Here’s a handy guide to nuts, including the common varieties, plus tips on buying, storing, and using this nutrient-dense food group.
Before the advent of agriculture, nuts and seeds were staple foods for nomadic tribes foraging for food. Far from diminishing their importance, the onset of civilized society elevated the use of nuts from basic sustenance to prized delicacies. Nuts are the hard-shelled fruits of nut trees (except for peanuts, which are legumes).
Nuts are a rich source of proteins, vitamins, and minerals. Their chief drawback is their high fat content. Used in moderation, however, nuts (and seeds, too) can be an invaluable part of plant-based diets. This versatile food group can add savor and crunch to everything from soup to dessert.
Tree nuts and peanuts, as is commonly known, are a major allergen group. If this is true for you or someone in your household, steer clear! For more specific advice, consult a Registered Dietician.
The most important factor to consider when buying nuts in bulk is that their fat content predisposes them to rancidity. Seek out a source that you know has a good turnover, to ensure that the nuts you purchase are as fresh as possible.
Nuts purchased in supermarkets or specialty food shops in jars, cans, and vacuum-sealed packages are protected from exposure to air, which helps retain freshness. However, such packaging often adds cost to an already rather expensive food group. You’ll also want to read the labels to avoid buying those that are oil-roasted or that have additives.
When buying nuts in the shell, look for uniform-colored shells. Avoid buying those with shells that show cracks or holes. Nuts should feel weighty for their size and not rattle in the shell, which indicates that the nuts are plump and not shriveled. When buying shelled nuts, once again, look for uniformity, good color, and plumpness.
Avoid buying oil-roasted nuts; with all those natural oils, adding more oil to nuts is redundant—not to mention unhealthy.
Careful storage of nuts is crucial, since their fat content causes rancidity to set in soon after they’re shelled. Nuts in the shell are less of a problem; they keep for several months if stored in airtight containers in a cool, dry place. However, even nuts in the shell are best kept refrigerated during warm, humid summer months.
Shelled nuts stored in tightly lidded glass jars at room temperature and away from direct light will keep well from 1 to 2 months, depending on how fresh they were when first bought and the temperature of your kitchen. It’s a good idea to keep all shelled nuts in the refrigerator during the summer.
Special cases: Pine nuts are best kept refrigerated at all times—they contain oils that spoil particularly rapidly. Chestnuts, too, should be refrigerated unless used up immediately. Because they are about 50 percent water, they’re almost more akin to vegetables than to nuts. Though available year round, most nuts are in season, and at their freshest, in fall and winter.
Freezing: Shelled and unshelled nuts freeze well. Packed in airtight plastic containers, they’ll keep for about a year.
Nuts concentrated source of nutrients. They’re rich in the B vitamins niacin, thiamine, and riboflavin and are among the best sources of vitamin E. They are high in fiber and are mineral-rich, providing generous quantities of iron, calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, and potassium.
Though nuts are nutrient-dense, they’re also high in fat and calories. Nuts are composed of from 50 to 70 percent fat, depending on the variety — so moderation is key! However, in most, the fat is composed mainly of polyunsaturates and monounsaturates Saturated fats make up only a small percentage of the fat in most nuts.
Nuts vary just a little bit in terms of protein content from one variety to another, ranging from 4 to 6 grams per one ounce. There’s more variation in terms of fat content, from 13 grams for cashews to 22 grams for macadamia nuts. There’s significant variation in carb fiber content, too. See this informative and detailed comparison chart (though alas, it doesn’t include peanuts).
Much has been written about the health benefits of nuts. Here are some helpful articles:
- Why Nutritionists Are Crazy About Nuts
- Benefits of Nut Consumption (NIH)
- 8 Health Benefits of Eating Nuts
Roasting and Toasting Nuts
The flavor of all nuts and is enhanced by roasting. Pecans and walnuts are never sold roasted, and though roasting them before cooking or baking with them isn’t necessary, doing so before eating them as a snack is a nice touch.
Pine nuts are often sold raw, but roasting them is highly recommended, since it improves the flavor immensely. Shelled almonds, hazelnuts, and cashews are commonly roasted before they are sold, but when sold in bulk, they often come raw. These are all enhanced by roasting, whether to be used in cooking or baking or as a snack.
Peanuts always come roasted, which is a necessary step to destroy a substance they contain that interferes with the body’s absorption of nutrients.
Roasting nuts in the oven: Shelled nuts may be spread on baking sheets and baked at 300º F for 10 to 15 minutes, depending on the size of the nut. Let your senses be your guide—when the nuts are done, they’ll be quite fragrant and turn a shade or two darker. Check frequently, stir once twice, and take care not to overbake!
Toasting nuts on the stovetop: In a sturdy skillet, toast nuts in a single layer over medium heat, stirring often, until fragrant and turning a deeper shade. How long this takes will vary, depending on how your pan conducts heat, so keep your eye on them, and transfer from the pan to another container as soon as they’re done to your liking.
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The easiest way to chop most nuts is to simply place 1/2 to 1 cup nuts in the container of a food processor or blender and pulse on and off until the pieces are about 1/4 inch or so. Some softer nuts, such as walnuts or pecans, may be crushed by placing them between layers of paper towel and rolling with a rolling pin or a large jar.
For more even results and convenience, nuts may be ground in a nut grinder. Look for nut grinders in kitchenware stores and online.
Chopped nuts can be used in (or to top) cakes and breads. Consider using a small quantity to sprinkle over green vegetables such as green beans, broccoli, or asparagus. Toss chopped nuts over pan-fried tofu or cold cereals, or incorporate them into grain pilafs or noodle dishes.
