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Tiny Pine Nuts Play a Big Role In Cooking

These rich and buttery little nuts–which really do come from pine trees–add flavor and texture to everything from pasta to cookies

Fine Cooking Issue 32
Photos, except where noted: Steve Hunter
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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

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.

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.

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.

Beyond salads— pine nuts play an essential role in sweets, stuffings, and sauces

When I first started to cook with pine nuts, I turned to traditional Mediterranean, Asian, and southwestern recipes for guidance. After hundreds of years of cooking with local pine nuts, cooks in these regions have discovered that pine nuts are a natural addition to both baked sweets and savory stuffings, and they can often be the starring ingredient in sauces and dressings. I start by adding pine nuts sparingly to my favorite recipes (they’re so rich that you’ll find you often don’t need a lot), and I just add more if I want them to really stand out in a dish.

The buttery flavor and softly crunchy texture of pine nuts make them perfect in baked sweets, such as cookies, rolls, and cakes. Some traditional Greek and Italian recipes call for pine nuts to be folded into beaten egg whites and sugar, sometimes along with ground blanched almonds, and then baked at very low heat to make a macaroon-style cookie. Often pine nuts are added to other nuts such as pistachios or almonds and baked with a honey syrup in puff pastry. Chinese cooks blend them into special tea cakes and sprinkle them on top of crispy date-filled cookies.

As a general rule, you can use pine nuts as an alternative to pecans, walnuts, or almonds in your own recipes for baked goods. They work well alone or in combination with other nuts. If you usually use chopped walnuts in shortbread cookies, for example, try replacing them with whole or chopped pine nuts. The pine nut cookie recipe will give you an idea of how well their flavor and texture work in cookies. I’ve also used pine nuts in place of pecans in pancakes (they’re especially good in cornmeal pancakes), and I’ve added them to a batter for carrot cake. And pine nuts are just as delicious baked into savory breads; I like to press toasted pine nuts, caramelized onions, fresh herbs, and a little cheese into my focaccia before baking.

Their soft texture—softer than most nuts—helps pine nuts flavor and thicken sauces. Probably the most famous of these is pesto, the Italian blend of pine nuts, basil, and olive oil, with perhaps a touch of nutty cheese like Parmesan. In fact, all over the Mediterranean, pine nuts are used in sauces for pasta, often combined with anchovies or sardines or sautéed with flavorful vegetables like fennel or roasted sweet pepper. I add pine nuts to my favorite pasta sauce, which includes black olives and feta cheese.

Pounded or processed pine nuts are used to thicken sauces. In the Middle East, a creamy tahini and nut sauce called tarator often features pine nuts and is used both as a dip for bread and vegetables and as a sauce for fish. Whole or chopped pine nuts are also used to enhance dressings and vinaigrettes for salads. I like to pair pine nuts with a sweet-and-sour dressing for leafy greens. Or I add them as garnish to a salad that contains a tart fruit or two, like tangerines or blood oranges. Pine nuts can also be incorporated into delicious pan sauces, like the Sicilian sole with lemon, basil, and pine nuts.

Pine nuts are traditional additions to stuffings and fillings for meat, poultry, or vegetables such as eggplant. Their subtle yet lasting flavor and melt-in-the-mouth texture are often combined with onion, garlic, and sweetscented spices like nutmeg, cinnamon, and clove to make a delightful stuffing for lamb and veal. Or they might be combined with sausage or ground lamb, plump raisins, and citrus seasonings to fill baked eggplant and other earthy vegetables. In China, pine nuts are used in stuffings for baked mushrooms, with seasonings such as fiery-sweet ginger, dry sherry, and a touch of five-spice powder.

I like to use pine nuts in pilafs, adding just enough to have one in every forkful. Since pine nuts also pair so well with saffron, I like to make a saffron rice pilaf, blended with sweet raisins, tangy dried apricots, sautéed onions and pine nuts. And the pilafs themselves, like the basmati rice and pine nut pilaf for Greek-style roasted game hens at right, make great stuffings. I also use pine nuts in savory fillings for cabbage rolls and eggplant.

And sometimes pine nuts can be just plain fun. Along the Mexican border, where chiles are everywhere, folks make a snack of pine nuts and pumpkin seeds tossed in butter, sweetened with a touch of sugar, and zapped with a sprinkling of dried green chile. Now that will set your taste buds working overtime. However you decide to use pine nuts in your cooking, the recipes that follow, which were gathered from three pinenut- loving chefs, and the guide to pairing flavors with pine nuts will give you a jump-start on taking advantage of their special flavor and texture.

An all-American chocolate pine nut cookie was inspired by traditional Greek and Italian cookies.

Flavors to pair with pine nuts

Over years of experimentation, cooks from the Aegean to Asia have found that pine nuts marry well with certain flavors. You can take these flavor pairings and incorporate them into pasta sauces, pilafs, stuffings, and baked goods such as flatbreads, quick breads, cookies, and cakes.

  • citrusy aromatics like orange and lemon
  • the fragrant herbs of the northern Mediterranean such as thyme, rosemary, basil, and bay leaf
  • southern Mediterranean spices and ingredients such as saffron, dried fruits, and grains
  • sweet-scented spices such as cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, and allspice
  • pungent aromatics like onion, garlic, and leeks
  • Asian flavors such as ginger, soy, and dry sherry
  • salty ingredients like sardines, anchovies, olives, and cheeses
Grey Crawford

Where do pine nuts come from?

Pine nuts are harvested from several different species of pine trees throughout the world, and the nuts themselves may be called very different names, depending on their origin. Pignoli come from the stone pines of Italy (Pinus pinea), pine nuts from the single-leafed piñon trees (P. monophylla), which stud the mountains of California and Nevada, and piñones from the Colorado piñon (P. edulis) of the American Southwest. Smaller harvests of pine nuts, all with local names, are gathered throughout the Mediterranean, Mexico, and central Asia. While not all pine trees yield edible nuts, scientists are aware of almost a dozen varieties of pines that do.

Debate has raged over which pine nuts are tastiest ever since the Spanish arrived in America. (The Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca is reported to have rated the piñones of New Mexico “better than those of Castile” because of their conveniently thin shells.) But unless you’re a bona fide connoisseur of pine nuts, chances are they’ll all taste remarkably similar.

In desert mountains all over the world, people have harvested the pine for centuries as autumn brings cooler temperatures and ripened nuts. Where I live in northern Nevada, locals pile the family into the fourwheel-drive and venture up rocky dirt roads. At about 6,000 feet above sea level, you’ll find the dark green pines with their golden-brown cones already opening. With long sticks, old blankets, and patient work, the timeless ritual of harvest begins. (Timing is everything: If you want to get to the nuts before the birds do, you must shake the just barely opened cones to the ground.)

When survival depended on the pine nut, Native American families gathered basketfuls and then spent hours laboriously cracking shells. Today, pine nuts come conveniently shelled and are more frequently used as an accent instead of a primary ingredient. This is partly because pine nuts (like most nuts) cram a lot of calories and protein into their little shells, and partly because (again like most nuts), they ain’t cheap. But the best reason to use them sparingly is that they’re so rich and so good that you want every single one to stand out.

The cones (right) of certain pine trees yield a very nutritious, very delicious little nut (unshelled, left; shelled, center).


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