Courtesy Hammons Black Walnuts
According to the Missouri Department of Conservation, black walnuts grow best on the deep, well-drained soils of north Missouri and on the alluvial soils in the south.
Sometimes stalking Missouri’s wild nuts can make you feel like you’re in a Disney cartoon. You have to get out in the field early to beat Chip and Dale to the best of the year’s harvest.
Whether you hunt your own or purchase from one of the state’s many producers, Missouri’s native nuts offer an amazing variety of textures, flavors, and opportunities, from flavorful, healthy salads to sweet, decadent desserts.
Here in a nutshell (we couldn’t resist) are some of Missouri’s most popular nuts to crack.
The wild American Black Walnut, hand-harvested in the fall, is a highly distinctive and adaptable nut with an instantly recognizable flavor and packed with nutritional benefits. Although most at home in the Ozarks, the black walnut grows abundantly throughout the state, making Missouri the number one producer of black walnuts in the world.
Susan Zartman, director of marketing for Hammons Black Walnuts in Stockton, says distinguishing between black walnuts and English walnuts is important. The biggest difference, she says, is how the nuts are sourced.
“Black walnuts are harvested in eleven states, grown in the wild, foraged by hand from midwestern individuals and families, and the average crop size is twenty-five to thirty-five million pounds each year,” Susan says. Both Black walnuts and English walnuts belong to the same genus, Juglans, but Black walnuts (Juglans nigra) are native to the United States and are primarily valued and sold domestically, while English walnuts (Juglans regia) are a global commodity and have their origins in the Middle East.
Hammons Black Walnuts processes the product by first cleaning and drying the nuts in the shell, then running them through large steel wheels to crack the shell. Rollers separate the meat from the shells and the kernels are graded into sizes with an electric sorting machine. Excess shells or discolored kernels are removed before the meats are inspected, boxed, sealed, and sterilized.
“Black walnuts have a bold, rich taste and enhance almost any recipe, from entrées to side dishes to desserts,” Susan says. “You can add this high-protein nut to ice cream to bring out the natural sweetness, or put it in a spicy salad for crunch and flavor.”
Black walnuts can be refrigerated for up to a year, or frozen for up to two years to ensure freshness.
Asif A. Ali
The shagbark hickory (Carya ovata) has a large fat content, producing a rich, buttery flavor. The shellbark hickory (Carya laciniosa) produces a much larger nut. Both are tasty alone or in recipes.
There are seventeen species of hickory in the world. Fifteen of them are found in the hardwood forests of the southern and eastern United States. Hickories are divided into two different groups: pecan hickories and true hickories. The difference is easy enough to spot: pecan hickories have more than seven leaflets and an elongated bud; true hickories have five to seven leaflets with an egg-shaped bud.
In Missouri, the prevalent hickory nuts are pecan, water, and bitternut hickory (from pecan hickories) and shagbark, shellbark, mockernut, pignut, and black hickory (from true hickories).
Hickory nuts ripen in early fall when the green husks begin to turn dark brown and split open.
Hickory nuts have the advantage of thin shells—heavy processing isn’t required to separate the meat from the shell. Nuts can be opened with nutcrackers, rocks, hammers, or particularly forceful hands. The unused shells are good for grills, smokers, and fireplaces, holding heat well and infusing the air—or food—with a distinctive aroma.
The nut meat in a hickory nut has a mild taste and is full of nutrients. Because of the high oil content in the nut, hickory nuts should be refrigerated or frozen to prevent a rancid taste.
“Nut oils become rancid under warehouse conditions, so it’s likely few who buy from big box stores have ever enjoyed the great flavor of fresh nuts,” says Sara Jean Peters of the Missouri Nut Growers Association. “Those who make the effort to buy from a local grower can keep their nuts tasting at their prime by storing them in the freezer until they are needed.”
The hickory nut is used for cooking a wide variety of dishes, the flavor enhancing so many different contrasting bases. The nut is also important as a food source for local wildlife, such as turkey and squirrels.
