Stick your hand into a bowl of what appears to be normal, standard, mild-tasting walnuts, and what may come out is a strongly flavored nut that tastes like dirt. In this case, what you're eating is a black walnut (Juglans nigra), one of the two different types of walnuts favored in the United States. The more mild-tasting, easier-to-crack walnut is known as the English walnut (Juglans regia) or Persian walnut. Of the more than 10 varieties of walnuts grown in the United States in U.S.D.A. hardiness zones 5-9, the English and Black walnut-producing trees are the most popular.
About Walnut Varieties
It's all a matter of taste. If your taste buds are sensitive and your mouth recoils at strong flavors, stay away from black walnuts. Native to North America and known as an heirloom ingredient, black walnuts are the stronger of the walnut types and are usually grown wild in the central and eastern part of the country. A word of caution when harvesting this variety – while all walnut trees produce some level of juglone, a toxic chemical, the black walnut produces the most. While this toxin can poison the plants underneath the tree, some people are also susceptible to the chemical and can develop rashes if exposed.
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English walnuts aren't really English. They were grown in Ancient Persia and, through the travels of English merchants, made their way to the European continent and across the ocean to America where Franciscan monks in California discovered their nutty, mild taste. California now is the largest producer of English walnuts.
Health Benefits of Walnuts
Whether you're snacking on English or Black walnuts, both walnut varieties are known as healthy foods. Omega 3 and cholesterol-reducing fats are found in both, and they are low in saturated fats and high in fiber. Both are rich in vitamin A, B, E and K and minerals such as iron, magnesium and phosphate. Walnut oil is used as a salad dressing and in the liqueur sold as Nocello.
The black walnut contains the highest protein count of any nut-bearing tree. Just be cautious when baking and cooking with black walnuts. Do not equate the black walnut measurement in a recipe with the same amount of English walnuts, as the outcome will be greatly affected.
Different Kinds of Nuts in Shells
Beyond walnuts, at least 11 kinds of nuts in shells are readily available commercially. All nut are considered healthy, and while some contain more fat than others, eaten in moderation they contribute to overall general health. So get out your nut cracker and replace those bowls of chips with a mound of nuts! Be careful though: nuts can be highly caloric.