There are many types of nuts sold in stores today, and they come in a variety of forms: with or without shells; whole, chopped, and slivered; raw, dry-roasted, and oil-roasted; salted, sugared, spiced, or plain; packaged or loose. Most nuts are also pressed to make oils and are made into butters and flours.
Commercial “roasting” of shelled nuts is actually a form of deep-frying, and the fat used is often coconut oil. The process can add about 10 calories per ounce of nuts. Roasted nuts are usually heavily salted, too, although you can find unsalted varieties. Nuts can be roasted or toasted at home without fat.
Dry-roasted nuts can also be purchased at the grocery store. Dry-roasted nuts are not cooked in oil, but—with just 10 fewer calories per ounce—they are only marginally lower in calories and fat than oil-roasted nuts. Like regular roasted nuts, dry-roasted nuts may be salted or contain other ingredients, such as corn syrup, sugar, starch, monosodium glutamate (MSG), and preservatives.
Here are some varieties of nuts you can find in some stores and at farmers’ markets:
Acorns: Once a staple in the Native American diet, acorns are still gathered in the wild, but they are not cultivated. Acorns from red oaks need to be shelled and soaked in several changes of water to remove bitter tannins. Acorns from white oaks are less bitter and don’t need to be soaked. In either case, acorns should be roasted. Their flavor is similar to hazelnuts.
Almonds: A relative of peaches, apricots, and plums, almonds are a cornucopia of nutritional benefits and are sold in many forms.
Beechnuts: The beech tree is a member of the acorn and chestnut family and produces reddish burrs that house two small triangular nuts. They are similar in taste to walnuts.
Brazil nuts: Sweet and rich, Brazil nuts have a similar consistency to coconut meat and are loaded with selenium.
Butternuts: Also called “white walnuts,” this relative of the walnuts looks like the letter U, or a life-preserver vest.
Cashews: These nuts are the seeds of a tree that is native to Africa and South America. Today, most cashews are imported from India and Vietnam. Cashews are always sold shelled because their shells contain a caustic oil related to poison ivy. In fact, the nuts must be carefully extracted to avoid contamination with this oil. In the United States, cashews nuts are more popular for snacking than for cooking, yet they make a particularly delicious nut butter. They are sold raw, roasted, or dry-roasted. Cashews are a good source of iron, magnesium, zinc, and vitamin E. They’re lower in total fat than most nuts and seeds, but are relatively high in saturated fat.
Chestnuts: Chestnuts are round, glossy, mahogany-colored nuts that are formed inside prickly burrs, which 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.
Coconuts: Coconuts grow on the tropical coconut palm. Unlike most nuts, the coconut shell does not contain an inner kernel. Instead, the shell itself is lined with a layer of rich white “meat,” and the hollow at the center of the coconut is filled with a watery, slightly sweet liquid that can be used as a beverage. Unlike other nuts, all of coconut’s substantial fat content is saturated. Coconut oil, used in many processed foods in this country, is the most highly saturated of all vegetable oils. Moreover, coconut has few redeeming vitamin or mineral assets aside from fiber. You can buy whole coconuts and crack them yourself, or choose from several types of processed coconut: shredded and dried (which comes sweetened or unsweetened, and sometimes toasted) or pressed for its milk. The flesh of a young coconut is soft enough to be eaten with a spoon.
Coquito nuts: These small, marble-shaped nuts, known as mini coconuts, grow on the Chilean palm Jubaea chilensis. Their nut meat is sweet, crunchy, and similar in taste and texture to coconut.
Gingko nuts: The Maiden Hair tree produces a round, reddish-orange fruit, resembling a wild plum. When ripe, the fruit opens to reveal a silvery shell containing a single nut, which is surrounded by inedible tissue. The fruit itself releases foul-smelling butyric acid, but the nut is much prized, especially by people of Chinese heritage. Once shelled, gingko nuts must be blanched or soaked in water to remove the surrounding soft tissue before eating. They are also available canned.
Hazelnuts: Hazelnuts are sweet, acorn-shaped nuts that have a long, fuzzy outer husk that opens as the nut ripens, revealing a hard, smooth shell.
Hican: Hicans have a sweet, buttery flavor. They are a cross between the hickory nut (see next entry) and pecan with a round, thin shell like the pecan.
Hickory nuts: There are several varieties of hickories, some producing sweet nuts, others producing bitter nuts. Of the sweet variety, the shagbark and the shellbark are the most well known. Shagbark hickory nuts are thin-skinned and easy to shell. Shellbark hickory nuts are larger than shagbark with thicker shells. Both are similar in flavor to pecans and have a limited commercial production. The bitter hickory nut is used to flavor hickory-smoked cured meats.
Macadamia nuts: These “gourmet” nuts were named for Dr. John Macadam, an Australian who reputedly discovered that they were deliciously edible. Indigenous to Australia and now one of the best-known products of Hawaii, macadamias have a sweet, delicate taste and creamy, rich texture. However, they contain more fat and calories than any other nut. On the plus side, macadamias supply some iron, magnesium, and thiamin. Most commonly eaten as a dessert nut, macadamias are nearly always sold shelled because their shiny round shells are thick and require some 300 pounds of pressure to crack. They are harvested five or six times a year, but the demand still exceeds the supply. Consequently, they’re usually quite expensive.
Peanuts: Peanuts are actually a type of legume, but are commonly used as nuts.
Pecans: Similar to the walnut in taste and appearance, pecans are available shelled and unshelled. Shelled pecans come as halves or pieces. There are roasted and salted versions as well.
Pine nuts: Pignoli, pine nuts, piñon nuts, pinyon nuts, and Indian nuts are all names for the seeds of various types of nut pine trees, which grow in several areas of the world. The seeds come from pinecones and range in size from that of an orange seed to more than 2 inches in length. To harvest the nuts, the pinecones are dried to free the nuts, then the nutshells are cracked to release the kernels. Because of the intricacy of harvesting pine nuts, they are quite expensive. Slender ivory-colored pignoli are an important cooking ingredient in the Mediterranean region, while the pinyons of the American Southwest have been a staple of the Native American larder since ancient times. In general, European species of pine nuts are richer in protein and lower in fat than the American varieties, but American pine nuts offer more vitamins and minerals. Pine nuts are available in Europe, as well as Russia and China. Imported pine nuts are usually sold shelled where American pine nuts—or pinyons—are sold both ways, in-shell and shelled.
Walnuts: Walnuts are available shelled (in halves and pieces) and unshelled. They are also processed for their oil and are one of the few sources of alpha-linolenic acid, an omega-3 fatty acid found only in plant foods.