John and Anni Winings
The popularity of the pecan dates back to Missouri’s American Indian tribes, who were thought to have brought the nut from the southeastern portion of the state and helped spread it to the north.
Whether you call them pe-CONS or pe-CANS (or even PEA-cons), you know how important this Missouri nut is to the holiday season. The pecan is the largest member of the hickory clan and has an unmistakable flavor profile.
Growing especially well along the bottomland soils of the Missouri River in central Missouri, this stone fruit tree also thrives in stream and river soils of other temperate areas such as Georgia, Texas, and Oklahoma. Pecans are called stone fruit trees because they have a single stone, or pit, surrounded by a husk. In the language of the Algonquians, the word “pecan” translates to “nut so hard you need a stone to crack it.”
Once the outer husk splits, the nut is ready to be processed. This typically happens in mid-October in Missouri. King Hills Farm in Brunswick is a major pecan processing center that grows trees on the banks of the Grand River and grafts a good portion of them with different native trees around the state. At any given time, King Hills Farm will have around three thousand fruit-producing trees, which are quite a beautiful sight when traveling through Brunswick.
Besides the traditional Thanksgiving sweet treat, pecans are also key in praline making. The nut’s rich, buttery flavor also works well in most sweet desserts that need a crunch! Pecan wood can also be used when smoking meats.
Chinese chestnuts are relatively new to Missouri and are a healthy, low-fat food ingredient that can be incorporated into a wide range of dishes, from soups to stuffings to dessert
Chinese chestnuts are tasty, orchard-grown nuts that are highly profitable. These nuts are new to Missouri, but they are spreading and making a home for themselves fairly quickly. Though the trees aren’t native to the Show-Me State, producers are growing them here in increasing numbers, especially in places like Forrest Keeling Nursery in Elsberry. From seedling to mature plant, this nursery grows the trees and sells them to local orchard owners and various other places throughout the United States, from Michigan to Oklahoma.
Missouri used to have a native chestnut tree, says Kim Young, vice president and general manager of Forrest Keeling Nursery. Unfortunately, the Ozark chinquapin or Ozark chestnut was nearly wiped out in the early twentieth century by chestnut blight.
Chestnuts are high in carbohydrates and water, making them prone to mold and decay if not properly refrigerated. You’ll also want to eat them quickly, as the quality of the flavor declines after a few months.
The flavor profile of these nuts is diverse, making them popular in varied uses from flour to stew add-ins. Chestnuts are found in lamb dishes, casseroles, and even rice flours and dumplings.
The sweet taste of the hazelnut, also known as the filbert, makes it perfect for use in such confectionaries as pralines and truffles. It’s also used to make Frangelico liqueur.
The American hazelnut, also called the American filbert, grows in dense thickets all around Missouri. Commonly associated with white oak, black oak, or hickory, this shrub-like tree is seen more as an ornamental plant, making a good natural barrier in yards and producing nice fall colors.
The nut itself is highly regarded in the cooking world for its distinctive taste and in the natural word for key wildlife protein and erosion control. If you can beat the squirrels and quail to this nut, you’re in for a treat.
The plant, found most commonly in moist woods or prairies, typically grows three to ten feet high.
The hazelnut harvest occurs in August when the reddish brown acorn-size nut is exposed from its surrounding bracts. You will usually see the nut growing in clusters of two to six, the doubly serrated leaves around them egg- or oval-shaped.
Hazelnut lovers regard the nut as a sweet fruit used most commonly in desserts, spreads such as Nutella, and coffees. Purists like to roast them and eat as is; the rich flavor is g eat by itself.
To roast, bake the nuts for about twenty minutes on a low setting. Let them cool, and then lightly rub them with a cloth to loosen the skin.
The hard shells of hazelnuts burn slowly and don't decompose easily, making them useful as mulch or garden fertilizer or in wood-stoves and fireplaces.