I’ve loved chestnuts ever since I had my first taste. I was five years old, standing outside on a chilly afternoon at the Kortright Centre for Conservation in Woodbridge, Ontario. I was there for my dad’s company Christmas party, and all of the kids were huddled together out in the snow.
Our tour guide was roasting these dark pebbles on the camp fire, and I remember being fascinated by the smell that was wafting through the air.
Someone handed me a warm, golden nugget and told me to dip it into a cup of hot melted butter. I did so, and popped the whole thing into my mouth at once. The sweet, earthy flavour of the chestnut, combined with the salty metled butter, was unlike anything else I had ever eaten before.
Now I looked forward to enjoying those flavours every winter.
What Are Chestnuts?
Chestnuts are sweet, edible nuts that grow inside of a prickly casing called a burr. They have an inedible dark brown outer shell, and a bitter paper-like skin that both need to be removed before eating. Fresh raw chestnuts are generally available in groceries and farmers markets from September to November, while vacuum-packed cooked chestnuts are available year round (but I don’t really like the taste of those).
Did you know that roasted chestnuts are a street food in Italy. Can you imagine going for walk and being able to buy hot roasted chestnuts in a brown paper bag? I’d be all over that!
Most of the chestnuts that we find in big grocery stores have been imported from places in Europe or Asia. By the time they reach Canada, they are far from fresh. This often means that the chestnuts have become dry or mouldy long before you bring them home, and you might not realize it until you’ve gone through the trouble of cooking and peeling them.
After spending months testing bag after bag of chestnuts (and peeling them!), I’ve come up with a few tips that will help you purchase and prepare chestnuts, including how to roast chestnuts in your oven!
Which Chestnuts Should You Buy?
To be honest, I haven’t noticed a huge difference between the chestnuts from Europe and the ones from Asia. They don’t exactly taste the same, but I don’t find that I prefer one over the other.
The best chestnuts that I’ve found so far were tiny ones at a farmer’s market in Toronto. These little gems were from the Niagara region, which is about as local as I can hope to get. I wasn’t sure that I was getting my money’s worth, because they were so small. Honestly though, I am so glad that I bought these. They cooked quickly, and were a breeze to peel.
Small and local is definitely the way to go!
Also, it’s important to look at the shells of the chestnuts that you’re buying. The shell should be a vibrant brown colour, with a bit of a sheen. As chestnuts get older, they become dull, sad-looking and bland. You can see the difference in this photo below. Oh, and if you can hear the chestnut rattling inside of the shell, don’t buy it. It has probably dried up and will not be edible.
Lastly, avoid buying chestnuts that are in closed plastic bags. Chestnuts can go mouldy when they aren’t able to breathe, so it’s a good idea to look for ones sold in mesh or paper bags. Be sure to cook them soon after purchasing as they spoil quickly. If you can’t cook them right away, refrigerate chestnuts in perforated plastic bags for up to one week or freeze in an airtight container for up to one month.
Edit 12/11/16: I was able to get fresh local chestnuts from Jewels Under the Kilt (seriously, that’s the company’s name!) this year. Lis had a small amount available at the Evergreen Brickworks Market in Toronto.
How to Prepare Chestnuts for Roasting:
First of all, you should wash your chestnuts. It doesn’t matter that you’re not eating the shell. You’re going to touch the shell to peel them when you eat them, so be sure to wash them properly before cooking!
Once your chestnuts are clean (and preferably dry, not like the ones in my photo), you’re going to cut slits into them. Traditionally, an “x” is cut into the flat side of the chestnut. This allows steam to escape during the cooking process so that the chestnuts don’t explode. I recently saw this video on YouTube though, and discovered that cutting a slit across the pointy end of the chestnut also works.
No matter how you slice them, be sure to use a sharp, sturdy pairing knife and be careful not to cut yourself!
Roasting Chestnuts in Your Oven:
As romantic as open fires are, they’re not terribly practical when you live in the city or the suburbs. While there are many different ways to cook chestnuts (I’ll share some other ideas below), my favourite method is to roast them in the oven.
