Almonds (Prunus dulcis)
Almonds (Prunus dulcis) in the Amygdalus family, are related to other fruits that contain hard pits, including cherries, plums and peaches. Almonds, while technically not a nut, are actually a type of stone fruit or drupe nut, which means along with other nuts like macadamias, pecans and walnuts, have multiple layers that enclose a single, hard seed in the center.
Almonds were grown thousands of years ago without having an official name, taking some time before the name almond was created. This was because botanists kept thinking up new names for it. The ancestry of the almond is unknown, but they are thought to have originated in the Mediterranean area of Europe. They are now found in places like Iran, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Israel, and the United States.
Almonds, unlike many other nuts, are sold whole, sliced, and slivered; blanched; with and without the skin, they have a mildly sweet flavor that is magnified in products such as almond extract, almond paste, and marzipan.
Brazil nuts (Bertholletia excelsa Bonpl.)
Brazil nuts are native to the Amazonian rain forest in South America where they grow in trees that tower above the rest. They are one of the few trees that still grow wild in their native habitats and in Brazil they are actually illegal to cut down. Nowadays the Brazil nut can also be found in the Guianas, southeastern Colombia, southern Venezuela, eastern Peru and northern Bolivia. Brazil nuts are one of the few internationally marketed rain forest products that are harvested primarily from wild trees.
Each tree grows about 300 extremely hard-shelled woody fruits known as pods, that are the size of a grapefruit, which contains about 25 to 30 kernels. After the pods have fallen from the trees, they are gathered and chopped open to retrieve the kernels (brazil nuts) inside, that are shaped like rough, brown-orange segments. Each kernel is encompassed by a hard brown shell that protects the large creamy, white, meaty, nut inside. Brazil nuts taste sweet and rich, and their texture is similar to that of coconut meat.
Cashews (Anacardium occidentale)
The English name of cashew is derived from the Portuguese name ‘caju’. Scientifically cashew is known as Anacardium spp. belongs to the genus Anacardium, a small genus of 8 species indigenous to South America. Within Central and South America, as many as 20 species are known to exist.
The cashew (Anacardium occidentale)—the only species in the genus, that has obtained economic importance—was introduced in other parts of the world starting in the 16th century. Though originally from Brazil, the cashew has gained greater popularity in India, Vietnam and other African countries (Mozambique, Tanzania, Kenya), than Brazil itself.
Grown on large evergreen trees, cashews nuts are actually classified as a seed rather than a nut species. The sweet flavored kidney-shapped cashew nut ‘seeds’ are obtained from under the soft belly of the false fruit of the tree, termed cashew apples, a pear shaped fruit that develops from the cashew flower which blooms once a year between the month of November and January.
Chestnuts (Castanea spp.)
Grown in China and Japan for centuries, chestnuts have a long and esteemed history of cultivation. They made it to Europe by way of the Roman armies and soon became an important food source there. Chestnuts were also a dietary staple of Native Americans, who taught the early settlers to cook them in stews or grind them into flour for bread. In the early years of Colonial America, chestnuts supplied a year-round source of sustenance. Chestnuts are so predominant in Mediterranean cuisine that it isn’t uncommon to find chestnut flour as an ingredient in Italian beers.
Most Chestnut trees found in North America are of the European variety, Castanea sativa. However, there were Chestnut trees that were native to North America, Castanea dentata, that were wiped out in the early 1900’s by a deadly Asian fungus. Chestnuts are round, glossy, mahogany-colored nuts that are formed inside prickly burrs that break open when the nuts are ripe. Rich and ‘meaty,’ they are a starchy food and can be served as a vegetable, mashed like potatoes.
