Chestnuts are often thought of during Christmas time as a treat. A popular Christmas song refers to them being roasted over an open fire. They are not usually a common ingredient the rest of the year. However, there are ways to enjoy chestnuts at any time provided they are chosen, stored and prepared correctly. Although referred to as a nut because of the hard shell, they have more of a soft, grainy texture inside as opposed to being hard and crunchy like nuts.
Chestnuts mature during the spring and summer and are ready to harvest in the fall. They grow on trees and once mature will fall to the ground on their own. The actual chestnut is protected by a spiky pod called a burr. On the tree the burrs are green while growing and then change to a brown color when ready to fall. Once gathered the time frame for use and preparation for cooking is relatively short. They are not nonperishable like other nuts. It is important that they be refrigerated and used within two weeks or frozen for up to a year. If frozen they must be blanched and peeled first. If they are refrigerated, put them in the crisper drawer with damp paper towels. If you are using chestnuts from the refrigerator for cooking it helps to let them dry out a couple of days. This will make them sweeter. Cooking time will depend on the recipe you are using and the amount of time it takes to peel them. To peel a chestnut you must boil them for about one minute. Before you boil them, cut a small strip off one side of the chestnut. After they have boiled take them off the heat and once cooled peel off the shells and the inner skin just under the shell.
There are many kinds of chestnuts but the main types of chestnuts are American, European, Chinese and Chosun. All of them can be used in cooking, with the American chestnut being the most widely used and considered the tastiest overall. Chestnuts used for cooking are called sweet chestnuts no matter the variety. Chosun chestnuts, also known as Japanese chestnuts, are from Korea and Japan. They have an inner skin that is difficult to peel, but the taste is said to be worth the effort. European chestnuts are grown in Italy, Spain and France. They are smaller than the Chosun. Considered the highest quality of all types, they are used for special glazes in cooking. American chestnuts are small compared with the European ones and have a slightly hairy appearance unlike the Japanese ones that are hairy only at the tip. Chinese chestnuts are larger than the others and have rounded tips. There are also chestnuts called horse chestnuts. One well-known type of horse chestnut is the Ohio Buckeye. These chestnuts are not consumed by humans.
Chestnuts add flavor, variety and texture to cooking. Roasting them in an oven or fire is the most widely used cooking method. When you roast chestnuts, cut a small X into them first. This is important to remember because it allows the steam to escape while cooking. Otherwise you will have an exploded mess to clean up. Other ways chestnuts are cooked include boiling and cooking in the microwave. After cooking they can be eaten as is or chopped and added to stuffing, stews, soups and purees. In addition, chestnuts can be ground into flour for baking.
Properly prepared chestnuts are more than a delicious addition to your diet. They also have health benefits, providing an excellent source of vitamins B6 and C, folic acid and potassium. Combine that with proteins and you have a power-packed food that tastes great, livens up your menus and helps protect your health. Chestnuts, especially the nonedible horse chestnut, leaves and tree bark can also be used for medicinal purposes in Chinese medicines.
Water chestnuts are often mistaken as part of the chestnut family. Actually, these are not chestnuts at all. Water chestnuts, as the name suggests, are grown in water, usually marshes. They are a vegetable, not a nut.
Make sure you are cooking with the correct chestnuts. If gathering the nuts yourself, leaves on a sweet chestnut tree are a pointed-oval shape. The horse chestnut trees have leaves that are shaped like a spear. Horse chestnuts are smaller and often grow three to a burr. Sweet chestnuts usually grow two to four to a burr. Always peel your chestnuts well as the skins have tannic acid in them that can make you sick. Never eat a chestnut raw. Horse chestnuts are generally considered poisonous to humans because they have a much higher content of tannic acid.