Sometimes I use a flat sheet pan, sometimes I use a tray with higher sides, it really doesn’t matter. The important thing here is that you have cut your slit into the chestnut before putting them on the pan. If you don’t, they absolutely will explode.
Be careful not to burn your chestnuts. This will make them so hard that you could confuse them with pieces on a checkers board. If your chestnuts are as black as the ones in my photo here, then you’ve probably overcooked them. Oops!
Now, I will say that I do miss a tiny bit of charring on my chestnuts. In fact, the smell of slightly burnt chestnuts is one of my favourite holiday scents (has anyone made a burnt chestnut candle yet?). If you roast chestnuts on an open fire, you tend to get some blackened bits and a nice smoky smell. To replicate this, I sometimes throw the chestnuts onto the bottom of my oven for a minute or two.
If you choose to do this, you’re doing so at your own risk. I don’t want to hear that you burnt your house down because you put chestnuts on your stove’s element and forgot about them!
Alternative Cooking Options:
If you look up how to cook chestnuts on Google, you will find all kinds of recommendations. Here are a couple other methods that I tried.
1. Roasting in a cast iron pot.
This method works almost as well as roasting the chestnuts on a tray, except that it takes at least 10 minutes longer to cook. This is because the cast iron pot has to heat up before the chestnuts get a chance to cook. It does work though.
I can see the benefit of boiling the chestnuts if you’re going to bake with them. They do get much softer than their oven-roasted version. However, I really thought that they were lacking in flavour. You might prefer to buy those little packages of cooked chestnuts at the store if you’re going to use them in soups, stuffing or in baking. Maybe. I haven’t found a brand of cooked chestnuts that I really enjoy yet.
How to Peel Chestnuts:
If you want to get the shells and the paper-like membrane off of the chestnuts, you must peel them when they’re still very warm. The hotter they are, the easier they will be to peel. Obviously, I don’t want anyone to burn themselves but the reality is that as chestnuts cool, the membrane begins to stick to the flesh of the nut. Once the chestnuts have cooled completely, you may find that the membrane is down right impossible to get off.
My trick for handling hot chestnuts is to use an old kitchen towel. I take one end of the towel and cover my left hand, and place the chestnut in that hand. Then, I use the other end of the towel in my right hand to peel off the shell. Not only does the towel protect my hands from the heat, but I’m less likely to cut myself this way too.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve cut my fingers on sharp bits of chestnut shells. It’s not fun, especially when the shell goes under your fingernails.
Well on that happy note (sorry!) I hope you’ve found this article useful. Despite everything I’ve told you here, the reality is that there is no “correct” way to prep, cook or peel chestnuts. This is because not all chestnuts are the same. They come in different sizes, some have membranes that go through the flesh or the nut, and it can be difficult to figure out how old your chestnuts are. The best thing you can do is test a few batches until you find what works best for you and stick to it.
- 1 lb of fresh raw chestnuts
- salt optional
- melted butter optional
Preheat oven to 375°F.
Wash and dry your chestnuts.
Use a sharp pairing knife to cut a slit into the bottom of each chestnut (or cut an X into the flat side of the chestnut).
Place scored chestnuts in a single layer on a baking tray (cut side up if you used the X method).
Roast chestnuts in the centre of the oven for 15-25 minutes, depending on how large they are. The bigger the chestnut, the longer they will take to cook. Chestnuts are done when they smell nutty, and are hot to the touch.
Remove chestnuts from oven, and allow to cool enough to handle them. Peel warm chestnuts using fingers and a tea towel, working quickly.
Serve shelled chestnuts with salt and melted butter, if desired.
1. Be careful not to burn your chestnuts, as they will become to tough to eat.
2. Try to peel the chestnuts while they are still hot, as the paper-like skin that covers each chestnuts becomes very difficult to remove once the nut has cooled down.