste. You may also notice that mold has appeared. 

Nutrition and Benefits

Pine nuts, like other nuts and seeds, are high in calories per serving. A 1/4-cup serving contains about 400 calories, mostly from healthy, monounsaturated fats. Each serving provides more than half the daily recommended value of iron and magnesium and is also rich in vitamin E, zinc, fiber, and protein. Studies have suggested that pine nuts' nutritional profile may help delay cognitive decline in those predisposed to Alzheimer's disease.

Myths

"Pine nut syndrome" can occur in some individuals, with the main symptom being a persistent metallic taste in your mouth. It begins 12 to 48 hours after consumption and can last anywhere from a few days to a couple of weeks. According to the FDA, this is not an allergy, but simply an adverse reaction to pine nuts. Toasting them reduces the chance of a reaction occurring.