Fresh Chestnuts – Roasting them; Peeling them; Putting them in the Stuffing

Fresh chestnuts, roasted and peeled

Fresh chestnuts, roasted and peeled

Ok, It’s finally time for chestnuts, an autumn/early winter thrill that’s one of the last truly seasonal crops still standing. If you’re anything like me, you’re just about jumping up and down with glee right there in the produce section. But if you’re like I used to be, your joy is tempered by the knowledge that they’re a royal pain to prepare.

They needn’t be, as it turns out. I now eat more than is probably wise, having discovered a couple of tricks that lessen the pain considerably. I still haven’t found an easy way to go from raw in the shell to skinless roasted, but with these methods it’s easy enough to make me glad they’re low-fat.

(The skinny on dried chestnuts is here.)

PREPARING FRESH CHESTNUTS

The first rule is to buy more than you need. All bulk chestnuts, no matter how fancy, will include some that are moldy or wormy and in my experience no amount of in-store inspection is enough to guarantee they will all be sound. Keep them cold until needed; they won’t spoil at room temperature but they will start drying out.

The next step is the first royal pain part: each chestnut shell must be cut through, aka scored, on the flat side. This keeps the nut from exploding in the oven and, because the shell contracts, provides a place to start peeling from. Classic way of doing it is to use a small, very sharp knife to cut an X.

Chestnuts being hard, small and round, X-cutting was fraught with hazard for the first roughly 40 years of my chestnut-roasting life. But then I met the chestnutter, which helped enormously, and then I figured out – duh! – that you can simply soak the tough shells into knife-receptive tenderness.

The chestnutter:

talk about a specialized tool!

talk about a specialized tool!

You put a chestnut in the hopper, close lid one, then close lid two – in theory just firmly enough to score the shell without damaging the nut..

chestnut ready to be scored.

chestnut ready to be scored.

Works like a charm – if you have strong hands. That first view isn’t a distortion. For reasons best known to themselves the manufacturers have made the top handle shorter than the others, so it can be difficult to get a good grip.

Plus you’ve got to give it a pretty firm squeeze but not so firm a squeeze you drive the cutter deep into the flesh of the nut. But all that said it does do the job, quickly and reliably. Available from Fante’s,* among others.

Soaking:

Simplicity itself. Put the chestnuts in a deep, heatproof bowl. Pour on enough boiling water to cover generously and let them sit for an hour or two. Score them one at a time, leaving the others in the water until wanted. ( Especially in the beginning of the season when the nuts are fresh and (for chestnuts) juicy, it’s best to let them dry out again a bit after scoring,before you put them in the oven. Exposed inner membrane has to dry to brittleness as they roast.)

ROASTING

In my experience the open fire is more a romantic fantasy than a good idea. There’s a reason street vendors are always surrounded by an acrid effluvium of incinerated shell, and having a chestnut roasting pan – also available at Fante’s  - doesn’t really help.

But if you’re determined to try and the “open fire” is an actual fire, not the flame on the top of the stove, you’ll need a pan with a very long handle. They sell ‘em at Spitjack – where, please be warned, I have never shopped. Watch out for ebay, where I just saw several antique chestnut roasters with oh please good grief wooden handles.

We do roast chestnuts on top of the woodstove (covered by an overturned pan) for social eating, but in the oven is the way to go if you need more than a few. One layer in a jellyroll pan at 375 for about 15 minutes. Shake the pan once or twice to turn them. Many recipes say to oil the pan but for the life of me I can’t think why – it seems very unlikely to boost heat transfer and it’s not as if they’d stick.

BOILING

Reader Greenpa (see comments) sent along this link to a chestnut peeling video that offers a vast improvement over X-cutting when what you need – or can use well enough – is halved semi- raw peeled nuts. Having now tried it I can offer the following refinements: The nuts are parboiled whole, then halved, and about 2 minutes at a low bubble seems to do the job; I tried 5 minutes first and it was too long. Halving across the equator works better than scar-to-tip. Also, it’s easiest to apply the pliers at an angle.

Whether you start with parboiled peeled or X’d whole; boiling is a misnomer. Whole: Start them in cold water to cover generously, bring it just to the boil, then turn the heat to simmer and cook for 12 to 15 minutes, depending on size and freshness. It’s best to err on the side of undercooking so they don’t crumble when you peel them. Parboiled: Simmer gently for about 5 minutes or  use directly in stew, stir-fry or whatever. Being both skinned and halved, they’re ready to absorb the flavor of whatever they’re cooked in

PEELING

The other half of the royal pain, because whether the chestnut is roasted or boiled, peeling presents the same challenge. There is no getting around the fact that the hotter the chestnut, the easier it is to remove the disagreeable inner skin. It helps to score generously before cooking.

Work with a few at a time, leaving the remainder in the turned-off oven or pot of water. If you hold the nut in a tea towel and use only one hand to work on peel removal, finger burning can be kept to a minimum. This is not a good job for men. Why they’re more sensitive to the heat I don’t know. I only know it’s true and not a cover for weaseling out of being helpful. (It isn’t true for chefs; they have to have abesestos fingers.)

