To me, the smell of street carts roasting chestnuts over hot coals is hard to resist. But you don't need a fire to enjoy these tasty nuts: I'll show you how to roast chestnuts in your oven, with plenty of tips along the way.
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Chestnuts were something I looked forward to every year when I was a child. I have distinct memories of standing by the oven, waiting to see the shells start to crack open, and taking in every whiff of their smell.
Then, even better, was if we were ever near a street vendor roasting them. They are not hugely common in the UK, where I grew up, but the major cities tend to have the odd vendor selling them during the festive season. I've also had them in Geneva and Lisbon, and they are popular in Northern Italy and France as well.
I'll be honest, the lack of smokey smell does make home-roasted ones just that teeny bit less good from a smell perspective, but they are still really delicious. And you'll be glad to hear, pretty easy as well.
However, there are a few things that are worth keeping in mind as you buy, prepare and cook chestnuts so here are all the top tips.
What to look for when buying chestnuts
Here are the main things to look for when you are buying chestnuts:
- Look in the cool cabinet - fresh chestnuts are best kept cool, so if they are being stored out on the regular shelves, they will likely already be drying out. So look for them in the refrigerated section. Farmers markets are the exception if they are coming from a grower, of course.
- Glossy - the shells should have a nice sheen to them.
- Heavy - the chestnuts should feel heavy for their size. Larger ones are generally better as well, relative to those available.
- No rattling - linked to their weight, you shouldn't hear the inside nut moving around when you shake it gently. That's a sign they are dry.
- No holes - holes in the skin may mean they are becoming dry, have bugs in or are rotting. In other words, nothing good, so try to avoid them.
- Local - if you have the option of locally sourced chestnuts, they are likely to be fresher.
Once you've picked them out, store them at home in the fridge, in a paper bag or vented packaging (if you do get them in a plastic bag, then keep it open). Use them within a couple days of buying to be as fresh as possible.
Preparing chestnuts for roasting
There are a few theories on exactly how best to prepare chestnuts for roasting. Some soak them, others don't, some boil them first, and how you cut them can vary.
Personally I don't feel you need to go overboard in prep but I do recommend they at least have a wash, and if you do this after you score them, then this adds a little moisture to help add steam as they cook.
You need to make a cut in the skin before they cook to help steam escape as they cook and also let you get in to get the nuts out. The opening also conveniently lets you know when they are ready by opening up.
I generally make the traditional "x" cut on one side of them, ideally the flat side (see on right above). You can also make a single line score, usually best on the rounded side which some find easier for peeling (left above). I can't say I do, but that may be me.
When you score, only cut the skin but no further - a slight score on the nuts here and there is fine but you don't want to cut into them. Then, rinse them, discard any that seem mouldy or cracked and place on a baking sheet to roast.
Cooking and peeling chestnuts
Chestnuts are best cooked at a relatively high heat (425F/210C) for around 15 minutes. If they are smaller, the cook time may be less smaller and likewise more if they are large.
What you are looking for is the skin to curl open where you made the slits but they should not look burnt. Then, take them out of the oven and wrap the nuts in a dishcloth.
Chestnuts are easiest to peel when they are still warm. Once cool, the inner skin tends to stick more to the nut. The cloth helps with this, but you still want to work relatively quickly. They may need a minute to not burn your hands, then take one out at a time, hold in a cloth if needed to make them easier to handle, and peel away!
If bits of the inner skin get stuck inside the crevasses, use a small sharp knife to help tease them out.
Chestnuts grow in a few parts of the world with different varieties growing in different places. They are popular in parts of Asia but probably one of the areas they are most revered is in Northern Italy and parts of France.
Chestnut flour is also popular in Northern Italy and was actually more readily available than wheat flour in some areas at one point. You'll find pasta, pastries, chestnut pancakes and other desserts made with chestnuts in areas like Tuscany and Piemonte.
Chestnuts in the United States
Apparently, native varieties used to be very common in North America (they have been eaten since prior to colonization). However, they suffered a blight in the early 20th century thanks to an imported tree. Sadly, most of the native varieties disappeared within the space of 40 years. Now only a couple areas still have some of the original trees that escaped the blight.
As a result, many of the chestnuts available in the US are imported. Gradually, the crop is being reintroduced to some areas and so some more local nuts are becoming available. North American varieties tend to be a little smaller, but will still roast well. And as I say, local will likely be fresher so they are worth trying if you see them.
One final thing to note is don't get confused between sweet and horse chestnuts. Growing up in Scotland, we had loads of horse chestnut trees in the area which are great for playing conkers (I may be showing my age) but not for eating. In fact, they can make you sick.
Their skins are spikier, larger and the nut shape is round rather than slightly pointed. You won't find them in stores to have an issue confusing them there. But in case you were thinking about going foraging, just make sure you know exactly what you are picking up. Or else stick with the store/market.
Roasted chestnuts are a wonderful treat in the colder months and easier to make at home than you might think. Armed with all these tips, you'll be able to roast chestnuts in your oven like a pro, ready to enjoy as a snack, or in other seasonal dishes. They are such a wonderful combination of gently sweet, nutty flavor and tender texture. So track some down and enjoy!
Try these other seasonal flavors:
- Japanese simmered kabocha squash
- Lentil salad with roasted Brussels sprouts
- Sicilian fennel orange salad
- Plus get more winter recipes in the archives.
How to roast chestnuts
- 1 lb chestnuts (fresh, unpeeled)
- Preheat the oven to 425F/210C.
- Score the outer skin of the chestnuts - I recommend making an "x" on the flat side of the shell, as large as you can but without cutting the nut inside. Discard any nuts that have holes in them or are mouldy.
- As you score the nuts, place them in a bowl of clean water and move around gently to clean the shells.
- Once you have scored and cleaned all of the nuts, take them out of the water, shake off excess water slightly, and place in a baking sheet with the scored side facing up.
- Roast the chestnuts for around 15 minutes, larger ones will take slightly longer, smaller ones may be less. When ready, the slits you made will open up and you can test the inside nut to see if it is tender. The skins may start to brown slightly but should not burn.
- Once ready, tip the nuts into a clean dishcloth and wrap them up. Leave a minute to be slightly less hot, then take one out at a time and peel off the shell, including the inner shells, using the opening made from your slit to get started. Try to work quickly as they are easier to peel when warm. Use a pairing knife to get out any stuck pieces of inner shell, as needed. You can eat these room temperature but they are probably best snacked on while still warm.
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