Is it fair to call a food a "Health Trend" if there's a few hundred different versions, and it's been eaten for thousands of years in just about every part of the globe? Probably not. But still, for each diet that becomes reintroduced every few years, there comes a new round of rediscovery for the versatility and nutritional value of nuts.
What is a Nut?
For starters: What is a nut, anyway? Let's start with the definition. Botanically speaking, a true nut is a hard-shelled pod that contains both the seed and fruit of the plant where the fruit does not open and release the seed once it fully ripens. A nut in cuisine, also known as a culinary nut, is much more loosely defined than a botanical nut. The term culinary nuts are applied to many seeds that are not true botanical nuts. Culinary nuts may be fruits, seeds or in some cases actual botanical nuts. While they are technically different from one another, their appearance and culinary role is often very closely aligned.
Culinary nuts are used in a wide variety of edible roles including baking, cooking or as snacks (sometimes roasted and/or seasoned with honey, salt, spices or sugar). They can be added early in the cooking process or added as a topping at the end. Culinary nuts generally fall into one of three categories - drupes, seeds and botanical nuts.
Cooking with Nuts
Nuts are used in cuisines all over the world, providing flavor, crunch, and are usually a healthy boost of fat in a dish. In the Middle East, almonds, pistachios and walnuts are used in chicken stuffing, pastries and rice dishes. Almonds, cashews and pistachios are frequently found in North Indian biryanis, desserts, ice creams, pilafs, puddings and vegetarian dishes. In Southeastern Asian and Szechuan sauces and stir-fries cashews and peanuts are often parried with chiles, various spices and sugar. In Mexican cuisine pine nuts, pumpkin seeds and sesame seeds are fried or roasted and then ground where besides providing flavor they're also used as a thickener in signature moles and sauces. In the Oaxacan region, pumpkin seeds are ground into the popular sauce Pipian and in the Mexican state of Puebla walnuts are added to fillings, fruits, salad dressings and stuffing. Throughout Europe almonds, chestnuts and hazelnuts are found in desserts and pastries. Here in the US, various nuts and seeds are found in everything from burgers and grain-type breads to pastries and rolls.
No matter what you call them, nuts are increasing in popularity, becoming one of America's favorite snack foods. Between the years 2000 and 2013, nut consumption increased 56% in the US - to more than 4 lbs consumed per capita. The thing is, not all of our favorite nuts are really nuts. Some have a technical name such as a "drupe", while others are considered seeds. Whether you're snacking on nuts or drupes, their flavors can definitely be improved by a quick roast in the oven, or a light dry toast in a heavy bottom skillet (like cast iron).
What are Botanical Nuts?
A botanical nut is a fruit composed of a hard shell and a seed, which is generally edible. Common usage of the term nut typically refers to any edible kernel that has a hard outer wall.
Some Popular Botanical Nuts Are:
- Depending on what part of the United States you're from, chestnuts might just be some weird, antiquated food you're only reminded about once a year in a Christmas Carol (joined by images of jello molds and weird cubed meats). But Chestnuts are about more than just nostalgia! They're lower in calories than a lot of other nuts, and currently scientists are hoping to see a resurgence of their appearance in American Forests as they were almost completely wiped out by a foreign fungal attack brought here unknowingly from imported Japanese chestnut trees, referred to as "Chestnut Blight."
- Hazelnuts, also known as Filberts, are a nut which are frequently paired with chocolate- and for good reason. Chocolate and Hazelnuts are most usually associated with Nutella, an Italian spread that sparked a pretty unbelievable level of enthusiasm and excitement when it was introduced to the United States. On their own, Hazelnuts are sweet and just the right level of "nutty" flavor- making them a popular choice to complement coffee drinks and berries.
- Walnuts are a high density source of nutrients, particularly proteins and essential fatty acids. The flavor of walnuts is somewhat mild, but with a complexity that includes some sharp and tangy notes. Among the more common uses are in salads - where they pair well with apples, bananas, cherries, chicken, cream cheese, dates, or pineapple - we know this best as the popular Waldorf Salad. Walnuts appeared in numerous recipes for breads, cakes, cookies, and pastries.
What are Drupes?
Some of our favorite "nuts" aren't really nuts – they're drupes. So, what's a drupe? A drupe is a type of fruit in which an outer fleshy part surrounds a shell (often referred to as a pit) with a seed inside. In most cases you eat the outer fleshy part of the fruit and discard the "stone". Some familiar drupes that we consume in this manner include cherries, peaches and plums. Other familiar drupes include fruits from coconut trees.
However, in some cases the "stone" or seed within the fruit, that most people would call a "nut," is actually the part eaten. Almonds, cashews, pecans, pistachios, and walnuts all fit into this category. So technically these are also drupes, they're just drupes in which we eat the seed inside the pit instead of the fruit!