Chia (Salvia hispanica)
Chia is an edible seed that comes from the desert plant Salvia hispanica, a member of the mint family, Lamiaceae, native to central and southern Mexico and Guatemala, dating back to Mayan and Aztec cultures. The nutrient-dense chia seed packs a punch of energy-boosting power. Aztec warriors ate chia seeds to give them high energy and endurance. They said just one spoonful of chia could sustain them for 24 hours. Chia means ‘strength’ in the Mayan language, and chia seeds were known as ‘runners’ food’ because runners and warriors would use them as fuel while running long distances or during battle.
Today, chia is cultivated on a small scale in its ancestral homeland of central Mexico and Guatemala, and commercially in Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Guatemala, and Mexico. Available in white or black, chia seeds are similar to flaxseed in their ability to absorb up to ten times their weight in liquid. The mild, nutty flavor of chia seeds makes them easy to add to foods and beverages.
Flaxseed (Linum usitatissimum)
Flaxseed, or linseed (Linum usitatissimum) is a member of the genus Linum in the family Linaceae ,comes from the flax plant, an annual herb that may be one of the most ancient seeds, going all the way back to 8,000 BCE. Flax has been celebrated for its usefulness throughout the ages. Cultivated flax, Linum usitatissimum, is one of two types: one is grown for the seed and the other for fibre production. In North America, it is primarily the oilseed varieties which are produced commercially.
Flaxseed comes from flax, a plant that blooms blue flowers, and today is primarily found in the Canadian prairies and the Northern United States. Canadian brown flax seed is the favorite choice of consumers. The plant has an interesting life cycle, because its flowers only last for a day, but it can produce dozens of blossoms in the course of a month. Flaxseeds are slightly larger than sesame seeds and have a hard shell that is smooth and shiny, their color ranges from deep amber to reddish brown depending upon their variety.
Hazelnuts (Corylus spp.)
The hazelnut or filbert, is believed to have originated in Asia, is one of the oldest agricultural food crops, providing sustenance to humans for thousands of years. Ancient Chinese manuscripts dating back 5,000 years refer to the hazelnut as a sacred food bestowed directly on us by the heaven.
The European hazelnut (Corylus avellana) is typically grown in countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea (Spain, Italy) as well as the United States. The hazelnut (Corylus maxima) thats grown in the Balkan peninsula (Turkey) currently makes up about 75% of commercial hazelnut production.
In America, eastern filbert blight fungus limited commercial hazelnut orchards to Oregon’s Willamette Valley, which now produces nearly 99 percent of all American hazelnuts (official state nut). Oregon also boasts nearly 150 craft breweries. Naturally, these hazelnuts, commonly called filberts, make their way into beers around the Beaver State. Edible raw, but to really enhance the flavor, roast them and remove the bitter skin.
Macadamia (Macadamia integrifolia)
Macadamia nuts were named for Lord John Macadam, an Australian who reputedly discovered the macadamia tree around 1857 in the rain forest on the Australian East Coast. Throughout the years the number of areas offering the fruit for sale has steadily increased, including Africa, Costa Rica and Guatemala and the United States. The macadamia, was introduced to Hawaii from Australia in the late 19th century, and can also grow and produce well in small regions of southwestern California and southern Florida.
Now one of the best-known products of Hawaii, these ‘gourmet’ nuts have a sweet, delicate taste, a creamy, rich texture with an almost buttery flavor. However, they contain more fat and calories than any other nut. Macadamias are nearly always sold shelled because their shiny round shells are thick and require some 300 pounds of pressure to crack. They are harvested five or six times a year, but the demand still exceeds the supply. Consequently, they’re usually quite expensive.
Peanuts (Arachis hypogaea)
One of the most popular and recognizable ‘nuts’ in the United States, peanuts (groundnuts or goobers) are actually not true nuts. Rather, the shell-enclosed seeds of a plant that’s related to peas and beans. Peanut pods grow below the ground, and both the shell and kernel are soft until the peanuts are dried.
