Culinary Arts

What Are Pistachios? How to Use Pistachios in the Kitchen

Written by MasterClass

Jul 19, 2019 • 3 min read

Nuts are a popular snack and ingredient around the world—not only for their taste but for the various health benefits they can provide when eaten in moderation. The pistachio has a long history of use in cooking and is integral to dishes across many different cultures.


What Are Pistachios?

Pistachio nuts, when ready to eat, are oblong, dark-green seeds nestled in a cream-colored shell. They grow in clusters on trees, starting off as yellow or reddish fruits that ripen until the pistachio shells naturally burst along a seam, revealing the seed inside. The nut crop can then be harvested by shaking the pistachios from the branches and catching them on a tarp. Pistachios are sold commercially either in-shell or shelled.

The History of the Pistachio

Pistachios are one of the oldest flowering nut trees, originating in the ancient Middle East (including what is now Iran, Afghanistan, and Syria), Central Asia, and Western Asia. Pistachio cultivation spread to the Mediterranean and eventually to Italy. By the early sixth century, pistachios were well-known and traded across Europe. In the 1800s, pistachio trees were brought to the warm areas of the United States, including California and Texas. Now, the biggest producers of pistachios are Iran, the United States, China, Turkey, and Syria.

What Climate Is Best for Growing Pistachio Trees?

Pistachio trees, known scientifically as pistacia vera, are drought tolerant and thrive in full sun, specifically in desert areas with long, hot summers. Pistachio trees struggle to grow in places with high humidity. Pistachio trees are dioecious, which means there are separate male and female trees (with separate male and female flowers) that need to be planted near each other in pistachio orchards in order to produce fruit. Pistachios are “alternate-bearing” trees, which means they produce a heavier crop every other year.

5 Culinary Uses of Pistachios

Pistachios have a rich, earthy taste, and while they aren’t quite as versatile as other nuts, they can be eaten a number of ways:

  • As a snack. Eating pistachios plain is arguably the most common way they are enjoyed, either raw or roasted. Both in-shell and shelled pistachios are available in grocery stores.
  • Over salads. Shelled pistachios (either whole or chopped) are often sprinkled over lettuce or arugula salads. Pistachios can also be puréed and mixed with oil and herbs to make a creamy salad dressing.
  • Ground into sauces. Ground pistachios are popular as a base for sauces and dips, like pistachio-yogurt sauce.
  • Added to bread dough. Ground pistachios can be added to bread dough to give it a thicker texture with extra protein.
  • In desserts. Chopped pistachios are commonly mixed into or sprinkled atop desserts like ice cream, cake, truffles, and pastries. Pistachio flavoring is also a common dessert ingredient—it is most well-known as the flavoring for pistachio ice cream and gelato, but it is very versatile and can be mixed into almost any dessert.

Pistachios are also a common ingredient in dishes from an array of cultures:

  • In Turkish dishes. Pistachios are most well-known in Turkish recipes for being minced and layered in the traditional honey-phyllo dessert baklava, but they are also a common flavoring and topping on Turkish delight.
  • In Italian dishes. Pistachios are a common addition to Italian pastas, either chopped and mixed in to the noodles or ground and made into a spiced pistachio sauce.
  • In Indian dishes. Indian food makes ample use of pistachios, and they’re a staple ingredient in many Indian rice puddings, pilafs, cookies, and a spiced pistachio fudge called pista barfi.
  • In Iranian dishes. Not only are pistachios a common ingredient mixed into Iranian chicken and rice dishes, they are also served as a traditional Persian snack, roasted with lemon juice and saffron and tossed with sea salt.

What Are the Health Benefits of Pistachios?

Eating pistachios can offer a variety of health benefits. Pistachios are filled with healthy fats, fatty acids, and vitamins. A single serving of pistachios (around one ounce) has been found to be a good source of:

  • Antioxidants. Pistachios have some of the highest levels of antioxidants, including vitamin E, of any other nut.
  • Vitamin B6. Vitamin B6 helps the body process protein, carbs, and fat, and is an essential for keeping the brain and immune system healthy.
  • Protein. Pistachios have more essential amino acids (the building blocks of protein) than many other nuts, making them a great protein supplement and filling snack.
  • Dietary fiber. Pistachios are a rich source of dietary fiber, which contributes to gastrointestinal health.

In addition, pistachios are one of the lowest-calorie nuts, so they’re a great alternative for a healthy snack compared to calorie-dense nuts like almonds.

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