Pine nuts are the edible seeds of pine trees, found in the genus Pinus. These seeds have been used in the cuisines of Europe, North America, and Asia for thousands of years, since they are high in protein, dietary fiber, and flavor. Some traditional recipes call for these seeds, and they are often toasted to bring out their distinctive taste, which is, for lack of a better word, very nutty. Most markets carry pine nuts, although they can be an expensive specialty item, so consumers should shop around before buying them.
Trees in the Penaceae family, which includes pines, produce characteristic cones to reproduce. The hard and often spiky cone protects the tender seeds inside from predators until the cone cracks open, depositing the seeds on the ground. Many pinecones must be heated to crack, which is why pines flourish after a fire. Of the numerous species of pine tree, around 20 produce seeds that are large enough for humans to harvest.
In Europe, most people use pine nuts from the stone pine, an abundant species which produces large, plump, ivory colored seeds. The nuts are especially popular in Mediterranean countries, particularly Italy, where they are thrown on pizza, ground with sauces, and added to pasta dishes. Pine nuts are also eaten out of hand. Roadside stands in places like Sicily and Greece commonly offer toasted nuts twisted up in large paper cones for people who enjoy them straight.
Numerous Asian varieties of pine produce usable pine nuts, a popular ingredient in China and Korea, among other places. In the Americas, they are harvested from the pinyon pine, and they may be known as “pinyons” in a reference to the parent tree. The exact nutritional profile of these seeds varies, depending on the species, but they generally contain a high amount of protein, rich fat, and fiber. Some also offer additional vitamins and minerals.
To harvest pine nuts, producers must first crack the pine cones, typically with heat. The seeds themselves then need to be shelled. After shelling, they have a short shelf life, because of their high oil content. To keep them from going rancid, cooks should store them in the refrigerator or use them quickly. Unshelled pine nuts can be purchased in some parts of the world, and they are typically less expensive than shelled ones, since less labor was required to bring them to market.