Pine nuts are small but versatile kitchen treasures. No doubt you love them for the richness they give pesto, and you’ve probably enjoyed them sprinkled over a salad. And if you live in the southwestern United States, you know how delicious roasted and salted pine nuts are as a snack. But pine nuts, also called piñones or pignoli, can do much more for you in the kitchen, from thickening sauces to starring in fabulous cookies.
The secret to pine nuts’ versatility is a rich, buttery flavor and texture. Biting into a pine nut is something like indulging in a morsel of truly fine chocolate—that soft texture practically melts away and leaves your mouth basking in buttery goodness. The flavor is delicate, floating at the top of the mouth, and yet you continue to savor its unique sweetness long after the nut itself is gone. Learning to take advantage of that unique flavor isn’t hard; pine nuts have an affinity to many of the ingredients and techniques you’re already using in your kitchen.
Keep pine nuts fresh and toast them for the fullest flavor
Two ways to toast: For just a few nuts, toast in a skillet on the stovetop, frequently shaking the pan. Or toast a big batch on a sheet pan in the oven. Either way, keep an eye on the nuts; they brown quickly.
When you’re shopping for pine nuts, it’s usually cheaper to buy them in bulk in the produce section (where the turnover is better), rather than in the tiny jars you sometimes see in the Italian dry goods section of the grocery store. Look for whole, unbroken nuts. Regardless of where you buy pine nuts, you’ll never really know how fresh they are (you’d have to shake them off the tree yourself to be sure), but you can keep them at their best at home by refrigerating them (for up to several weeks) or by freezing them (for up to three months). All nuts eventually go rancid, so before you cook with them, be sure to smell a few and bite into one—if they’re bad, you’ll detect an unpleasant bitterness.
I find I get the best results when I store pine nuts raw in the refrigerator and toast them just before I want to use them. I also find it’s a good idea to soak the raw nuts in water for ten minutes or so before toasting. This step seems to bring out their creamy texture and mild flavor. Then I pat them dry and I’m ready to toast them.
Toasting pine nuts brings out their nutty sweetness. Toasting also tends to minimize the resinous aftertaste truly fresh nuts sometimes carry, so I’ve gotten in the habit of always toasting pine nuts before using them. The only thing you have to watch for—and you really do have to watch—is to keep the heat under control. Burnt pine nuts aren’t pleasant. There are two basic ways to toast pine nuts, both of them straightforward and simple. If you want to toast a bunch of pine nuts at once, the easiest way is in the oven. Heat the oven to 350°F and spread the nuts in a single layer on a heavy baking sheet. Bake until golden, about three to five minutes, keeping a close watch. You may want to rotate the pan after a minute or so to help the nuts cook evenly. As soon as they take on a lovely golden hue (you’ll also probably begin to smell them), they’re done.
The other method may be easier if you need just a few nuts, say, to sprinkle on a tangy grapefruit salad. Set a small skillet over medium heat for a minute or two. Add the pine nuts and toss every few seconds to make sure they don’t burn. You’ll only need to cook them for a minute or so. Again, that golden color and nutty aroma are your cues that they’re ready.
Make a quick pan sauce for sautéed fish. Reduce lemon juice in the pan the fish was add toasted pine nuts and fresh basil.
The nuts provide the crunch. The toasted pine nuts in this pan sauce add textural contrast to sautéed sole and mashed potatoes.