Pistachio nuts are botanically related to peaches, mangoes, and cashews, and are thought to have originated in the Middle East, where they grew wild for thousands of years.
In fact, the pistachio is one of the oldest edible nuts on the planet. During the time of King Solomon, the Queen of Sheba prized pistachio nuts and decreed that all of the pistachios produced in her domain be given to her and her court. Ancient Roman aristocrats and the emperor Vitellius considered pistachios to be a delicacy. Centuries later, medieval English cookbooks stated that pistachios were often used in various meat dishes and meat pies.
In its ripe state, the pistachio shell is partially open, revealing the nut within. This feature is unique to the pistachio and is why people in the Middle East refer to the pistachio as the “smiling pistachio” and the Chinese call it the “happy nut.”
The natural color of the pistachio shell ranges from tan to yellow and various shades of green. In the 1930s, when pistachios were just becoming popular in the United States and being sold in vending machines, they were dyed red with vegetable dye to cover blemishes on the shell. Later on, the red dye served as a way for marketers to draw attention to the nut and to distinguish it from peanuts. Most companies no longer dye pistachios, though a few still do to appeal to traditionalists.
Pistachio nuts have a buttery, sweet, delicate-flavored kernel that is naturally green. The nut is rich in fiber, thiamin, vitamin E, iron, magnesium, and potassium. In addition, pistachios are an excellent source of monounsaturated fatty acids. Compared with most nuts, the monounsaturated fat content of pistachios is high, similar to that of almonds. Plant sterols are also plentiful in pistachios.
For a full listing of nutrients, see Pistachios in the National Nutrient Database.
Types of pistachios
Pistachios are usually marketed by the name of the country of origin rather than by variety. The western United States, Turkey, Iran, Syria, Italy, Greece, and Australia are the major growers of pistachios.
The two varieties generally available in the market are the Kerman and the Antep. The Kerman is large in size with a vibrant green nut, while the Antep is smaller with a darker shell. Both types are found in supermarkets. Pistachios are available in-shell, roasted and salted, as well as shelled and unsalted.
Several producers also market pistachios seasoned with hot chili peppers, lemon, and other seasonings. In the market you may also find:
- Pistachio butter: Like peanut butter, pistachios are ground until they become pasty and can be used to spread on bread or in baking.
- Pistachio flour: As with other nut flours, pistachio flour is ground from the solids that remain after the nuts have been pressed for oil by grinding the endosperm only, making a defatted or partially defatted flour. The flours can be used in baking as well as for breading fish or chicken for sautéing.
- Pistachio oil: This cold-pressed oil, derived from pistachios, has a deep green color and a rich, full-bodied flavor. Use it along with a lighter oil to flavor salads or drizzle over fish or vegetables. Roasted pistachio oil is also available and has a slightly more pronounced toasted flavor.
How to choose the best pistachios
If you are buying in bulk, look for nuts whose shells are split or partially split open. This characteristic indicates ripeness. Any pistachio that is not partially open is not merely an inconvenience, but an indication that the shell contains an immature nut and should be discarded.
How to store pistachios
As with most nuts, pistachios are best stored in the refrigerator or freezer to keep their oils from going rancid.
How to use pistachios
If you’ve bought pistachios in the shell and some are split, but not totally, use half of another shell to open the partially split ones. There is no need to remove the skin from pistachios before using them.
If shelled pistachios have gotten soggy but are still good, they may be refreshed in a 200° oven for 10 to 15 minutes or until crisp.
10 ways to serve pistachios
1. Sprinkle chopped pistachios over poached pears for dessert.
2. Fold chopped pistachios into lightly sweetened cottage cheese or part-skim ricotta and serve with fruit for dessert.
3. Coat poultry or fish with a mixture of bread crumbs and finely chopped pistachios.
4. Stir pistachios into stuffings for poultry.
5. Steep chopped pistachios in warm milk until the milk has a pistachio flavor; discard the nuts and make a pudding with the milk.
6. Substitute pistachios for pine nuts in pesto.
7. Make pistachio butter. Place a handful of pistachios in a food processor or blender and puree until pasty. Add salt if you like.
8. Add pistachios to fruit, poultry, or vegetable salads.
9. Add chopped pistachios to quick breads and muffins.
10. Add pistachios to rice puddings.
Also see this recipe: Carrot-Pistachio Biscotti.