Thought to have originated in South America, peanuts migrated to Africa with Spanish and Portuguese explorers in the 1500s. Introduced to Colonial America by African slaves in the 18th century but not widely eaten until the outbreak of the Civil War, when consumption increased as soldiers on both sides turned to peanuts for nourishment. By late 19th century, peanuts were being sold freshly roasted by street vendors, at baseball games, fairs, and circuses.
The peanut didn’t come into its own horticulturally, however, until botanist George Washington Carver began researching rotation crops for cotton in 1903. His work led him to eventually develop hundreds of different uses for peanuts, including shoe polish and shaving cream.
Pecans (Carya illinoensis)
The pecan tree, another member of the hickory family, is a native of the rich bottom lands of the Mississippi Valley from Indiana and Illinois west to Kansas and Texas and at higher altitudes south into central Mexico, with local outliers to the north and east. It is known to live and produce nuts for 300 years or more given the ideal growing conditions in which to do so.
The United States is the world’s largest producer of pecans, where commercial orchards are primarily in the South and southeastern states. Pecans are the state nuts of both Alabama and Texas (not to mention pecan pie is Oklahoma’s ‘state meal’).
Pecans grow in clusters, and when the pecan is mature, the fruit splits and the pecan shell drops to the ground. Inside the inch-long, smooth, beige shell rests the golden-brown pecan nut. There are over 500 different varieties or types of pecans. Cultivated pecans are bred for thin ‘paper’ shells, which are easier to crack than the hard shells of wild pecans.
Pine nuts (Pinus spp.)
Pignoli, pine nuts, piñon nuts, pinyon nuts, and Indian nuts are all names for various types edible seeds of the Pinaceae (pine) family. Approximately 20 species produce economically viable edible seeds for consumption, of which, four are internationally known.
Pinus koraiensis, commonly called Korean pine, is native to Korea, Manchuria, eastern Russia and Japan; Pinus sibirica, chinese pine nuts imported from China are of the Siberian pine variety also called cedar nuts; Pinus pinea Italian stone pine, common in the European market and grown throughout the Mediterranean region; Pinus edulis the piñon pine nut from New Mexico, the world’s most valuable pine nut.
Pine nuts form within the pine cone, where they are tucked inside the pine cone’s signature spiny and hard-shelled deeply layered scales. Each individual scale harbors a mere one or two Pine nuts each. Pine nuts are tear-shaped, slim and quite petite with an amber and chocolate tinted outer sheath which must be removed.
Pistachios (Pistacia spp.)
The pistachio is the stone fruit of a deciduous tree that resembles almond and walnut trees. The exact origin of the pistachio nut is not entirely clear but are thought to have originated in the Middle East, where they grew wild for thousands of years.
The growth of pistachios can be compared with growing grapes; they grow in bunches on the tree. In its ripe state, the pistachio shell is partially open, revealing the nut within. This feature is unique to the pistachio and is why people in the Middle East refer to the pistachio as the ‘smiling pistachio’ and the Chinese call it the ‘happy nut’.
Not every pistachio tree grows nuts, as there are ‘male’ and ‘female’ trees. Only the female tree produces pistachios, and it yields a full harvest every other year.
California pistachios dominate the United States domestic market but the Turkish and Persian varieties, which are smaller, have a darker shell and skin, and are more flavorful.
Poppy seeds (Papaver somniferum)
Poppy seeds, native to the Mediterranean, have been cultivated since the 6th century. There are some 70 species of poppies but Papaver somniferum is the predominant commercially cultivated variety.
Today most poppies hail from temperate Asia and Europe, the Middle East, India, China, Turkey, Holland, and France. There are a few species from North America, Australia, South Africa and the subarctic region, oriental poppy (Papaver orientale), Arctic poppy (Papaver croceum), and corn poppy (Papaver rhoeas).
Opium poppy starts out life as a basal rosette of leaves that look a little like a tiny cabbage. In late spring the poppy sends up a leafy stalk with a single nodding bud which soon turns itself upright and opens into a bowl shaped flower that come in red, white, pink, purple or mauve. As the plant matures, the flowers die, and large bluish green seed capsules appear, by which time the plant has lost all of its opium potential. Poppy seeds are not harvested until the capsules dry and release the seed.
