Chestnuts are round, glossy, mahogany-colored nuts that are formed inside prickly burrs that break open when the nuts are ripe. Rich and “meaty,” they are a starchy food and can be served as a vegetable, mashed like potatoes. Not long after they are harvested, much of their starch turns to sugar, giving them a satisfying sweetness.
Grown in China and Japan for centuries, chestnuts have a long and esteemed history of cultivation. They made it to Europe by way of the Roman armies and soon became an important food source there. Chestnuts were also a dietary staple of Native Americans, who taught the early settlers to cook them in stews or grind them into flour for bread. In the early years of Colonial America, chestnuts supplied a year-round source of sustenance.
Although the entire eastern half of the United States was once covered with majestic wild chestnut trees, in the early 20th century virtually all of the American chestnut trees were destroyed by blight. While efforts are underway to re-establish a disease-resistant variety of the native chestnut tree, most chestnuts we get today are from Europe.
For a full listing of nutrients, see Chestnuts in the National Nutrient Database.
Types of chestnuts
Chestnuts are most commonly sold in their shells. They are also sold dried shelled, especially in Chinese and Italian markets. They can also be found canned (unsweetened) and as a flour.
How to choose the best chestnuts
Fresh chestnuts are most abundant in fall and winter. Choose chestnuts that are heavy for their size, with smooth unbroken skin. If it rattles, the chestnut is old and has shriveled inside its skin.
How to roast and serve chestnuts
Fresh chestnuts need to be roasted or boiled in order to peel them. Peeled chestnuts can be eaten as is, or used in a recipe that calls for cooked chestnuts.
To facilitate the peeling of the chestnut skin, use a small sharp knife to cut an “X” through the skin on the flat side of the nut. As the chestnut cooks, the skin will pull apart at the “X,” making it easier to remove. If using dried chestnuts, soak in hot water for several hours before peeling.
4 ways to serve chestnuts
- Roast chestnuts with a touch of cinnamon for a winter treat.
- Make a comforting winter chestnut soup.
- Add chestnuts to a mushroom or squash risotto.
- Toss roasted chestnuts with pancetta and sage in this satisfying pasta.