The pecan is a tree nut in the hickory family with a crunchy texture and sweet flavor. Richer than other nuts, pecans are prized in the culinary world and are often included in luxury nut mixes and tossed with sugar and spices before being baked as a specialty snack or dessert. Pecans grow wild and cultivated throughout the American South, Midwest, and Texas.
- Grocery Aisle: Baking
- Edible Parts: Inner meat and skin
- Preparation: Shelled, then eaten whole, chopped, or ground
- Storage: Refrigerate for 6 months or freeze for 2 years
What Are Pecans?
Pecans are a nut produced by a species of hickory tree that is native to North America. Most of the U.S. pecan crop comes from New Mexico, Texas, and Georgia. Mexico is the world's largest pecan producer, and the U.S. comes in second. Wild pecans were a major food source for Indigenous peoples in what is now known as North America, and pecans have been cultivated commercially since the 1880s.
Pecans have a sweet, nutty, buttery flavor, and can be eaten fresh, roasted, and used in all kinds of recipes, particularly desserts. Pecan pie is an American classic and one of the quintessential sweet-savory concoctions in the culinary arts.
Pecans Vs. Walnuts
Pecans and walnuts are sometimes mistaken for one another. Pecans are generally sweeter than walnuts, whereas walnuts can be slightly more bitter. Pecan nuts themselves are a bit more delicate than walnuts. Pecan kernels are smoother and straighter in their structure than walnuts, which have a more curly structure.
The shells are also quite different. While pecan shells are smooth and medium to dark brown, with an oblong shape, walnuts shells are more bulbous, with exterior ridges, and their color is light to medium brown. Pecan shells are also thinner and easier to crack.
Walnuts are the best substitute for pecans, although you would not go too far wrong using peanuts, almonds, pistachios or macadamia nuts.
Pecans must be shelled before using. Purchase already-shelled pecans, or use a nutcracker to remove the shell, then pick out the meat. Once removed from their shells, pecans can be eaten raw or roasted. Whole raw or roasted pecans can be incorporated into a wide range of recipes or eaten as a snack.
How to Cook With Pecans
Shelled pecans may be eaten raw or toasted as a snack or as an addition to a cheese board or grazing board. They're often mixed into commercial nut mixes and trail mixes. Chopped pecans can be used to garnish salads, pastas, gratins, cheese balls, vegetable dishes, soups, desserts, and other recipes. They are often paired with fresh, cooked, or dried fruits like apples and pears.
Pecans can be used whole, chopped, or ground in baked goods; pecan halves are often placed on top of cookies, pies, and cakes as decoration. They can also be candied or spiced on their own or used in recipes for candy or chocolate confections. They're also an excellent addition to ice cream, either mixed in or as a garnish.
What Do They Taste Like?
Pecans have a distinctly sweet and buttery flavor, and a mildly floral, foresty aroma. The outside of the nut is slightly bitter and the flesh within is sweet, buttery, and almost fatty. The nut itself can crumble, almost like a cookie. In fact, the nut itself has an overall confectionery taste, almost like cookies or candy. The texture is firm yet light and pleasantly crunchy, with the nut’s rich oils releasing as you bite down.
Add pecans to quick breads, muffins, or cakes, toss them into a salad or a pan of roasted vegetables, or use them to coat a cheese ball. Try these pecan-centric recipes:
Where to Buy Pecans
Find shelled pecans in the baking section of most grocery stores, supermarkets, food co-ops, and natural food stores year-round. They can also be purchased online. Pecans are typically available as pecan halves or as pre-chopped pieces. They may also be available in the bulk section of the store.
Pecans in the shell may be harder to source year-round, but they are likely to be found in the produce section, often around the winter holidays. In areas of the South and Midwest, pecans come into season in the fall. There, they may be purchased shelled or unshelled directly from the farm, at a farmers’ market, or at a roadside stand.
Pecans can also be foraged in the wild during the fall as well. Look for nuts that have fallen at the base of the tree. The pecans are ripe when the green outer hulls have split, dropping the nuts to the ground below. You can also shake the tree to encourage more nuts to drop.
After gathering, sort through the pecans and discard any broken, shriveled, or discolored nuts. Leave them in a cool, dry place to dry out for two weeks before using. Keep in mind that wild pecan varieties typically have thicker shells and smaller nut meats than cultivated types.
The main issue with storing pecans is that pecans are rich in fats, and these fats can become rancid if stored in a warm place, in bright light or if exposed to oxygen. After purchase, unshelled pecans can be stored in a cool, dry place for about six months without compromising freshness. Shelled pecans should be stored in the refrigerator or freezer and in an air-tight container.
Keep shelled pecans in their original packaging or in a sealed zip-top bag or airtight plastic container. Store the nuts in your refrigerator for about six months or in your freezer for up to two years. Follow these same guidelines for chopped or ground pecans.
Pecans contain nutrients like fiber, protein, and unsaturated fats. They offer over 19 vitamins and minerals like B vitamins, zinc, folic acid, Vitamins A and E, and calcium.
Nuts, pecans. Fooddata Central, United States Department of Agriculture