What’s Up With That Food: Pine Nuts

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If you are no stranger to the kitchen, you likely know that pine nuts are a key ingredient in a classic basil-based pesto. If you’re Italian, you, your grandma or the neighborhood bakery from your childhood may have baked cookies with them. Pine nuts are crazy expensive, costing upwards of $5-$6 for a mere two or three-ounce package. But what exactly are they?

Type of food: Seed

Also known as: Piñones, pignoli, pignolia, pine nuts

Origins: There are pine trees all around the world—more than 250 varieties of them—but not every pine tree yields a nut worth eating. Pine nuts are a labor-intensive crop, harvested by hand from trees that grow at high altitudes—6,000-8,500 feet above sea level. Melissa’s Produce, a specialty company based in California, imports theirs from Italy, where it’s the Stone Pine (Pinus pinea) and China, from the Korean Pine (Pinus koraiensis), according to Robert Schueller, produce expert and director of public relations for Melissa’s.

Why did we start eating it? Pine nuts have been around as long as we’ve had trees—they go way back. “Native American tribes have harvested pine nuts for a very long time in Nevada and surrounding areas, for probably thousands of years,” says chef and food scientist Matthew Robinson of The Culinary Exchange. In fact, pine nuts are indigenous to much of the Mediterranean region. Robinson says you often find them on tapas in Spain, and there are “very old” Greek and Roman references to pine nuts, too. “According to The Book of Edible Nuts, they have been found in the remains of Pompeii…that’s a few thousand years ago right there,” he says.

How it’s used: You can eat the “kernels” or nuts, raw. Or you can toss them in salads, or toast and blitz them in pesto. Or pretend they are upscale, expensive peanuts: roast and salt them.

Top Chef winner Kevin Sbraga of Sbraga Dining in Philadelphia has made pine nut butter and folded it into risotto. He’s also pan-roasted pine nuts, and poured milk over them to infuse the flavor. They also work in dessert, beyond the typical Italian cookies. “Think of a chilled melon and country ham salad with a savory olive oil and pine nut ice cream, garnished with a couple of crushed pine nuts,” he says. “Pine nut butter could also be a compound butter on top of a steak, fish or chicken. It could be used to finish a sauce.”

Chef Matthew Mattox of Arizona Culinary Institute became fascinated with pine nuts while he was working in northern New Mexico, especially near Santa Fe and Taos. “The culture of Northern New Mexico embraces pine nuts in their savory dishes, which is very different from Italian cookies or even pesto. I personally love a dish consisting of polenta (cornmeal), chorizo, red chilies, pine nuts and a little melted cheese. It’s phenomenal,” he says. Additionally, the region is “amazing in that it’s really a mix of Spanish, Mediterranean, Pueblo Native Americans and Anglos who have adopted the area as their own. You’ll find pine nuts (pinyon) sold at roadside stands, and along with chilies, they give a kick to many interesting dishes in New Mexican Cuisine,” he says.

Chef Robinson mentions that they’re great sautéed simply with spinach and tossed with raisins, or put to use in rice or quinoa dishes for some additional nuttiness. And as for dessert? How about homemade pine nut brittle as a gift for your most favorite person?

How it’s purchased: Pine nuts are typically found in small plastic bags, as from Melissa’s, or in small glass jars. Because of their high fat content, they will go rancid quickly, but you can store them in an airtight container for up to three months. It doesn’t hurt to immediately refrigerate or freeze them after opening a package—depending on the time of year and whether or not you expect to use them frequently. They’ll keep in the freezer for up to 9 months.

Despite the fact that pine nuts are intrinsic to summer basil pestos, it’s not their biggest time of year in terms of sales. For Melissa’s, the last three months of the year—October through December—account for the majority of pine nuts sales, thanks to all the cooking and baking during the holidays in those months, says Schueller.

The cost is partially attributed to the labor-intensive nature of harvesting, but the strange occurrence of “pine mouth” also complicated matters. A few years ago, imported pine nuts from China and Russia became intermingled, and some customers—maybe one in 10, says Schueller—were left with a metallic taste in their mouths for days after eating them. Nowadays, there are stricter certifications in place to certify country of origin, he says. “Pine nuts have never been an inexpensive ingredient, but it’s very much a gourmet ingredient,” he says.

Sensory experience: Pine nuts are a pale, smooth cream-colored nut about ½ inch in length. Their flavor is subtle, delicate, with the barest hint of pine trees.

Nutrition and other benefits: It’s a nut, so you know you’re looking at a decent nutritional profile: the standouts here are protein—about four grams per ¼ cup, and nine percent of your daily value for iron. It’s loaded with the good fats—19 grams altogether, only one of which is saturated fat.

Word to the wise: Pine nuts are notoriously easy to burn while toasting—they go from golden-brown to charred in no time flat. The best way to protect your costly investment is to toast them in a skillet on the stove over medium heat, keeping an eye on them constantly. If you are toasting them in the oven, do it at 350 degrees F, check them frequently, and stir them up every now and then.

Carrie Havranek is a recovering music critic and part-time baker who writes about food, farmers’ markets, chefs and restaurants—and sometimes travel—from her home in Easton, Pennsylvania. You may have seen her work elsewhere in Edible Philly, the Kitchn, or Frommer’s.