Real Food Encyclopedia | Pine Nuts

Ancient diets are full of wisdom. They’re full of whole foods, packed with nutrition and simply delicious. Pine nuts, the edible seed of some varieties of pine tree, are one such food.

Pine nuts have been eaten in many parts of the world for thousands of years. And, like many staples of the oldest diets, they were a foraged food: You didn’t plant pine nuts, you looked for them. Pine nuts today continue to offer a rich source of protein with a big pop of flavor — and they are there for the taking.

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Fun Facts about Pine Nuts:

  • Native Americans in the Southwest revered the pinyon or piñon tree, a pine-nut-bearing variety of pine, and its sacred ability to sustain the population of the Great Basin for thousands of years.
  • Pine nuts are not nuts but are the edible seed of some varieties of pine trees.
  • The Pinyon Jay is a bird that collects and stores up to 30,000 pine nuts for its winter eating.
  • Mongolians eat toasted, unshelled pine nuts like peanuts at a ball game, cracking them open with their teeth and snacking through bags at a time.
  • Native Americans stored the nuts by roasting them and burying them to preserve them.

What to Look for When Buying Pine Nuts

Pine nuts when they are released from their cone are encased in a tough shell that is removed after harvesting and drying. Shelled pine nuts, as they are sold at the retail level, are about one-half inch long, oblong and cream colored. They are known for their distinctive, mild, sweet flavor which can be intensified greatly by toasting until they are a light brown. Varieties can be distinguished geographically. European pine nuts are long and slender. Asian varieties are rounder and plumper. American varieties are larger and easier to shell.

Sustainability of Pine Nuts

Pine nuts have been sustainably harvested for thousands of years from wild forests without any chemical inputs. They can be harvested year after year without causing any harm to the tree. The trees provide watershed protection, a source of biomass for fuel and energy and provide habitat for wildlife.

However, harvesters, such as those in China, who seek to increase processing speed without attention to the sustainability of the forest, often lop off the branches of the tree to make quicker work of collecting the cones. Harvesting for Chinese workers can be dangerous work if the proper equipment is not available. Workers who climb the trees using hooks on their shoes for traction or employ the use of air balloons to loft them to harvesting heights are often met with tragedy.

Unshelled pine nuts harvested in Russia and shipped across the border to China for shelling and export are forever altering a delicate ecosystem near the Russian/China border. There, the nuts are fodder for the small animals of the forest that are prey for the Siberian Tiger. When the villagers forage for the nuts they are tipping the balance that in the end, endangers the habitat of these powerful striped beasts. Illegal logging of the Korean pine, the area’s pine nut producing variety, compounds the problem.

The most sustainable pine nuts are sourced in the United States from processors who deal in the wild foraged product. You can find them online or during travels to the Southwest. If you are up for the task, you can even harvest your own pine nuts.

To reduce your intake of imported pine nuts, consider using alternatives for part or all of the pine nuts in your recipe. Pesto is just as delicious when made with other nuts.

Pine Nut Seasonality

Pine nuts are harvested in the fall, from September through October, though you’ll want to watch the trees closely because once the pine cones start opening they will be quickly be picked clean by wildlife. If you’re buying commercially-produced pine nuts, you’ll be able to get them year-round.

Pine Nuts and Geography

The rising wholesale value of pine nuts has proven alluring for Chinese processors who rely on cheap labor or cheaply acquired imports to make their margin. China currently leads world production, exporting around three-fourths of the world’s supply of shelled pine nuts.

All pine trees produce pine nuts but there are only about twenty varieties that produce nuts large enough to justify the labor-intensive processing necessary to enjoy them.

Pine nuts take at least 18 months and sometimes up to three years to form. A pine tree may not produce cones for ten to fifteen years and it can take up to seventy-five for a tree to reach maximum yield. Fertilization from neighboring trees makes for larger nuts than a self-fertilized, stand-alone tree. Therefore, harvesting from a stand of at least three to four trees will yield better results.

A single harvester can collect enough pine cones to net around 50 pounds of nuts in an eight-hour shift. However, this is followed by an involved process to extract the nut which requires drying and heating the pinecones so that the scales open enough to access the nuts. The nuts are then removed from the cones by thwacking the cones until the shells fall out or individually plucking them out by hand. Finally, they are shelled, which is no small task. Some nuts have shells so hard they need to be cracked with a hammer to remove the nut meat. Others, however, have a papery shell that can be pulled away much more easily.

In the US, pinyon trees are mainly found in the southwest of the country.

Eating Pine Nuts

Storing Pine Nuts

Their high oil content makes pine nuts highly perishable. Even unopened bags should be eaten within a few weeks of purchase. Refrigerated pine nuts will stay fresh for about three months in the refrigerator and six to twelve months in the freezer. Always test a few before adding them to your recipe. Bitter, rancid flavors indicate spoilage.

Cooking with Pine Nuts

Native Americans ground pine nuts into flour to make bread or thicken soup. You can use the nuts in both sweet and savory dishes. They are part of the classic pesto recipe and can also be used to add crunch and flavor to salads and pasta dishes. Pignoli cookies are Italian delights that feature the nut.

Due to their growing scarcity and the labor-intensive harvesting process, pine nuts can be expensive. Use them sparingly or consider substituting part or all of the nut with another nut such as blanched almonds.

Pine Nut Nutrition

Pine nuts are valued for their amounts of fat and carbohydrates, imperative when food sources are scarce. They are good sources of zinc and magnesium and contain iron, potassium, fiber and protein.

Pine nut mouth is a reaction to eating the nuts that makes everything taste bitter and metallic. The condition comes on a day or so after eating one of the condition-causing nuts and lasts for one to three days, but some afflicted eaters have reported the effects lingering for several weeks. It can happen to someone who has eaten pine nuts in the past and never had a problem and is not an indication that a similar reaction will happen in the future.

While there have been competing theories for the cause of pine nut mouth — which at one time linked the issue to a variety of Chinese nut and was also suspected to be related to modern processing methods — no definitive correlation has been determined. It seems to be just a random occurrence. Some bags of pine nuts have a warning tag that alerts eaters to the remote — but very real — possibility being a victim of the random rogue nut.