Pumpkin seeds (Cucurbita spp.)
Pumpkin, Cucurbita spp., is native to Central America, especially México, where it has been cultivated for millennia. After the Spaniards discovered America, pumpkin was imported into Europe and Asia.
Referred to as pumpkin seeds when the shells are intact, and pepitas when the shells have been removed, pumpkins, a cultivar of squash now grow on every continent other than Antarctica. There are about 27 species of Cucurbita, but most of the squashes familiar belong to one of five species, all of which are annual, tendril-bearing vines. Cucurbita maxima, winter squash; Cucurbita mixta, pumpkin; Cucurbita moschata, crookneck squash; Cucurbita pepo, field pumpkin; and Cucurbita ficifolia, fig leaf gourd.
Various parts of pumpkin plants are edible including the fruit, flowers, young leaves and seeds. Commercially produced pumpkins commonly used in pumpkin pie is often varieties of Cucurbita moschata. One the other hand Cucurbita ficifolia is commonly used in the making of soft and mildly alcoholic drinks.
Sesame seeds (Sesamum indicum)
Sesame seeds are the oldest oilseed crop known to humanity and is thought to have originated in Africa or India. Slaves took sesame seeds from Africa to America in the belief it would bring them luck. Sesame is now grown in India, China, Burma, Mexico, Pakistan, Turkey, Uganda, Sudan and Nigeria.
Sesame plants are grown from seed and reach to 1.8 meters at maturity. The plant has oblong, hairy leaves; pink, white or yellow trumpet flowers and 4 seed capsules. The plants are harvested before the seed pods are ripe by cutting the stems and hanging the plants upside down over mats. The pods burst open and seeds are caught on the mats below. Depending on the variety, the seeds are red, black, brown or yellow however when husked they are a creamy color.
The most popular variety is white, which is actually the sesame seed with its hull removed. The other colors including tan, gold, brown, reddish, gray, and black are also available, and they have subtly different flavor profiles.
Sunflower seeds (Helianthus annus)
The wild sunflower, Helianthus annuus, from which all the cultivars have been derived, are thought to have originated in Mexico and Peru. One of the first plants to be cultivated in the United States, it has been used for more than 5,000 years by Native Americans, as a food and an oil source.
Currently, sunflower oil is one of the most popular oils in the world. Today, the leading commercial producers of sunflower seeds include the Russian Federation, Peru, Argentina, Spain, France and China.
The sunflower produces grayish-green or black seeds which are encased in tear-dropped shaped gray or black shells that oftentimes feature black and white stripes. Shelled sunflower seeds have a mild nutty taste and a firm, but tender texture.
Sunflower seeds have been shown to have potential for use in gluten-free beer, because malted they may aid head retention and foam stability, which has been a problem in gluten-free beers.
Walnuts (Juglans spp.)
In the 18th century, while establishing Spanish missions, Franciscan monks planted the English walnut tree in California, where a mild climate and deep fertile soil provided ideal growing conditions. Nowadays Walnuts are grown nearly everywhere throughout the world in different varieties, but they all belong to the same family. The most important producing countries are: France, India and the United States (California). California now provides 99 percent of United States supply, and two-thirds of the world’s supply.
The walnut tree produces a green hanging fruit. When the fruit is ripe, the shell cracks open and the walnut itself becomes visible. Once the nut has been removed from the tree, the nut is washed and dried.
The most common type of walnut, the English walnut, is available year-round. Other types—black walnuts; butternuts or white walnuts; and heartnuts a Japanese walnut variety—are marketed on a very small scale. Black walnuts differ from white walnuts having added richness, and smokiness. Black walnuts actually stains anything dark brown that they come in contact with once cracked.