When done right, pine nuts can be an excellent addition to your salad or homemade pesto sauce. They are eaten by many cultures around the world, but if you walk through your local grocery store, you’ll likely discover that they are also terribly expensive. But you can evade the high price of pine nuts by taking the time to harvest them yourself.
Pine nuts are small edible seeds inside of pine cones that hang from certain kinds of pinyon pine trees. When you buy pine nuts from the grocery store, they’re likely coming from China or, if you’re paying more, from Italy. That doesn’t mean you can’t harvest them in the US.
Here are five facts about harvesting pine nuts.
Your first step in harvesting pine nuts is being able to find them. There are 20 species of pine trees that produce seeds large enough to harvest, but the most common are Mexican pinyon, Colorado pinyon, Italian stone pinyon, and Chinese nut pine.
If you’re in the US, you’ll want to search for these trees in relatively dry and hot areas. There are spots in California, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, and more that provide good climates for these trees to thrive. Since they don’t take too much maintenance and aren’t too large (rarely ever growing over 20 feet), you could plant them in these climates and offer the best opportunities for success. If you’re wondering if pine nut trees will grow well in your area, contact a certified arborist, such as those at Mr. Tree, and ask.
If you plan to plant your own tree, you’ll need to allow 15 to 25 years for your tree to start producing pine nuts and much longer for it to produce a large amount. But even if you’re not planting them, it will take a long time to start eating them.
First, you’ll want to start by scoping out the pine trees in the summer. Head out to the woods and take note of where the pine trees are that will produce pine nuts. When summer is over, you’ll need to return to those spots and start picking.
You’ll want to start working with the trees that have a few pine cones already opening and others that are still closed. It’s important to arrive around this time because if you wait any longer, chipmunks and squirrels could get there first, and you could return to find your trees without any pine nuts. When you do return to your trees, it’s time to start picking down the pine cones.
After you’ve plucked down all of the cones, put them in a paper grocery bag and return to the kitchen. Lay the cones down in roasting trays to let sit for around three weeks so the cones can open and the pine nuts can mature.
When that time has passed, you’ll need to pick each pine nut off of the cones one by one. Unfortunately, there’s no other way to do this, so this is going to take a while. After you have picked the pine nuts from the cone, you’ll also need to peel off an outer shell of the nut to get to the edible part, so don’t forget to set aside some time for that too.
When you’re working with these pine cones, make sure that you’ve got a cheap pair of gloves on. The cones are going to be covered in pitch, a sticky, smelly residue that will stay on your garments for a while.
But lucky for you, the smell is lovely. Similar to syrup, this pitch is sweet-smelling, and the smell will float in the air as you work, making this task all the more bearable when you’re out in the field or picking the seeds in the kitchen.
Harvesting pine nuts is a long and arduous process, but once you consider that not all of the pine nuts you’ve harvested will be good, it gets even longer. It’s possible that only about 50 percent of the pine nuts will be salvageable and taste the way you want them to.
How do you tell if the pine nuts will be good or bad?
First, the darker nuts are most likely going to be the best ones, but to be safe, you should dump them all in a bucket of water. About 85 percent of the ones that float at the top of the bucket will be bad, and the nuts that sink will be good. But don’t separate the 15 percent of good pine nuts that floated. It isn’t worth saving them for how much time it will take to figure out which ones to keep.
After you’ve kept your good pine nuts, make sure to freeze them if you plan to keep them for more than a couple of weeks. They’ve got a relatively quick shelf-life, so you won’t want to spend all the time preparing them only for them to go bad a few weeks later.
Don’t throw away the bad pine nuts just yet. There are still uses for them, like infusing alcoholic drinks. Put the bad pine nuts in a mason jar, fill it with vodka, and let it sit for a while. Soon, you’ll be enjoying a pine nut bourbon, and all the time you spent in the field picking bad seeds won’t feel like a waste.
After you’ve gone through this process, the pine nuts will be ready to eat. When raw, these seeds have a soft texture and a sweet, buttery flavor, but you can also lightly toast them to bring out flavor and add crunch to your meal. They’ll likely be small, elongated, ivory-colored seeds that are about half an inch long and can go really well on salads and more.
Schedule in a time this summer to head out to find pinyon pine trees. It might take a while to harvest pine nuts, but it could all be worth it when you’re enjoying your delicious homemade pesto.