Chestnuts are the edible fruit of a deciduous tree that grows throughout the world. They can be eaten raw or cooked, with a mild flavor that makes them versatile for both sweet and savory dishes.
What Are Chestnuts?
Chestnuts are the edible fruit of deciduous trees in the family Castanea, which grows in Europe, North America and Asia. Along with hazelnuts, they are one of the only nuts that are actually fruits as opposed to seeds. (Except for peanuts, which are legumes.)
While the North American, Chinese and Japanese chestnuts are cultivated for food, the most common variety, traditionally eaten during the holiday season from Thanksgiving through New Years, is the European chestnut, Castanea sativa, or sweet chestnut.
Chestnuts grow in clusters of up to 7 nuts inside inedible spiny husks. The nut inside is smooth, shiny and dark brown in color, and they way the nuts are pressed together within the husk means that each one has a flat side and a rounded side.
Chestnuts can be eaten raw, but usually they're cooked, with common techniques including roasting, boiling, steaming, dep-frying or even microwaving. Once cooked they have a soft texture and a mild, buttery, sweet flavor that resembles sweet potatoes. They are sometimes used in soups and stews in the same manner as potatoes, or boiled and then mashed and served with butter. They're also used in stuffings, in savory meat dishes, in desserts, such as the Mont Blanc dessert, and simmered in sugar syrup to make candied chestnuts.
Chestnut flour is used in many baked goods, especially in Europe, to make fritters, cakes, polenta, and even pasta.
How To Cook With Chestnuts
The most famous way of preparing them is to roast them either over a fire or in the oven, and then serve them hot. One important step when preparing fresh chestnuts is to score the skin with a sharp knife so that the chestnuts don't burst. This also makes it easier to remove the skin after cooking.
To roast them, score them and then roast on a baking sheet in a 400 F oven for 15 to 20 minutes. You can also cook them by simmering the scored chestnuts in water for 3 minutes. In both cases, be sure to remove the skin before eating.
What Do They Taste Like?
A bit crunchy and bitter when raw, cooked chestnuts turn buttery and sweet, with a flavor and soft texture reminiscent of sweet potatoes.
100 grams of roasted chestnuts contains 40 grams of water and provides 245 calories, 3 grams of protein and 53 grams of carbs, along with 2 grams of fat and 5 grams of fiber. They also contain 26 mg of vitamin C and 0.5 mg of vitamin B6, which represent 29 percent and 28 percent of the U.S. daily value, respectively.
Besides roasting, chestnuts can be featured in all kinds of dishes, including soup. Here are three chestnut recipes.
Where to Buy Chestnuts
Fresh chestnuts are often sold during the winter months, making them a popular holiday treat. They're most prevalent in stores during the Thanksgiving to New Year's holiday season. They might be sold still in their spiny armor, or already peeled down to the hard nut layer.
You might also find chestnuts in jars or cans at your gourmet grocer (but don't confuse them with water chestnuts). Canned chestnuts work fine in many recipes, including soups, stuffings, and stews. Canned chestnut puree, either sweetened or unsweetened, is also available, either at specialty food stores or online, for use primarily in baked goods.
You can find fresh chestnuts online during their season, and various forms of canned chestnuts year-round.
Because fresh chestnuts contain a high percentage of water, they are more perishable than most nuts. Keep them refrigerated in an airtight container until you're ready to use them. If you buy them directly from the producer shortly after harvest, they will last for a few months in proper storage conditions.
Chestnuts from the grocery store probably spent some time in the open air and began "curing," or losing some of their moisture. While this actually makes for better eating, the nuts become more perishable as they dry. Refrigerate store-bought chestnuts promptly and use them within a few weeks. Fresh chestnuts can also be frozen for up to six months.
Dried chestnuts last for many months when kept at room temperature away from sunlight. Store them in an airtight container to keep pests and moisture at bay. Dried chestnuts can be reconstituted in boiling water or ground into flour and used in baked goods.
Chestnuts Vs. Water Chestnuts
Some people wonder about the difference between chestnuts and water chestnuts, and they are completely different things. Unlike sweet chestnuts, which are the fruit of a tree, water chestnuts are part of the root structure of a grass-like plant, Eleocharis dulcis, that grows underwater in marshes. They're edible, and popular in Chinese cuisine, but they can't be substituted for sweet chestnuts.
Chestnuts Vs. Horse Chestnuts
There's also frequent confusion about the difference between sweet chestnuts and horse chestnuts. Horse chestnuts are the fruit of a different tree, Aesculus hippocastanum, sometimes called the horse chestnut or buckeye tree. These nuts are toxic. This isn't an issue if you purchase your chestnuts, since horse chestnuts aren't cultivated or sold as food. But if you're foraging, note that horse chestnut husks are shiny and spiny, whereas sweet chestnuts grow in a husk that is covered in what looks like grassy, spiky hair or fur.
Chestnuts (roasted). FoodData Central, U.S. Department of Agriculture