When it comes to ingredients in your kitchen, it can be easy to forget that non-produce items come with ‘best by’ dates. I’ve witnessed many a spice cabinets with bottles dating back years, if not decades. Olive oil that should went rancid ages ago. And nuts that are questionable at best.
And so, I’m working on a series based around the notion that all ingredients in your kitchen should be treated as if it were kale or tomatoes. Fresh is best and care needs to go into all ingredients you keep on hand. Knowing how to store and use in a short order is everything!
First up: walnuts! While I use these nuts year-round in my house, I find an uptick during the cooler months. They also pair so wonderfully with the earthy flavors of fall. Use walnuts to make a solid cream sauce, make nut-milk, or add in granolas and toppings.
Walnuts: The Varieties
There are two overarching kinds of walnuts: English (Persian) and Black Walnut. The English variety are the common, store varieties. These walnuts are thought to originate in the Middle East but thanks to English traders, spread throughout the world (and also picked up the ‘English’ name).
Black walnuts are actually native to the United States. I actually grew up with a beautiful black walnut tree in my backyard in Illinois. These types of walnuts were a staple in diet and medicine by indigenous people.
The difference? English walnuts are more mild in flavor and easier to shell. This combination is why almost all walnuts sold in stores are a variety of English walnut. However, if you have a chance to try a black walnut, do it. One of my favorite desserts is a chocolate chip cookie made with black walnuts.
Walnuts: The harvest
99% of all walnuts grown in the United States are grown in California. Walnut harvest happens primarily in September/October. There are 30 different varieties grown from the English walnut family but you wouldn’t be able to tell once all the walnuts hit the market. Walnuts are a fresh produce item. This means they hit shelves only a 5 to 6 days after being harvested.
The harvest process is straightforward. Large harvesters shake the walnuts from the trees which then get swept up and sent to a drying facility. At the facility, the walnuts are stripped of their outer green hull, rinsed, and dried to an 8% moisture level. This stabilizes the nut and makes it ready for processing.
After the drying process, walnuts are sold in their shells or processed out of the shell into halves or pieces. These are the walnuts you can find in your bulk bins and on store shelves.
Of note, very few walnuts are grown organic. Many California farmers use cover crops/grasses to amend the soil but when it comes to the trees, soft/targeted pesticides are used for a specific type of insect. However, because of the green hull and the tough brown shell, pesticides are unlikely to end up on the final product (unlike items that often find themselves on the dirty dozen list).
Buying and Storing Walnuts
Once walnuts end up in your care they need to be in cold storage. Walnuts have a high fat content which leads to a rancid product fairly quickly. Plus, the cold storage helps keep in the flavor you would lose at room-temperature storage.
Walnut halves/pieces can be stored in the refrigerator or freezer for up to a year. I prefer to cycle through them a bit quicker and will keep a container in my refrigerator no longer than six months.
When shopping for walnuts in the store, look to see if the bag has a harvest date or best-by date. If the nuts are over a year old or if the best-by date is coming soon, I’d look elsewhere. If you’re buying from the bulk bins at your local co-op, ask for a sample that you can taste/smell. You want a walnut that has a warm, kind of sweet flavor.
How to tell if a Walnut is rancid?
Tasting and smelling a walnut leads to: how can you tell if a walnut is rancid? This is one of those times you need to trust your instinct. If the walnut has a sharp, oxidized smell- it’s bad. If it smells bad, it’s probably bad. As for weight, fresh walnuts should have weight/firmness to them while older walnuts are lighter/dried out.
Using Walnuts in Cooking
Toppings/Salads: The most obvious but still delicious, walnuts make for a solid companion to grain bowls and salads. Walnuts add a nice crunch and bit of warm flavor. Try toasting the walnuts beforehand to keep a good crunch in salads.
Walnut Cream/milk: As with most nuts and seeds, walnuts make for a wonderful nut-cream/milk. Walnuts, when blended with a bit of water, take on a nice, nutty flavor. The sauce is definitely a star in any recipe, a bit different from the mellow cashew cream.
Texture/’Meat’: Walnuts add a perfect texture to replacements for meat. they are a key player in my favorite lentil bites, nut burgers, and occasionally my favorite crumble recipe. I usually use walnuts and pecans interchangeably/together in these recipes.