Here in the U.S., there aren’t a huge number of recipes that call for pine nuts (though pesto comes to mind), but the small roasted seeds are tasty, and they command a premium price as well. Most of the pine nuts purchased in the U.S. are imported, but that doesn’t mean they don’t grow here. In fact, you might just be able to find some of your own by foraging locally (and save a few dollars while you’re at it).
Let’s take a closer look at this little guy.
What are pine nuts and where do they come from?
Pine nuts are the edible seeds of certain pine species.
People have been harvesting them for food since ancient times (they were well known in Rome and Greece), and they were a staple in the diets of numerous Native American tribes as well as for the indigenous folks in Siberia and the Russian Far East.
Today pine nuts are used in a number of Mediterranean and oriental dishes. In the Southwest United States, pine nut coffee (piñón) is a specialty.
When pine nuts are shelled for processing, they’re preserved and bagged for long shelf life, which means that you’ve probably never had a fresh pine nut if you live in the U.S. This is another reason to try foraging your own–so you can taste the real deal!
Nutritional value of pine nuts
A pine tree wouldn’t steer you wrong… these seeds aren’t just tasty, but they have nutritional value as well. Pine nuts contain thiamine, vitamin B1 and protein. According to Wikipedia, “Many dieters eat pine nuts because of their proven ability to suppress hunger.”
Also, pine nuts can be pressed to extract pine nut oil, which is valued for its mild, nutty flavor. Also it’s said to offer health benefits such as anti-inflammatory and antioxidant action.
Which pine trees can you get pine nuts from?
You’ll note above that I said “certain pine trees” produced these edible seeds. Actually just about any pine has edible seeds, but many of them are too small to be worth our time to harvest.
Around the world, there are about 20 species of pine with seeds large enough to make foraging for them a fun (and worthwhile) activity.
Here in the U.S., some common producers are:
- Pinyon pine
- Ponderosa pine
- Jeffrey pine
- Pinus pinea or ‘Stone Pine’
The Southwest is particularly known for pine nuts. However, if you’re elsewhere in the country and your backyard didn’t come with any pine trees, you may be able to grow your own to make foraging easy down the road!
How to forage for pine nuts
If you’re out starving in the forest, pine nuts might not be the best food to forage for, since it takes quite a bit of effort to collect the cones and get the seeds out, but if you use the edible seeds in your cooking, it makes sense to save yourself a few dollars by getting them locally (especially if locally means in your yard).
Here’s how you get the nuts:
Collect the female pine cones from the ground, or grab a ladder and skedaddle up the tree (often times the cones on the ground will have already been foraged by wild animals). There’s no need to remove the branch or anything else when getting them from the tree. Just pluck the pine cone and toss it in a bag.
Once you’ve got some promising cones, place them near a fire or other heat source. This causes them to open and release the seeds.
If you have a few days, you can also dry a bag of cones in the sun. Then simply shake the bag to loosen the seeds.
To clean the nuts, use a screen or wire mesh of 1/2-inch spacing. This separates the seeds from the waste materials.
Oh, in case you’re wondering about telling the difference between male and female cones, here’s a look at a male (top) and female (bottom) pine cone:
What you already think of as pines cones are the females.
There you go: find some fresh pine nuts and let us know what you think!
Sources (and more reading):
- Pinenut Information from Pinon Penny
- Gathering Pinyon Pine Nuts
- Wikipedia Pine Nut Entry
- Pines: Not Just for Breakfast Any More (this articles covers a lot more than nuts; it talks about lots of edible uses for various parts of the pine tree)