Social Note: According to reports I’ve been unable to verify, people in the rural Midwest and upper South used to employ roasting chestnuts for a kissing game. Cut only a small vent hole in the concave side of each nut and place them in the fire, keeping track of whose is whose. The person whose chestnut pops first gets to kiss whoever they want. Best thing to be doing with your mouth if that’s what you did to your chestnut (see “roasting,” above).

Oh, the stuffing. Don’t be stingy.

*Disclaimer: The folks who own Fante’s are friends. There are many reasons to like them. One of the reasons is that they run a really terrific cookware store.

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18 Comments »

  • Greenpa Said,

    There is, REALLY, a far simpler way now! Take a look at badgersett.com.

    • Leslie Said,

      Hi Greenpa

      Thanks so much for pointing everyone to the nifty badgersett video (and website in general). That looks like a terrific way to peel what they describe and show as “halved, parboiled” chestnuts. Makes perfect sense as soon as you see it since it’s almost the same principle as blanching almonds: drop the raw almonds in boiling water, let them sit a minute and the nuts will pop right out of the skins when you squeeze them between your fingers. No more fussing with boiled chestnuts – unless they have to be whole. Now here’s hoping they come up with something as easy for peeling the roasted ones!

  • Anne Bloomenthal Said,

    Based on adapting the suggestions above, I found that peeling chestnuts can be much easier than past experiences (requiring no special implements). If you’re OK with ending up with halves (and some crumbles) of boiled chestnuts (instead of whole roasted ones), here are instructions, based on what I did:
    * pour boiling water over them, let them sit about 1 hour
    * cut them in half (I didn’t see any consistent difference between lengthwise or crosswise)
    * boil for about 8 minutes (I did 10 minutes from start to finish, don’t know how long it actually took to get to boiling)
    * remove from water with tongs, place on dishtowel
    * grab shell “from behind” with dishtowel, block front with tongs, squeeze gently
    Many will simply pop right out. If not, both the outer and inner shells are much more flexible and easy to handle than from roasting (and not as hot on the fingers). When they get harder to peel, reheat to boiling again

  • Damead Said,

    I – a sensitive-fingered man – have a theory why the designer made the business handle of the chestnutter shorter. If I were using it, after inserting the chestnut, I’d put the cutter on a cutting board short handle down and press down on the big handle. You get great leverage using your upper body weight instead of a powerful grip. You probably could cut the chestnut into quarters if the blade were long enough.

    Hi Damead,

    Welcome to the blog and thanks for the interesting idea. I’m sure it would work fine and might be a great solution for anyone, male or female, who had arthritic hands – me, for instance, more and more as the years go by. But I’m afraid no improvement on the chestnutter will help in the sensitivity department; the nuts will still need to be peeled while hot, which is where women (and chefs) seem to have an advantage.
    Leslie

  • George Said,

    I find that making the x is easiest (and safest) using an electic knife.

    Welcome, George, and thanks for the tip; I knew there had to be SOMETHING electric knives were good for!

  • Claudia Said,

    Many years ago I came up with a stuffing recipe that included chestnuts. Ever since then I have been looking for ways to make shelling chestnuts easier. A few years ago my brother gave me a chestnutter. I have looked up ways online to relieve the chestnuts of tbeir shells ever since. Yours is the first one I came across that makes sense and looks like it will make life easier for me at Thanksgiving time. If they didn’t make my stuffing taste so much better I would have given up on them years ago. Shelling chestnuts will never be easy, only easier (perhaps). My chestnuts are soaking now. (I have bookmarked this page.)

    Welcome, Claudia,

    Happy Thanksgiving! May your chestnut peeling be easy and quick! One further refinement I have to/will add to the soak trick: Especially in the beginning of the season when the nuts are fresh and (for chestnuts) juicy, it’s best to let them dry out again a bit after scoring before you put them in the oven. Exposed inner membrane has to dry out – before the nuts do – as they roast.

    • paula Said,

      My chestnuts roasted..I have peeled them but some are hard as rocks? Did I over cook and are they ruined if I did…wish I had read your article first I did not soak them just scored them with kitchen shears and put them in 250 oven for 30 minutes….southern girl here…first go at chestnuts because I had the most amazing chestnut soup in California and wanted to make some for Thanksgiving…

      Hi Paula, welcome to the blog. And welcome to wherever you’ve landed that put you next to some fresh chestnuts!
      In answer to both of your comment questions:
      “Bread that has been soaked and wrung out” should probably be “soaked and pressed out”; you don’t really wring it like laundry :). But the idea is to wind up with a damp sponge texture: the bread is moistened clear through but not dripping wet.

