The pecan tree is a species of hickory that grows wild from Illinois to the Gulf of Mexico. The United States is the world’s largest producer of pecans, where commercial orchards are primarily in the South and southeastern states. Pecans grow in clusters, and when the pecan is mature, the fruit splits and the pecan shell drops to the ground. Inside the inch-long, smooth, beige shell rests the golden-brown pecan nut. Cultivated pecans are bred for thin “paper” shells, which are easier to crack than the hard shells of wild pecans.
Pecans served as an important staple food for Native Americans, who collected the nuts and stored them for long periods during the winter when food was scarce. Native Americans also traded pecans for goods. Purportedly, the name “pecan” is a Native American word of Algonquin origin that was used to describe “all nuts requiring a stone to crack.” Pecans also provided sustenance for early settlers, and in the late 18th century, pecan orchards were planted by two high-profile Americans: Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. However, pecans weren’t cultivated on a large or commercial scale until the late 19th century.
Types of Pecans
There are more than 200 varieties of pecans, as well as numerous pecan products.
Not only are pecans rich in thiamin, zinc, and fiber, they also provide considerable monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. These fats can lower blood cholesterol, especially when substituted for foods high in saturated fat, such as meat or cheese. And research indicates that the plant sterols found in pecans can help to lower LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels. While pecans are certainly a healthful food, they are also high in calories—one ounce has 196 calories—so eat them in moderation.
For a full listing of nutrients, see Pecans in the National Nutrient Database.
How to Store and Use Pecans
The high fat content of pecans makes them prone to rancidity. Here's how to store them so they'll stay fresh, plus tips for shelling and serving pecans.
Published November 12, 2015