Roasted chestnuts, that wonderful Christmas treat that makes your home smell straight out of a Dickens novel, are one of my favorite culinary aspects of the Christmas season; they also tend to be a source of frustration for home cooks everywhere who try them a few times and just don’t get what all the fuss is about. No matter what they do, the chestnuts are always dry, hard to peel, bitter, crumbly, and pretty gross.
Here’s the problem: good chestnuts are none of those things. It’s creamy, fairly easy to peel, sweet, earthy, nutty, and embody pretty much everything wonderful about this time of year; however, good chestnuts are difficult to find. They are rarely stored properly in grocery stores and end up going rancid before they even hit your shopping cart, or they’ve shriveled up inside of their shells and have no chance at redemption. If you don’t know what to look for, you’ll likely end up spending a fair amount of money on an ingredient that is destined for failure, so let’s talk about what to look for and what to avoid.
First, look for chestnuts with smooth, unblemished shells. You want to avoid cracks, mold spots, soft spots, and discoloration.
Next, give them a squeeze. There should be a bit of space between the shell and the meat of the nut.
Shake them. If you hear any rattling, put them down. They’re beyond saving.
Buy more than you think you need, because even with all of your precautions, some will still be duds.
Store them Properly. If you aren’t using your chestnuts soon, keep them in the refrigerator to avoid them going rancid. If it’s going to be more than a few days before you use them, store them in the freezer.
Once you are ready to roast the chestnuts, score the wide, flat side of them with a paring knife. This helps them not explode in the oven. Toss them on a baking sheet and put that in a 400 degree oven for 25-30 minutes, giving them a toss every once in a while. Once they are done roasting, let them cool just enough so that you can handle them. This part is important. Chestnuts have an outer shell and a fuzzy inner skin (see the lead photo) that hugs the meat. This inner skin is fairly easy to remove when the nut is hot, but it’s a beast to remove once cool. I crack the nuts as soon as they come out of the oven (I’ve also been told my hands are made of asbestos, so you may want to give it a minute) and usually have no problems.
To crack them, just give the whole chestnut a solid squeeze, and the shell should come off easily. If the inner skin sticks to the chestnut meat, give it another good squeeze and maybe roll it between your palms a bit to break it up, then peel it off. The chestnut meat will be softer than most nuts, so squeezing it a bit shouldn’t be difficult.
You can eat these warm, straight off of the pan, which I highly recommend. You can also saute them in butter, either whole or thinly sliced, and sprinkle them with a bit of salt and/or sugar for a sweet twist on them. Chestnuts are fabulous with poultry and in salads (I particularly like them with quince), and some people swear by chestnut stuffing for their Thanksgiving turkey.
Get the recipe for roasted chestnuts here.