What Are Pecans?

High angle view of pecans on table

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One of the most popular and flavorful nuts in the culinary arts, pecans are a legitimate staple of any home baker's pantry. Read on to learn more about these versatile nuts, and how to use them.

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 native North Americans, 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 pf 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 confused 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 too are 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.

How to Use Pecans

Once removed from their shells, pecans can be eaten raw or roasted. Whole raw or roasted pecans can be incorporated into desserts, salads and main courses. While they are often chopped for including them in quick breads and muffins, they also feature in a range of sweets, from ice cream to nut brittles.

Pecan pie is one of the most beloved holiday dishes, especially at Thanksgiving time. It's made by preparing a filling consisting of pecans, eggs, melted butter, sugar and corn syrup, which is heated, poured into a pie shell and then baked. There are numerous pecan pie variations, including chocolate, sweet potato and pumpkin, to name just a few.  

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 confectionary taste, almost like cookies or candy.

Recipes with Pecans

Where to Buy Pecans

Although pecans are harvested during the autumn months, they are available for purchase year-round. Most major supermarkets carry pecans, either whole, halves or pieces. Pecans are most often stocked in the baking aisle with other nuts and baking chocolates. 

Pecans are also a popular item for bulk bins with other nuts and dry goods. During the holiday months, pecans are usually stocked more heavily as they are a popular item for holiday desserts and snacks.

When purchasing pecans in the shell, look for shells that are smooth, undamaged, and uniform in color. Shelled pecans should look plump, uniform in color, and never dry or shriveled.

Storage

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 up to 12 months without compromising freshness. Shelled pecans should be stored in the refrigerator or freezer and in an air-tight container. 

Pecans stored in the refrigerator will remain fresh for approximately nine months, while those stored in the freezer will keep for up to two years. Frozen pecans can be thawed and refrozen multiple times without compromising flavor or texture. 

Shelled pecans should only be stored at room temperature for up to two months and should always be in an air-tight container in a cool, dark location to prevent oxidation and rancidity.