How Do I Choose the Best Hickory Nuts?

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  • Written By: Megan Shoop
  • Edited By: Michelle Arevalo
  • Last Modified Date: 09 May 2020
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Hickory nuts generally have a deep, meaty, slightly smoky flavor that complements a number of cheeses, fruits, pastries, and sauces. Usually available around the fall and winter holiday seasons, these nuts are usually very popular in spiced nut mixes and as toppings for fruit and squash pies. When choosing nuts, especially from the wild, the harvester should typically search for shagbark and shellbark hickory nuts because they usually have the best flavor. The shells of the nuts should be hard, thick, and beige. If harvesting from the wild, the husks of the nuts should be very dark brown and the nuts themselves must be free of holes and mold.

When choosing hickory nuts from the grocery store, check the bag label to make sure they’re shellbark or shagbark nuts. These varieties generally have a better flavor than the pignut and bitternut types. The favorable varieties of hickory nut are usually round and squat, with a very thick shell and a point at one end. The unfavorable nuts are usually oblong with slightly green, very thin shells. They’re called bitter- and pignut because pigs are usually the only animals that want to eat them.

Both bagged hickory nuts in the grocery store and nuts harvested in the wild should have hard, beige shells. Those in the wild should have tough, fibrous, brown husks that have split open to reveal the nut inside. The shells of either grocery store or wild nuts should be free of holes and mold. Holes indicate weevils have been in the nut, which means the nut is either empty or contains an unsavory occupant. Mold indicates the nut inside the shell has gone rancid and is no longer palatable.

Those purchasing their hickory nuts from the grocery store have one more decision to make beyond the type and freshness of the nuts. Most stores sell both shelled and unshelled nuts. Shelled nuts may be more suitable for recipes because they don’t require the cook to peel them, and are therefore easier and faster to use. Unshelled nuts may work well for people wishing to set out bowls of nuts with decorative nutcrackers, so that guests can crack open their own as they eat. The shells may be tossed into fireplaces to keep the fire burning hot and fragrantly.

Harvesting hickory nuts from the wild is usually a relatively simple matter of picking the fallen nuts up from the ground. Looking for ground nuts only usually ensures that the nuts are ripe and ready for consumption. It also eliminates the need to climb ladders and search through the fruit still on the tree. Some harvesters like to wear sturdy hats when picking up hickory nuts because falling nuts can be painful.

Placing wild hickory nuts in a bucket of water can help the harvester definitively separate the good from the bad. After husking, the harvester must simply pour the nuts into the bucket. Those that float to the top of the bucket are likely bad and may be discarded.


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