Chestnuts are the large edible seeds of the sweet chestnut tree. They are in a prickly case called a burr, which splits open when ripe in the autumn. They have been cultivated in the Mediterranean for at least 3,000 years, in China for more than 2,000 years and in Japan since the 11th century. Trees producing sweet edible chestnuts were common in North America until the early 20th century, when a blight killed almost all of them. Today, recovery programs are responsible for some small harvests, but most of the chestnuts sold in Canada come from Europe or Korea.
How to choose a good chestnut
From October to December, look for fresh chestnuts that are hard, shiny, unblemished, heavy for their size and do not rattle when shaken. Because they are highly perishable, refrigerate chestnuts in perforated plastic bags for up to one week. For longer storage, freeze in airtight container for up to one month. Discard any with mould inside.
Cooking with chestnuts
Chestnuts have to be peeled and cooked before using. They can be roasted in their shells, candied (marrons glacé), boiled, braised or puréed. Their sweet nutty flavour combines well with game, poultry, starchy vegetables, mushrooms, chocolate, whipped cream or vanilla.
How to prepare fresh chestnuts for cooking
Cut an X on the flat side of each chestnut. In saucepan of boiling water, cook chestnuts, 4 at a time, until points of cut curl, about 2 minutes; drain. With knife, pull off skins. In saucepan, cover peeled chestnuts with water and bring to boil; cook over medium heat until tender, about 5 minutes.
Roasting fresh chestnuts: Cut an X on the flat side of each chestnut. Place in heavy skillet with dash of oil or in chestnut pan (long-handled skillet with perforated bottom); cook over open fire, or in pan over medium heat or in 425°F (220°C) oven until shells curl back, nut is soft and inner brown skin can be easily removed, up to 15 minutes. Traditionally, these fully-cooked chestnuts are eaten from the shells while still hot.
Page 1 of 3 -- Decide whether fresh, dried, canned or pureed chestnuts are best for your cooking needs with chestnut shopping tips on page 2
Choosing chestnuts at the store: Fresh chestnuts have the best flavour and texture, but if you don’t have a kitchen brigade at your disposal, peeling them is time consuming. Look for these alternatives at grocery and specialty stores.
Dried chestnuts are the least expensive and most like fresh chestnuts in flavour and texture. Look for them in Italian and Chinese grocery stores all year round. To prepare: In bowl, soak 2 cups (500 mL) chestnuts in 6 cups (1.5 L) boiling water for at least 2 hours or overnight; drain. In saucepan, cover chestnuts with water and bring to boil; cook over medium heat until tender, about 15 minutes. Drain and they are ready to use in recipe.
Vacuum-packed chestnuts are softer than fresh but are ready to use interchangeably with prepared fresh or dried ones. Though more expensive than ready-to-use canned, their taste is superior. If you are chopping them for a recipe, look for less expensive chestnut pieces.
Canned chestnuts are cooked and ready to use interchangeably with prepared fresh, dried and vacuum-packed ones. Rinse and drain well before using. Some are packed in syrup for use in desserts, so check labels.
Puréed chestnuts and chestnut spreads are available sweetened and unsweetened in the baking aisle during the holiday season. To make your own: In saucepan, cover peeled prepared fresh or dried chestnuts with boiling water; reduce heat, cover and simmer until tender, 30 to 45 minutes. Drain, reserving cooking liquid. In food processor, purée hot chestnuts until smooth, thinning with reserved liquid if desired.
For savoury purée, substitute chicken stock for water and flavour cooking liquid with celery stalk and pinch of salt. To serve, stir in a little butter and season with salt and pepper to taste.
For sweet purée, substitute milk for water and flavour cooking liquid with a touch of vanilla.
Page 2 of 3 -- Find equivalent measures for different types of preserved chestnuts on page 3
1 lb (500 g) shelled peeled = 2%u02D9 cups (625 mL)
1 cup (250 mL) dried = 2 cups (500 mL) reconstituted
1 can (10 oz/300 g) in water, drained = 1 cup (250 mL)
1 pkg (200 g) vacuum-packed = 1œ cups (300 mL)
1 jar (210 g) vacuum-packed = 1œ cups (300 mL)
1 can (8 oz/250 g) spread or purée = 1 cup (250 mL)
Conkers - the playful chestnut cousin
A conker is the seed of the horse chestnut tree – not the sweet edible chestnut tree. Though eaten by animals, horse chestnuts are semi-poisonous and not for human consumption. In fact, they are best tied to a shoelace for a rousing game of conkers (or kingers), which is smashing and destroying an opponent’s nut with your own conker.
Click here for 10 chestnut recipes - from appetizers and main courses to liquors and creamy desserts!
Canada's 9 most common food allergies
Page 3 of 3