Uses for nuts
Homemade nut butter: Making nut butter is surprisingly easy and economical. Natural nut (and seed) butters (other than peanut butter) can be rather expensive. Cashews, peanuts, almonds, and hazelnuts will yield excellent results.
What to do: Simply place 1 cup of nuts at a time in the container of a food processor. Process at high speed until the nuts begin to hold together as a mass. If the nuts are being a bit stubborn, add a tablespoon of oil and continue to process, scraping the sides of the container from time to time, until the desired consistency is achieved.
Add 2 to 3 teaspoons of agave or maple syrup if you’d like a touch of sweetness. Transfer the nut butter to a lidded jar or container. Repeat with another cup of nuts if you’d like a bigger batch. Nut butter will keep for a month or two at room temperature, or several months in the refrigerator. Always refrigerate during warmer months. For easier spreading, remove from the refrigerator about 30 minutes before using.
Nut milks: Making milk-like beverages from nuts isn’t anything new. Almond milk was a common item in medieval kitchens; before the age of refrigeration, nut milks kept better than animals’ milk. You’ll find links to detailed instructions on making nut milks in this roundup of plant-based milk recipes, which also includes oat milk and seed milks.
Ground nuts or nut meals: To make a nut meal, place 1/2 to 1 cup whole shelled nuts in the container of a food processor or food mill, or 1/2 cup at a time in the container of a blender. The trick is to stop processing the minute they are finely ground, and not to overdo it, or you’ll be well on your way to nut butter! Make only as much as you need, since grinding releases a lot of oils.
A meal of very finely ground nuts will add a rich flavor and moist quality to cakes, breads, and pie crusts. Simply replace 2 to 3 tablespoons of each cup of flour in the recipe with nut meal. Or, before baking, sprinkle the meal on top of cakes and breads as a garnish. Nut meal may also be combined with bread crumbs as a topping for casseroles.
Trail mix: Made of several varieties of nuts and seeds in combination with chopped or whole dried fruits, trail mixes are an appealing snacks. Try mixing your own, using 4 or 5 different nuts, seeds, and dried fruits. There are no particular rules for proportions, but a roughly equal volume of nuts and fruits works well. For variety, add chocolate chips or carob chips to your mixes.
Stir-fries and pilafs: Toss a handful of chopped roasted nuts into stir-fried vegetable or noodle dishes and grain pilafs. Finely chopped or coarsely ground peanuts are a classic topping for Asian noodle dishes like Pad Thai.
Cereal and fruit salad topping: Coarsely chopped nuts add a pleasant crunch and protein boost to breakfast cereals (hot or cold) and fruit salads. Allow 1 to 2 tablespoons per serving.
Garnish for vegetables: Use chopped nuts as a garnish for steamed green vegetables such as green beans, chard, asparagus, or broccoli. Or garnish each serving of soups made from these ingredients with a sprinkling of chopped almonds.
Salad embellishment: Add nuts to green salads and composed salads.
Baked goods: Nuts are a welcome addition to all manner of cakes, cookies, and bars.
Common Nut Varieties
There are many more nut varieties than are listed here, but these are the most commonly available. Several of the following have more detailed guides on this site, so make sure to link to them if you want more details on a specific type of nut.
Almonds: The high esteem in which almonds have long been held is amply justified, both for their mildly sweet taste and beneficial qualities. See our Guide to Almonds and Almond Butter.
Brazil nuts: A large nut with a rich, oily meat, Brazil nuts are most often found in roasted nut mixes. Because they contain a large amount of an anti-nutrient, eating them only occasionally and in great moderation is often recommended. Eating too many can cause selenium toxicity. More on that here.
Cashews: This creamy, mild nut may be the closest rival to peanuts in terms of popularity in North America. They’re a favorite in many Asian countries, including India, as well. See lots more in our Guide to Cashews and Cashew Butter.
Chestnuts: The slightly sweet, soft, and mealy interior of chestnuts is a departure from the usual crunch of nuts. Best known as a roasted winter snack, you’ll find lots more information in this Guide to Chestnuts.
Hazelnuts: The sweet-tasting, hard, roundish nut is a favorite in baking, and is also well known as the prime ingredient in Nutella. See lots more about hazelnuts and ways to use them in our Guide to Hazelnuts.
Macadamia nuts: This plump, round nut is native to Australia, coming to North America via the Hawaiian macadamia industry. Quite high in fat, their creamy texture and lovely flavor contribute to their reputation as a delicacy. Here’s more information on macadamia nuts.
Peanuts: Not only are peanuts the most widely used nuts in the United States (Americans daily consume millions of pounds of peanut products, including peanut butter), but they’re also well-loved in African and Southeast Asian cuisines. See this site’s Guide to Peanuts and Guide to Peanut Butter.
Pecans: If there’s such a thing as an all-American nut, then pecans surely fit that definition. Equally welcome in both sweet and savory preparations, you’ll find tips and links to recipes in our Guide to Pecans.
Pine nuts: A rich, diminutive delicacy with Mediterranean roots, pine nuts are expensive, but with their rich and intense flavor, a small amount goes a long way. See more in this site’s Guide to Pine Nuts.
Pistachios: Prized for their exquisite flavor and delicate green color, the pistachio nut’s Middle Eastern and Indian roots are readily apparent in those cuisines. In North America, they’re mainly used as a snack and as an element in nut-and-dried fruit mixes. Here’s a great overview of pistachios.
Walnuts: The flavor of walnuts is sweet with a slightly bitter undertone, making them compatible with both sweet and savory preparations. You’ll find tips on uses and links to lots of recipes in our Guide to Walnuts.
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