Some Popular Drupes Are:
- Almonds are frequently found in Indian and Middle Eastern dishes and cooks worldwide commonly use almonds to add texture and depth of flavor to their culinary creations such as curries, biryanis and pilafs, and are mixed with saffron. Almond can be used whole, crushed or ground into Almond Flour. They have a light and sophisticated flavor profile, but also provide contrasting and pronounced textural components to savory and dessert dishes. Chefs toast almonds to heighten the texture contrast and to further enhance the layers of flavor.
- Cashews may be best known in this country as a popular snack and with its rich flavor they're often eaten raw or roasted and then lightly salted or sugared, or covered in chocolate. Unlike most other culinary nuts, cashews do not have a shell. This means that Cashews are technically seeds and not nuts. Cashews, instead of having a wall around them, have a lining around the seed that is filled with nasty fluid that must be removed. In various global cuisines, cashews are used whole for garnishing curries or sweets, or ground into a paste that's used as a curry sauce base. Cashews work well in both sweet and savory dishes and many Southeast Asian cuisines prefer using cashews instead of other nuts for thickening soups, meat stews, and some desserts with a milk base.
- You may not have realized that coconuts are the fruit of the coconut palm, which makes them the drupe of the plant, similar to a walnut. They are an interesting nut because they contain large amounts of water. These nuts have many functional uses including drinking the water, extracting oil from the kernel, coconut "flesh", or copra, and charcoal from the hard shell. Coconuts grow in tropical areas and are part of the daily diet for many.
- Pistachios are native to Iran and ancient writings show them being a common food as early as 6,750 B.C. Pistachios are a key ingredient in Middle Eastern cuisine. Today, the US consumes 98 percent of the world supply of pistachios. Pistachio kernels are often eaten whole, and they may be consumed raw or roasted and lightly salted. One of the most popular uses in this country is in pistachio ice cream, which was created in Philadelphia in the mid 1800s.
Seeds as Nuts
There are two types of seeds that may also be considered nuts - Gymnosperm seeds and Angiosperm seeds. Seeds of gymnosperms are not protected by an outer shell or fruit as they are left exposed to the surrounding environment. This type of unprotected seed is known as a naked seed. The term "gymnosperm" is derived from the Greek - gymnos translates to "naked" and sperma to "seed". Some of the more common Gymnosperm seeds that are considered nuts are ginkgo nuts (common in Chinese cooking) and pine nuts. In contrast, seeds of angiosperms are enclosed in what is called the fruit. The fruit of an angiosperm is a seed container derived from an ovary and any tissues that surround it. The dispersal vehicle for the seeds of these flowering plants is the fruit.
Some Notable Seed Nuts Are:
- Pumpkin Seeds
- Pumpkin seeds play leading roles in American, European and Mexican cuisines. They're often eaten raw or are lightly toasted and used in breads, cakes and are considered a staple ingredient in Mexican moles, salads, sauces and stews.
- Macadamia Nuts
- Macadamia Nuts are grown commercially in Australia. They are typically used in baking desserts such as cookies. Macadamia nuts are also prized for their nutritional qualities, having the highest amount of monounsaturated fat out of any nut. Their high omega-7 palmitoleic acid concentration also makes these nuts very valuable when it comes to creating skin care.
- Peanuts are popular in African, Southeast Asian and Chinese cuisines. In the US there are actually four types of peanuts found. The most common is runner peanuts, which account for about 80% of US consumed peanuts, and their uniform size make them ideal for roasting. Virginia peanuts account for about 15% of US consumption, and these larger peanuts are typically more popular in gourmet snacks.
Are Culinary Nuts Good for You?
According to the Mayo Clinic, including nuts as part of a balanced diet may help lower your cholesterol. The New England Journal of Medicine has released a 30-year study of over 118,000 men and women which found that people who regularly consume nuts 7 or more times a week had a 20% lower death rate than those who consumed nuts 1 time or less per week.
Nuts are nutritional powerhouses stuffed with heart-healthy fats, protein, minerals and vitamins. But ounce for ounce they are also high in calories and fat, and while a small handful can be a great snack, too much of a good thing and they can be quite detrimental if you're trying to lose a few pounds. This problem can be compounded if you choose nuts that have added salt or sugar. Stumped on how to season them? We have a whole bunch of salt-free or sugar-free seasonings and about a billion recipes on our favorite spices/nut combinations (Chinese Five Spice Pecans, Chili Lime Walnuts, and Maharajah Curry Coconut Spiced Cashews are pretty high up on our list). Got a weird seasoning hanging around your cabinet leftover from one recipe you needed it for 6 months ago? Bring it on! Sweet and mellow nuts are a match made in heaven with spices, which could explain why they have a permanent and revered place on our employee break table.