For many, the aroma of chestnuts roasting (preferably over an open fire) signals a delicious beginning to the cold-weather months. These hearty brown tree nuts, which are available only from late fall through winter, are like no other nut we know—they’re slightly sweet, with a deep, rich flavor and a dense, starchy texture.
Popular the world over in both sweet and savory dishes, chestnuts can be cooked until tender, peeled, and eaten as is, or used in soups, salads, stuffings, and side dishes. Their sweet flavor is also great in cookies, cakes, puddings, tarts, and ice cream. So the next time you see them at the grocery store, give them a try.
Chestnut trees (Castanea sativa) are found in many countries, including China, Italy, Spain, Japan, and the United States. On the tree, the chestnuts are contained in a sharp, spiky husk, or burr, which can hold up to seven nuts at a time. Each chestnut has a hard brown outer shell and a bitter inner skin that must be removed before eating.
Low in fat, chestnuts are also an excellent source of fiber and vitamin C. Because they contain twice as much starch as a potato, they are used in Asia, Africa, and parts of Europe as a primary source of carbohydrates.
Chestnuts pair well with cabbage, mushrooms, carrots, sage, and pork in savory preparations, and with apples, cream, dried fruit, and chocolate in sweet dishes.
Look for chestnuts that are plump, firm, glossy, and heavy for their size. Avoid ones with bruises or cracks and those that rattle when you shake them, which means they have begun to dry out.
Never eat fresh chestnuts raw—they’re very tannic and tart, and their shells are almost impossible to remove. To eat or cook with a chestnut, you must first peel the shell and remove the inner skin. This is usually done by boiling or roasting. Boiling chestnuts mellows them, so use this method if you want to pair them with other flavors. Roasting yields a concentrated flavor, so use this method if you want to eat the chestnuts alone or if they’re meant to be the star of a finished dish.
To boil chestnuts, use a sharp paring knife to score an X on the flat side of each nut. Bring them to a boil in a pot of cold water, boil until they’re tender when squeezed (or poke them with a skewer, if you like), about 15 minutes, and then drain. When they’re cool enough to handle (but still warm), peel the shells and inner skin.
To roast chestnuts, soak them in a bowl of warm water for 25 minutes, while heating your oven to 400° F. Score them with an X in the same manner as for boiling above. Put them flat sides up on a rimmed baking sheet and roast until the Xs curl back into a crown shape and they are tender when squeezed, about 30 minutes. Peel while still warm, removing both the shell and the inner skin.
Store them in a sealed plastic bag in the refrigerator for up to two weeks, or freeze them for up to three months.