If like me you enjoy gathering foods from the wild, you’ll find chestnuts throughout the autumn. I’m lucky enough to live in an area where chestnuts woods are bountiful.
We have the Romans to thank for Britain’s abundance of Sweet Chestnut trees. They highly rated chestnuts as a cookery ingredient and rightly so: these beautiful, shiny nuts are wonderfully versatile and, in spite of what the name may suggest, they are equally at home in sweet or savoury dishes.
A good technique for freeing the nuts from their spiny capule (or sharp-needled cases) is to use your foot (with boot or shoe!) to ‘press and roll’ over the nuts and they should pop out easily. Many of the bigger nuts will be found in the leaf litter as they tend to drop before the capules or burrs fall, so have a good hunt round.
Chestnuts take time to prepare as they have a glossy shell and secondary skin that are difficult to remove. I have tried a number of methods to cook and peel chestnuts with varying success. This is my method.
Choose large heavy dark brown chestnuts with smooth glossy shells avoid paler specimens, which are unripe and will quickly shrivel.
You should also avoid any wrinkled nuts, as they tend to have a bitter taste. Check each carefully discard any with mould, splits in outer shell or tiny holes – they indicate bugs.
Hanging your wild chestnuts in a netted bag in a cool dry place for a couple of days will allow some of their plentiful supply of starch to convert to sugar thereby giving you a much sweeter nut. I also think they shrink slightly making the shell and skin removal easier.
So here’s what you do
I would recommend doing this in small batches of around 20-25 chestnuts rather than one big pot as the key to success is to keep the chestnuts hot. Once the chestnuts start to cool the papery skin sticks to the nut and its almost impossible to remove.
Heat a pan of water to 85C /185F.
Whilst the water is heating cut your chestnuts in half.
Place chestnuts into the simmering water for 8-10 minutes. Keep the water at a constant 85C /185F.
If you don’t have a thermometer you want the water to be barely simmering – just a few tiny bubble breaking the surface. You definitely don’t want the chestnuts to boil as this can harden them.
Leave chestnuts in the hot water and only remove two or three halves at a time with a slotted spoon. Peel chestnut halves removing both layers whilst still hot, but cool enough to handle . Keeping them hot make the peeling easier. Wearing rubber or latex-free vinyl gloves whilst peeling the chestnuts will protect your hands and your nails! If you’re lucky they will pop out of both the shell and the skin cleanly, although you might find they need a little gentle persuasion and some will just crumble – but don’t despair, they’re still good for many sweet and savoury recipes.
Discard any chestnuts which are discoloured, have rotten areas or larvae.
Chestnuts are highly versatile, used in both sweet and savoury cooking. Over the next few weeks I will be adding some of my favourite chestnuts recipes. First up will be my chestnut and mushroom loaf with spinach, chilli and sundried tomato layer.
You can also freeze your prepared chestnuts halves for later use i.e Christmas stuffing. Simply spread them on a tray, place in the freezer and when frozen transfer them in bags removing as much air as possible to prevent freezer burn or if you have a vacuum sealer, vacuum seal your frozen chestnuts. Don’t forget to return the bags to your freezer!