Real Food Encyclopedia | Pecans
“As American as apple pie,” is a common turn of phrase, but it’s the pecan pie that is more deserving of that honor. For, unlike apples that were brought to our shores, pecans, Carya illinoinensis, are native to North America, thriving in the river basins of the central and southern United States and parts of Mexico. The climate of the central and southern Mississippi river is particularly well-suited to the nut. Pecans have long grown wild just beyond the flood plain of that mighty river, where the microclimate of that specific region has been populated by dense stands of trees.
Native Americans have always valued pecans as an important source of nutrition and shared them with the colonists. Fur traders brought the nuts back from their expeditions west, where they were introduced to the nuts by Native American tribes in the south-central part of the country. After touring the Mississippi basin, Thomas Jefferson brought the nuts back to the East Coast and shared them with his friend George Washington. Both presidents planted trees in their respective home gardens.
Fun Facts about Pecans:
- A “grove” is a naturally occurring stand of wild pecan trees. An “orchard” indicates an intentionally planted arrangement.
- The pecan is the state tree of Texas, Mississippi and Arkansas.
- The name “pecan” is a Native American word of Algonquin origin that was used to describe “all nuts requiring a stone to crack.”
- The pecan tree is valued by home owners as much for its nuts as its ample shade. It is not uncommon to find one on the south side of a Southerner’s house — where it not only fills pies but provides some natural climate control.
What to Look for When Buying Pecans
Pecans are oval-shaped nuts that have a rich, buttery flavor. They range in color from tan to brown. Very dark nuts or shells indicate age or improper storage. Pecans can be purchased in the shell or shelled, as halves, pieces or meal.
Nuts can range in size and shell hardness, neither of which indicate superior nut meats. Shelled pecans are graded in sizes that range from “Mammoth Halves,” 250 or less per pounds to “Small Halves,” which can have over 650 pieces per pound.
Sustainability of Pecans
Pecans perform well on the Environmental Working Group’s food scores, which ranks foods across nutrition, processing and environmental concerns. Because they are grown domestically, pecans also don’t incur the shipping miles that tropical nuts rack up.
Because the roots do not go deep, the trees do best in areas that offer consistent moisture. Pecans that are grown in arid climates require significant amounts of irrigation to thrive.
Growers tend to plant a mix of wild and improved pecan varieties. However, increasing demand from foreign markets, particularly China, has skewed the market toward more uniform, cultivated varieties which are better suited to processing. The shift is threatening the stock of wild plants. Chinese demand is also spurring growth across the globe, in countries such as Australia, where pecans are an expanding crop.
Pesticides and Pecans
There are thousands of varieties of pecan, such as Elliot, Candy, Sumner, Houma, Caddo, Oconee and Melrose and more being developed. Older varieties such as Stuart, Success, Mahan and Desirable are more susceptible to “scab,” a fungal infection that affects the leaves of pecan trees and impacts the harvest. Such trees need higher applications of anti-fungal pesticides to combat the disease.
Pecans are alternate bearing, meaning that they offer a heavy harvest followed by a light one the next year. Harvest peaks around mid-October.
The shuck, the green outer husk, will split and dry and the nut will fall to the ground. In areas that get an early freeze, the plummeting temperatures will aid this process, causing the shucks to split and dry within days of the first freeze. In more temperate areas, the trees should be checked regularly. Once the nuts start falling, the tree can be shaken to encourage the nuts to drop. Fallen nuts should be collected as soon as possible.
Pecans and Geography
Most commercially produced pecans are grown domestically in Georgia, New Mexico, Louisiana and Texas with a smaller percentage coming from Arizona.
The pecan is a member of the Juglandaceae family, which includes hickory and walnut. It is not truly a nut, but is technically a drupe, a fruit with a single stone or pit, surrounded by a husk. (But like peanuts, which are legumes, pecans are commonly referred to as”nuts.”)
It takes pecan trees five to ten years to become productive. Once bearing, however, trees can produce for up to three hundred years. Pecans must be cross-pollinated to bear. If you live in a community where the trees are popular the wind will do the pollinating work. But if there aren’t any trees nearby then you will do best to plant two varieties in close proximity.
Unshelled pecans can be stored in a cool dry place for six to twelve months. Shelled pecans stay fresh for about three months stored at room temperature. They can be frozen for up to two years.
Cooking with Pecans
The pecan pie was made famous by the Karo syrup company, which printed a recipe for the confection on its widely distributed bottles in the 1920s. Pecans are essential in pralines and delightful in cookies such as pecan sandies.
Off the table, pecan shells are used for mulch and in particleboard. The wood is used to make furniture and flooring. Pecan wood is also burned to impart flavorful smoke to grilled foods.
One ounce of pecans contains three grams of protein, four grams of carbs, three grams of fiber and has 200 calories. Once ounce of pecans has twenty grams of fat, but unlike walnuts, pecans are not a good source of omega-3 fatty acids.
The same serving size contains 60 percent of your recommended daily allowance of manganese and 15 percent of copper. Pecans also offer many vitamins and minerals, including Vitamin A, Vitamin E, folic acid, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, several B complex vitamins and zinc.