During this time of year, every store and holiday-music-inclined household has carols playing in the background. For me, I enjoy the classics such as ‘White Christmas’ and ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.’ Another song on that list would be ‘The Christmas Song’ by Nat King Cole, whose lyrics famously start with ‘Chestnuts roasting on an open fire.’ Though we sing, dance, and cry to the lyrics every year, have you noticed we don’t have many chestnut trees in the U.S? Even more so, why don’t we know how to roast chestnuts?
The Chestnut Blight
In 1904, the fungus Cryphonectria parasitica was first introduced to the United States through the integration and cultivation of the Japanese chestnut tree for commercial use. Unfortunately, the American chestnut tree lacked resilience against the invasive fungus carried through the Japanese chestnut trees. By the 1940s, the fungus whipped out almost all of the mature American chestnut trees.
This part of American (and European) tree history is known as the chestnut blight.
Though we sing about deliciously warm chestnuts, the tradition of roasting these nuts is a bit lost to Americans because of the blight. If we do want to, we must go on a hunt or get lucky at a grocery or specialty store.
Picking Your Chestnuts
As a result of the blight, most (if not all) chestnuts come to your grocery store imported from other continents. This means chestnuts are not entirely fresh when they reach your kitchen.
When picking your chestnuts, look for bags without any cracked nuts. This is the first sign of an entirely too old bunch.
I then recommend looking for bags with a brighter shine on the shells. As chestnuts age, their coloring becomes dull.
Finally, look for nuts that seem sturdy. If you shake the nuts, and the interior rattles around, it may be rotting in the middle. You want a nut with a little weight.
How Do Roasted Chestnuts Taste?
I fell in love with chestnuts while living in South Korea. They were in abundance during the cold winter months. Honestly, I could walk in a park and collect chestnuts all on my own. Surprisingly, the edible portion of the nuts hide in a spiky protective layer. They remind me a bit of sea urchins–they look like plant-based sea urchins from the land!
I ate my first roasted chestnut from a vendor on a street corner in Seoul. He had a machine that kept the chestnuts from burning by continuously shaking them over the fire. When perfectly done, he placed a handful or two in a brown paper bag. The heat radiated, keeping me warm as I continued to walk and tour the city. It probably cost less than three American dollars, which was amazing!
The meat of roasted chestnuts tastes a bit sweet. In some ways, roasted chestnuts reminisce more of a Japanese sweet potato than a nut. When roasted, the nuts gain a soft, chewy, and tender texture. They retain heat for an extended period of time–making them a perfect winter treat!
How to Roast Chestnuts
Step 1: Wash Your Chestnuts
For some, this step may seem obvious. For others, you may ask why bother if you don’t consume the shell. Think about all the hands and machinery used to prepare, package, transport, and then stock your produce. In my mind, it’s always a good idea to wash everything you buy!
Step 2: Soak Your Chestnuts
On many English sites, I see people popping their chestnuts directly in the oven or boiling their chestnuts. I found this step unnecessary when researching on Korean sites. As they eat way more chestnuts, I rely on their methods for getting that perfect, creamy, and hot nut.
For this step, simply allow your chestnuts to soak in a cool water bath for 30 minutes or longer. This process softens the shell a tad bit and helps prepare the nuts to steam while roasting.
Once you finish soaking your chestnuts, completely dry their shells with a hand towel or paper towel.
Step 3: Scoring the Shell
The scoring step is the most important for safety reasons. Slice a slit into the shell of each chestnut. Be careful not to pierce through the meat of the chestnut.
We need to slice the shell to release the steam. If we don’t, your chestnuts might explode in the oven or on the stovetop!
Step 4: How to Roast Chestnuts in the Oven
Preheat your oven to 400°F. Place your prepared chestnuts onto a tray. The slits you created in the shells should face up on the tray. For larger chestnuts, roast for approximately 15-25 minutes. For smaller chestnuts, roast for 10-15 minutes.
Roasting chestnuts is not an exact science–it may take more or less time depending on your oven and nuts. So, please remember to keep an eye on these as they cook! Do not rely on the timer and run around doing other activities.
If you wait until the shells are charcoal brown or black, you have overcooked your chestnuts!
When cooked, your chestnuts should smell strong and nutty. The shells should also be too hot to handle without mitts.
While cooling the shells, let them sit wrapped in a hand towel and placed into a bowl or basket. Once they cool enough to handle, you should also be able to easily peel the shell. I recommend peeling the shells while they are still warm. It is becomes more difficult as the chestnuts cool off, and I think chestnuts are so much better warm!
Step 5: How to Roast Chestnuts On the Stove
Heat your pan on medium heat. Once hot, place your chestnuts on the pan. Once again, the sliced side should face upward.
As you roast your chestnuts, shake your pan once in a while to move the chestnuts around. You will know that your chestnuts are cooked when the shell peels backward, and your kitchen smells nutty. Note: the stovetop process takes longer than the oven method.
Though you can put oil in the pan, it is not necessary.
Once again, let your chestnuts cool slightly in a wrapped towel. Once cooled enough to touch, peel your chestnuts while still warm.
We Hope You Enjoy Roasting Chestnuts
Below are some more of our favorite holiday recipes:
- Meringue Christmas Tree Cookies
- White Chocolate and Smoked Salt Pistachio Brittle
- Peppermint Creams
- Or, you can look at our holiday list of gluten-free treats!
This winter and holiday season we hope you enjoy roasting chestnuts while at home. If you do, let us know about your experience in the comments below or via email!
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We hope you enjoyed learning how to roast chestnuts!
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