      As for the chestnuts, I’m afraid this batch probably IS beyond repair – scoring with kitchen shears is no problem but the long cooking time at low temperature has dried them out instead of roasting them. You might be able to rescue the dried ones by simmering them gently in a mixture of water and milk (three times as much water as milk) until they softened up, but I wouldn’t guarantee it. Best thing to do is try again, knowing what you know now. Chestnut soup for Thanksgiving sounds like a delicious idea to me and once you get the hang of it I know you’ll be a total convert!

  • Claudia Said,

    FYI – I will share my stuffing recipe:

    Sourdough French bread toasted, wetted and wrung out.
    Sauteed celery, onions and mushrooms
    Raisins
    Chestnuts
    Egg
    Sherry
    Melted butter
    Salt and pepper
    The amounts of above depend on size of bird. Don’t stuff bird too tightly. Bake rest in separate baking dish.

    • paula Said,

      what do you mean bread wetted and wrung out?

      Hi Paula, wettted bread answered along with your other question (above)

  • Andreas Cohrssen Said,

    After the cross cut and roast, I held the chestnut with a potholder with the left hand and used a small cake fork to break up the shell around the chest nut. Once there was a free space, the small fork curved nicely around the chestnut and I could lever the shells off without burning those sensitive male hands.

    Hi Andreas,

    That certainly sounds like a novel solution, and I confess I’m having trouble envisioning the fork, but as the saying goes: whatever works.

  • Hi Leslie,
    Wonderful post on chestnuts. Have never known quite what to do with them; now I do.
    May I list your blog on my new blog for Red Hill Farm CSA under “blogs I follow”? Thank you, I’m just getting started with blogging, in this case for the CSA farm run by the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia.

    Hi Melinda, glad the post has raised your chestnut-awareness. I love them so I want everyone else to, too. As for your request, you don’t really need permission but by all means, feel free. I’d be honored to be on your “blogs I follow” list!

  • Jeff Utigard Said,

    Leslie,
    Last year my wife roasted the nuts, peeled them herself and when I came home from TD shopping calmly said, “the chestnuts are done…”. I was amazed but silent on her technique or her process as for the last 25 plus years, we did the boil, pry bar out the crumbling mealy meat technique…
    This year she showed me your method and despite burned pinkies (I used the hot pad) the shelled nuts are in a bowl awaiting their part the in turkey dressing for tomorrow…
    Thank you^10… keep up your good work, next year I get her a chestnutter…
    regards from the mile high city,
    Jeff

    Best regards right back to you, Jeff. Have a very happy – and chestnut filled! – turkey day. For what it’s worth, this year, I just did the boiling water, soak the shells routine and it worked almost as well as the chestnutter. Big advantage was that I was able to do it all myself; arthritic hands mean that husband Bill is now the only one who can use the gizmo. He doesn’t mind, (I still do all the roasting and peeling), but it is convenient not to have to depend on him.

  • Tati Carra Said,

    I scored mine with a knife (you should have good knife skills, ie, keep fingertips clear), placed them in a small foil loaf pan, covered loosely with foil and put them on top of my wood burning stove, which i figured correctly was hot enough to roast them. Not quite roasted on an open fire, but cozy nonetheless, and the living room smelled like roasted chestnuts at Christmas. Of course, peeling them while hot was another story.

    Hi Tati, I couldn’t agree more: Three cheers for wood burning stoves! Roast the chestnuts, perfume the living room, keep things cosy… if you have to have hot hands, at least they’re hot in a nice environment.

  • Robin 5280 Said,

    It’s amazing to me how many people love chestnuts here in the US. I remember getting them in the fall in Japan as a child. It has always been a tasty comfort food eaten straight out of the shell. I have tried several different ways to replicate what was available for me as a child. Can’t do it. This year I found an Asian grocer who will ” peel” them fresh in a large grinder- like machine. Most of the skin is off as is all of the shell. Now what would you do to roast these without them coming out like bricks like my first batch?
    Robin

    Hi Robin,

    Thanks so much for writing! This is a very interesting story and it leaves me with a couple of questions too. The first is about the childhood comfort food Is it the preparation that’s different or do you think the chestnuts themselves were a different variety? And please tell us where that Asian grocer is; I’ve never heard of a peeling machine that was inexpensive enough for an individual store to afford.

    As for your roasting question, getting raw nuts nicely soft without the protection of the shell may take a bit of fiddling around. I’ve never tried it, but I’d start with a foil package: Put a large sheet of foil on a baking pan, dip each nut in cold water and set it on the foil, crowding them but keeping them in a single layer. Fold up the foil to make an airtight package. Roast at 350 for ?? I’d start with 10 minutes, open the package (being careful to avoid steam burns) and check with a knifepoint. That should give an idea of how much longer they’ll take. I’ve never used the little ceramic doodads sold as garlic roasters, but using one of them might work too.

    If the foil thing doesn’t work, next idea would be to steam them until soft, coat lightly with butter or oil and then roast. Uncovered you’d get a crust, which might or might not be tender; covered would (presumably) keep them soft throughout.

    Hope to hear from you again, good luck with the roasting!

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