Chestnuts are the hard nut-like fruit of the chestnut or chinquapin tree. These nuts are contained within a light brown, prickly case often referred to as a bur, which grows in clusters at the end of chestnut tree branches. In places like Italy and Spain they are eaten so commonly they are considered a subsistence food. Sweet chestnuts, as all the European and American varieties are, are enjoyed in many traditional Christmas and holiday dishes. Surely everyone has heard of roasting chestnuts over an open fire? But there is one problem most people who want to use chestnuts don't consider: These trees drop their fruit in fall, after the snows have already begun. For some reason the extreme cold affects the chemical composition of the chestnut, making it taste extremely bitter. For that reason one must harvest Chestnuts and store them ahead of time if they are to be used in any holiday dishes. Here is a guide on how to properly harvest, store and prep chestnuts for holiday cooking.
Things You'll Need
Thick gardener's gloves
Pot of ice water
Basket or container
Begin harvesting the chestnuts a week or more prior to the first forecasted snows of the winter season. Use a stepladder to get up to the burs at the end of the chestnut tree’s branches. The burs themselves appear closed early in the fall but should have split open by now. Make sure to put on a thick pair of gloves as the spines of the burs can pierce your skin.
Lever open the cracks in the burs and slide out the chestnuts. Do not attempt to pull the burs or cut them from the tree as this will prevent the growth of more chestnuts the following year. Drop the chestnuts into a container placed on the ground to keep your hands free.
Take your container indoors once you have as many nuts as you think you will need. Prepare to shell the nuts for later use. There are actually two shells on each chestnut. The one on the exterior is thick and leathery, while the one beneath that is thin, sticking to the nut like a second skin.
Use a sharp kitchen knife to cut off both the top and bottom of each nut. Preheat your oven to 400 degrees F and place the nuts on a baking sheet. Cook them for 10 minutes.
Take the nuts out of the oven and, without giving them time to cool, quickly drop them into a bucket of cold water. The heat from the oven will have caused the nuts to expand, pushing against the skins, which, lacking moisture, do not expand on their own. By dunking them in cold water, the nuts contract, leaving the shells loose and sagging. You should be able to scrap the shells off easily with a knife.
Dry the nuts thoroughly on a cloth and then wrap them tightly in tinfoil. Store them in a cool, dry place until you need them. A basement would be ideal. Do not place them in the fridge as it will ruin their flavor and dry them out.
Be careful when shelling chestnuts to get off all the husks. The thin, paper-like outer coating can have a powerful effect on the stomach if eaten. They are very binding.