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What Are Walnuts?
Walnuts are the fruit of any tree from the genus Juglans. While scientifically, walnuts are classified as stone fruits rather than true botanical nuts, they are referred to in the culinary world as tree nuts.
Whole walnuts are green as they grow and then ripen to a pale yellow. Once fully ripened, they fall from the walnut tree. They’re harvested from the ground, where the outer husk is first removed, leaving a hard shell. That hard outer shell is removed, or shelled, to reveal the nut meat inside. Both in-shell walnuts and shelled walnuts are available at grocery stores as for use in cooking or to be eaten raw.
What Are the Different Types of Walnuts?
There are two predominant types of walnut:
- English walnut. English walnuts are scientifically known as Juglans regia and are also called Persian walnuts, because they originated in the Middle East. English walnuts are a light gold color, have a mild flavor, and have softer shells that make them much easier to shell.
- Black walnut. Black walnuts are scientifically known as Juglans nigra and are native to the eastern United States. They are a darker color, have a stronger, earthier flavor, and have very hard shells that make them much more difficult to shell. Another variety of the black walnut is the California black walnut (Juglans californica), native to California.
How to Shell Walnuts (Without a Nutcracker!): Step-by-Step Guide
Shelling or cracking walnuts, is a straightforward process, even if you don’t own a nutcracker. To shell walnuts without a nutcracker:
- Make sure the walnut husk is removed. If the husk is still on the fruit, peel the husk off and allow the in-shell walnut to dry for two weeks. Most in-shell walnuts sold in stores do not have a husk, however.
- Place a clean towel on a hard, sturdy surface.
- Place the walnut on the towel and fold half the towel over the walnut. This will prevent the pieces from scattering when you crack it.
- Use a hammer to firmly hit the nut two or three times. Be careful during this step—too many hits or hitting too hard will cause the walnut meat to crumble into pieces too small for culinary use.
- Unwrap the walnut and use a sharp pick to separate the meat from the walnut shell.
How to Use Walnuts in Cooking
Walnuts can be used a variety of ways in the kitchen—the whole fruit (inside the walnut husk) can be pickled. Shelled walnuts can be eaten raw, toasted, or even candied. They’re storable too; when kept in an airtight container, walnuts have a shelf life of up to a year in the refrigerator.
In recipes, walnuts are used as an ingredient in many kinds of dishes, often to add a crunchy texture to soft or liquid foods. Here are a few ways to incorporate walnuts into your cooking.
- Chinese recipes. Walnuts are a popular ingredient in most types of Chinese dishes, but they are most often tossed with noodles and vegetables. Common Chinese dishes with walnuts include walnut chicken and walnut stir-fry, and a popular snack are walnut-stuffed Chinese dates.
- Iranian recipes. Walnuts are popular in many Iranian dishes, often stuffed in fish or ground into dips. Two of the most common Iranian walnut recipes include a walnut-pomegranate stew called fesenjan and a walnut cookie called nan-e gurdui.
- Mediterranean recipes. The Mediterranean diet emphasizes eating raw and unprocessed fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. Walnuts are especially popular as a healthy snack option in the Mediterranean, eaten either raw or toasted. They’re also used atop fish, like salmon, or salads.
- Western recipes. Walnuts are a common ingredient in Western entées like chicken salad and lettuce-based salads, and they are also used in desserts, often added to brownies or used as a topping on ice cream.
How to Roast Walnuts in the Oven
- Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit (191 degrees Celsius) and line a baking sheet with parchment paper or foil.
- Cut your shelled walnuts into halves or quarters to promote an even roast (smaller pieces are prone to burning). Spread the walnuts on a single layer on a baking sheet.
- Roast in the oven for 5–10 minutes, or until browned. You can stir the walnuts after a few minutes for a more even brown, but it’s not required.
How to Roast Shelled Walnuts on the Stove Top
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- Heat a skillet over medium-high heat. Do not add oil or butter to the pan—the natural fats and oils in the walnuts provide all the moisture necessary for cooking.
- Cut your shelled walnuts into halves or quarters to promote an even roast, though stove-top roasting does allow for more supervision, so smaller pieces can be used. Pour the walnuts in the skillet in a single layer.
- Cook for 5 minutes or until browned, stirring frequently to avoid burning.
What Are the Health Benefits of Walnuts?
Walnuts are filled with healthy fats (polyunsaturated fats) and vitamins. A single serving (around one-quarter cup) of raw walnuts, toasted walnuts, or even walnut oil has been found to be a good source of:
- Antioxidants. Walnuts have more antioxidants than any other common nut and are especially high in vitamin E.
- Omega-3 fatty acids (specifically alpha-linolenic acids, or ALAs). Walnuts have high amounts of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.
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