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What are Hazelnuts?

Mary McMahon
Updated Feb 29, 2024
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Hazelnuts are produced by hazel trees, which grow in temperate climates in many parts of the world, although they are native to Europe and Asia. The distinctive slightly bitter flavor of hazelnuts is suitable for use in savory and sweet dishes, although the nuts are most frequently used in desserts, especially paired with chocolate. Hazelnuts generally ripen in late August, which is the best time to find the flavorful nuts. Most grocery stores carry hazelnuts year round, often unshelled and raw. Hazelnuts are also sometimes sold preserved in their own oil.

The hazel tree is a fast growing deciduous shrub which produces catkins, which open in the spring. The catkins mature into groups of as many as five nuts, often hidden under the serrated green leaves. Because hazel is fast growing and easy to shape, it has a long history of use in hedging, especially in England. Left alone, hazel can reach a height of 50 feet (15 meters). The shrub also provides habitat to numerous animals and birds, as well as serving as a source of food for butterflies.

The alternate name of the hazelnut is filbert. The exact reason for this common name is unclear, although the nuts do tend to mature around the time of the feast day of St. Philbert. Some people distinguish between hazelnuts and filberts, arguing that filberts are actually a different type of nut, although the two are related. People who differentiate between the two believe that filberts have slightly longer shells. When they are shelled, however, the two nuts look identical.

The shell of a hazelnut is brown, glossy, and roughly ovoid. Once shelled, the hazelnut still has a bitter dark brown skin, which many people remove before cooking the nuts. The flesh of hazelnuts is white, and slightly sweet when the bitter skin is not present. Many cooks toast hazelnuts before using them to enhance their mild flavor. The nuts appear ground with chocolate to make spreads, mixed in with stuffings, in hazelnut torte, and on a variety of other desserts. They can also be pressed to yield a dark, flavorful oil.

To select the best hazelnuts, look for plump specimens without any sign of shriveling, and plan on using them within one month or freezing them. If the shells of the hazelnuts are still on, look for smooth, glossy shells with no signs of cracks or holes, and shake them. The nuts should not rattle in the shell, as this indicates that they have lost moisture.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By ramcatluvr — On May 27, 2011

@anon55130: You said you picked them off of timbers when you were a child. I'm sure you did - they grow wild in a bush form, which is what you found. In commercial orchards, such as the ones in Washington or Oregon, where they are grown commercially, they cut off the bottom branches and train the hazelnut to grow like a tree from a single trunk. It makes it easier to mechanically pick the nuts from the tree.

By ramcatluvr — On May 27, 2011

@anon86221: The catkins actually bloom in the winter, which makes the hazelnut unusual for a fruit tree. The wind carries the pollen to the female red blossoms, and then, it goes dormant until spring, when fertilization actually occurs. Shortly afterward, the nut starts to develop.

By ramcatluvr — On May 27, 2011

@anon147499: Try roasting them on a cookie sheet in the oven at 275 degrees for 15 minutes. Then put them in a towel and rub them until the brown skin falls off. Once the skin is off, they won't taste so bitter.

By ramcatluvr — On May 27, 2011

@malena: They're also used in the making of praline candy as well as the popular spread Nutella!

By anon180872 — On May 27, 2011

@lena: Most of the research I have done says it's safe to pick them when it's late summer and early fall, when they're green. You can keep them until they are ripe, when brown in color.

By anon147499 — On Jan 29, 2011

I get a small quantity of hazel nuts from my tree. I pick them up from the ground. I cannot eat them after shelling because they are too bitter. I tried drying in the sun, boiling and roasting but nothing works. Does anybody have an answer?

By anon137818 — On Dec 29, 2010

There are hazelnuts that are native to the United States. The common hazelnut, Corylus americana, and the beaked hazelnut, Corylus cornuta. They are an understory shrub commonly found on the edge of fields.

By anon86221 — On May 24, 2010

Hazel trees do not produce catkins in the spring, they form in the fall. In the spring they expand in diameter and length noticeably, and produce pollen which fertilizes the female blossoms, which look like just-forming leaf buds, except they have several tiny red hair-like structures which protrude slightly from the bud. I presume these catch pollen and carry it to the nut to fertilize it, much like corn silks carry pollen to the grain of corn.

By anon55130 — On Dec 04, 2009

I am sure that when we were children in the early 40's we found hazelnuts in timbers. We picked clusters of them off of bushes, not trees.

By lena — On Jun 07, 2009

I'm wondering if it is safe to eat the hazelnuts when the outside and inside are green in color? The squirrels are getting them right now, while green.

By motherteresa — On Aug 30, 2008

In ancient times some magical quality was attributed to hazel twigs, particularly the forked twigs. Hazel also provides food and cover for wildlife. In pastures, cows nibble on the leaves which increases the butterfat content in the milk.

By malena — On Jan 27, 2008

Mmmmmmm. Best use of hazelnuts? Hazelnut-chocolate spreads. Even better when paired with bananas and stuffed into a crepe!

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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